This week, girl in the hat writer Anna Fonté challenges you to write a list that transcends its orderly or numbered format.
Anna Fonté, writer at girl in the hat, is the host of this week’s writing challenge. Anna writes novels, short stories, personal essays, almost-poems, and accounts of her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. Her work has appeared online and in print, most recently in Unshod Quills, ElevenEleven, Fiction 365, and has been Freshly Pressed three times. She lives in Berkeley, California, and can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
Listing towards something
I have a little trick to share with you. Sometimes, when I’m stalled and stranded, fumbling for something to write about, I make a list. Because “writing” is such a big, heavy load to lift but really, who’s afraid of a list? A list is a friendly little thing: pragmatic, efficient, and hopeful. All you have to do is rustle up a pen and a scrap of paper — maybe even that receipt wadded in your pocket — start at #1 and move forward, letting the numbers pull you along, without worrying about fragments or capitalization or if it all adds up to something profound because who cares, it’s just a list. Making a list is a fun exercise and writing the to-do list can be far more satisfying than actually doing it.
A list is a friendly little thing: pragmatic, efficient, and hopeful.
Once, I listed associations I have with the numbers one through five and when I was done, the thing turned out to be a narrative poem, and it happened again when I listed every train ride I could remember. Recently, I was trying to write a story about an amazing place I once lived but I couldn’t “go there” in my head until I first listed the directions for how to get there. Another time I tricked myself into writing something by putting together a list of similes describing what not writing feels like. Writing a list is a simple, natural way to focus thoughts and order experience, and every time I write one, I find inspiration.
But of course, lists are nothing new. Most religious texts abound in lists of things to do. Sei Shonagon, a Japanese courtier, finished writing her collection of lists, poems, comments, peeves, and gossip, The Pillow Book, in the year 1002, and countless other writers have done it since. Remember Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” or “88 Lines About 44 Women” by The Nails? Think of Lydia Davis and Sherman Alexie, who have nudged lists over the threshold into something fresh and profound.
Because that’s what we hope for, right? That a thing as simple as a list might morph into something meaningful and creative.
Lists you might write for this challenge:
- A list of things that only happened once
- Directions for how to get to your most/least favorite place
- Things that made you laugh/cry/nauseous
- Mistakes you’ve made
- Jobs you’ve had
- Ways they’d find you in a faceless line-up
- Friends you’ve lost
- Forbidden subjects (things you are not allowed to say out loud)
- Ways to say no/yes/maybe
- Kinds of kisses (or ten people you have kissed)
- Reasons you don’t/always pick up the phone
- Steps between you and complete success/utter failure
- Crazy thoughts (or sane ones)
- Things you hear, smell, feel right now
- Things that make no sense
- Little things that should be large
- Beautiful imperfections
- Things you’d find in your pockets/medicine cabinet/bedside table/refrigerator/alimentary canal
- Directions for how to fall in (or out) of love
- [Heartbreaking; beautiful; insert adjective here] things you saw on your way to work today
For some writers, the deeper they dig down towards the truth, the louder the words resonate. For others, it’s all in the details: the more fleshy/juicy/descriptive they get, the better it is. Some use the list as a flimsy excuse to tell stories, letting their mind wander far and wide amongst the fuzzy associations. Others might write a list of fifty items then pare down to the top seven, cut out every superfluous word and leave it looking as “listy” as possible.
But certainly, editing is what pushes the list over the line into literature.
But certainly, editing is what pushes the list over the line into literature. You tricked yourself into thinking you were making a list but SURPRISE! You’ll see you made something much more.
Not only are lists a pleasure to write — they’re fun to read. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.