List Lesson

This week, girl in the hat writer Anna Fonté challenges you to write a list that transcends its orderly or numbered format.

Cropped notebook image by Daniel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Anna FonteAnna 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:

    1. A list of things that only happened once
    2. Directions for how to get to your most/least favorite place
    3. Things that made you laugh/cry/nauseous
    4. Mistakes you’ve made
    5. Jobs you’ve had
    6. Ways they’d find you in a faceless line-up
    7. Friends you’ve lost
    8. Forbidden subjects (things you are not allowed to say out loud)
    9. Ways to say no/yes/maybe
    10. Kinds of kisses (or ten people you have kissed)
    11. Reasons you don’t/always pick up the phone
    12. Steps between you and complete success/utter failure
    13. Crazy thoughts (or sane ones)
    14. Things you hear, smell, feel right now
    15. Things that make no sense
    16. Little things that should be large
    17. Beautiful imperfections
    18. Things you’d find in your pockets/medicine cabinet/bedside table/refrigerator/alimentary canal
    19. Directions for how to fall in (or out) of love
    20. [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.

For additional examples, read Fear of Men by Susan DeFreitas and Flavorwire’s “Lists That Read Like Poems.”

Not only are lists a pleasure to write — they’re fun to read. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

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  1. I love this idea! I fear I am not ready or skilled enough yet to achieve this. I’ll have a go and post it if it makes any sense at all. I’m not sure how to avoid simply listing things? Thanks for the new ideas!


  2. A great idea. i do that when I’m writing – I make a list, for instance, of all the weapons a bad guy might use in the commission of a crime – and it helps me keep the flow going, and sometimes gives me a completely new direction for the story that I hadn’t anticipated when I was outlining.


  3. This is a great idea. I love lists. When asked in a recent interview in Montreal about how to be creative in everyday life, Peter Carey said “even a grocery list can be creative”. I immediately rushed home to write my creative grocery list. Now I’ve got more lists to write. Thanks very much.


      1. Ah, yes. That graduation address was one of a kind. Like how Steve Jobs was. Thank you for such a beautiful share. You reminded me again and God, it is a great reminder. 🙂


  4. This is a really great prompt. I chose to go the steps between myself and total failure/total success route. It was enlightening that there were two more steps to failure than to success for me, so that must mean I am on the right path! Thanks guys


      1. I really couldn’t choose between doing one or the other, they were both so tempting. I really loved the contrast between the two, though! I expected them to basically be opposites of each other, but I was quite surprised by the outcome. 🙂


      1. Maybe I’ll write a separate post on those incidents one day. 🙂 It’s so much it’s hard to pick a way to express it. But yes, life can really teach you some things when it gets ready. Thanks for checking out my post!


  5. My list would be somewhat like:
    1.Friends that I can count on during a crisis
    2.List of books that I have read so far
    3.Places that I will travel by the end of this year
    4.List of anticipation…sigh!!
    5.Topics that I am gonna write about
    …….and so on 🙂


  6. Thank you so much for this WONDERFUL idea! I just did one, and it really works…I thought my brain was dead this morning but you helped me wake it up…wow. My pingback is below…


    1. I enjoyed your list of firsts– and now you can add first post in DC to your list (congrats for joining in– don’t worry, this sharing-with-the-world thing gets easier).


      1. Thank you 🙂 I really do hope that I can do at least a good part of the things that I’ve listed!


      1. I think I get it now!! I linked to this post and I should have linked to your blog … ?
        Thank you for the redirect.
        Oh, good idea by the way. A great way to get bloggers involved.


  7. This challenge was just made for me…I am the queen of lists! I may never get to complete them all, but darn it, I’m making a list 🙂 I love this idea and I think I’ll incorporate it into my blog on a regular basis somehow 🙂


  8. I really enjoyed this post. I have always been one to write endless to do lists and list all the amazing things which have happened out of one great experience. This post has really challenged me to want to broaden my mind through the simplicity of a list. The post was a great read and I can’t wait to begin! Thank you.


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