My day begins with lists. To do. To write. To put in the kids' lunches. To buy. I write them and misplace them and write them again; they follow me around throughout the day, a trail of tattered, crumpled paper moths. Yet this is no frivolous undertaking.
("The list form is the predominant mode of organizing data relevant to human functioning in the world, from financial transactions to knowledge of tides," writes Robert E. Belknap in his book, The List. "Lists consisting of sequential signs appear as early as 3200 B.C. and mark the distant origin of a means of communication that will develop into written language.")
My stories and essays begin with lists. On whatever is at hand—and often in the margins or endpapers of books I'm reading—I jot down fragments in the order that my mind offers them. This first step is a purging of these pieces, without structure. It's notating in shorthand what will go in the container, whether the container is an essay or a story. Usually, I fill more than one container at a time. Sometimes the contents get mixed. That's OK; I shuffle them about later. The items of each list are the bones, gaunt and bare, excavated from the mind. The work of assembling the skeleton and fleshing it with sinew and cartilage, fat and skin, comes later, once the frame has ossified.
(I might find myself at the supermarket staring stupidly at the produce, armed only with a list of scenes for a story. Consequently, I've been known to create documents titled "My List of Lists" or "The Master List of Lists" just to keep a handle on all this.)
My short story collection began as a list, a fact apparent in its title: A Catalogue of Everything in the World. I began by listing all the stories I wanted to put in it. These stories, naturally, were themselves built of lists.
("I can't hold more than three things in my head at a time," my six-year-old tells me. "Me neither," I reply. "As soon as I hit number four I'd better have a pen and paper nearby or I'm in trouble." She nods, going off in pursuit of pen and paper, and I go in the opposite direction to find my own scrap; now that she's pointed this fact out to me, I'm up to number four, at full capacity.)
A novel I'm working on began two and a half years ago as an eighty-four-word list divided into nineteen "items" that became chapters. I recently reached 70,000 words. The connective tissue was a long time in forming. I made many other lists, packed many lunches, and wrote many stories and essays in the meantime. Slowly, each of the nineteen items expanded into its own list, a nesting-doll regression to smaller and smaller units, to scenes and paragraphs and sentences, until each word was in place. What is a novel, after all, but a list of words in a certain order?
(Who taught me to make lists? I blame Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman, Homer and James Joyce, and especially Mr. Martin, my sixth-grade teacher, whose tidy lists looked like art to me. And I blame the tabloids and popular magazines that scream "Top 10" and "Best 5" from supermarket newsstands, and I even blame Santa, who annually scrolls through his naughty and nice lists and encourages children to make wish lists. I particularly blame the Internet, which offers me lists ad infinitum on any topic under the sun. Umberto Eco calls the World Wide Web the "Mother of all Lists." In the whirling cacophony of modern life—this and this and this and this—there's no time to tell how everything's connected, or maybe nothing is connected at all. Maybe life is these fragments that we string up on a framework like a clothesline—but the sock really has no relation to the union suit. And yet, I hope it does. My mind insists on connecting the two, even if no relation is immediately apparent.)
More and more in my writing, I allow lists to keep their form. I resist the urge to forge connections. I want to see what lists tell us about our attempts to organize the world, to keep entropy at bay. More and more I see that lists—in what they suggest in their unabashed juxtapositions, in their relating of items without commentary or connective glue—are worthy in and of themselves and can stand alone, ribs in stark relief, a desert skeleton picked clean, silhouetted against empty sky. "Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind," writes Emerson. Perhaps written language, at its most primitive and its most advanced and at stages in between, gives itself over to lists. We order; we catalogue. It is, simply, what the human mind excels at.
(And yes, this all began as a list in the margins of a book.)