Monday, April 06, 2009

TO WRITE: Making Lists

Keeping a to-do list usually gives me a sense of comfort and efficiency; I know I'm probably not forgetting anything and I can prioritize my tasks and work my way through them. Plus it's a great feeling to check items off as I accomplish them.

But I've found many other uses for lists too, including in my writing and teaching. Lists are a wonderful way to get your mind to open up and search for possibilities that it hadn't noticed before, including writing topics. For example:

  • I sometimes ask students to write on a particular color (say, purple). If you don't know where to begin with such an assignment, try making a quick (don't overthink this!) list of things that are that color (lilacs, bruises, a stripe in the rainbow, a few people's eyes). Then choose one item and begin your writing with that. You may find a story about the fragrant vines in your garden or a memory of a childhood injury comes to mind.

  • When you want to approach a very large topic such as beauty or democracy or depression, jot down a list of related words first. For depression, I might come up with: medicines, loneliness, lack of joy, supportive friends, ECT, writing, sleep problems, work issues and more. Now begin with one of these listed topics. If the one that interests you right now is still very broad, you may need to repeat the process. The specific words and ideas you come up with in this way allow you to make your writing more meaningful for you and your reader, and they are a great way to start creating a lengthy piece.

Note that I've indicated that you should write your lists quickly. This is a time to really let your mind wander freely and brainstorm. If you're not sure why you thought of "jellybeans" when you looked for associations to "depression," put it down anyway and move on to the next item. After you've written your list for several minutes, you can look back at what this means; perhaps your sister brought you an Easter basket to cheer you one spring when you were low.

Play with this. . .
Here's an exercise from my book, Writing through the Darkness:
Quickly make a list of at least 25 things you're good at. They might range from kissing. . . to reading a map. . . to doing rocket science. Then choose one, large or small, and write for 20 minutes on that skill. Who taught it to you? What's the secret to it? Do you love doing it? How could someone else learn it?