Craft: Making a List by Risa Nye

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As I write this, it’s almost December. If there was ever a perfect time to hone one’s list-making skills, that time is now: gift lists for friends and family and people you didn’t think would give you anything, but then they did; to-do lists of things there isn’t enough time to finish or even start; lists of ingredients you need in order to bake those cookies  (and some back-ups just in case) because everyone expects you to; lists of dinner or party guests if you feel like entertaining just one more time this year; and a list of stuff you need to run back to the store to buy because you forgot  before and it’s getting late and people will be here in half an hour. Check it twice before you go—and might as well get more butter/milk/eggs/kale/bourbon/whipping cream while you’re at it so you don’t run out.

Now, where did you put that list? It was here a second ago.

Making lists in December is good practice for what may come next: a list of New Year’s Resolutions for 2013. What do writers usually put at the top of a list like this? If I had to guess, I would say: find more time to write. Or: start a writing routine that will stick. Or: don’t run out of paper ever, ever again. Or: don’t put off replacing printer cartridges until it’s almost too late and you end up with pages full of ghostly gray text you can barely read. Maybe this is just what will be on my list of resolutions…

Even though it wasn’t on my wish list, my daughter gave me a lovely book last year called Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thought, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. This is a fascinating collection: an all-star roster of list-makers together in one book. (Two quick favorites from Kansas-born painter James Penney’s list of survival tips for himself: “spend what you have on material,” and “don’t go back to Kansas.”) If you doodle on your lists, take care: perhaps the Smithsonian will come knocking one day.

But then, making lists isn’t for everyone. For me, a list is like a life preserver, something to keep me afloat when I feel like I’m sinking under the weight of “shoulds” and “gotta’s.” I’ve discovered that having a list creates a sense of purpose, and also serves as a way of keeping some shiny object (of my own choosing) just out of reach; this provides me with the incentive to set goals beyond the ones I’m familiar with—by responding to a call for submissions, by sending an essay off to a new publication, by creating a blog post about something that strikes me as important enough to write about, or by reaching out to other writers. The list evolves, but it’s always right here where I can see it.

Now back to the book of lists: beyond satisfying my curiosity about those whose lists made it into the book (and giving me a good excuse to procrastinate making my own), I was delighted to discover an intriguing poem by Charles Green Shaw called “The Bohemian Dinner.” As I learned from the accompanying text, Shaw often wrote poems that consisted of short declarative phrases. “The Bohemian Dinner” is described as “an abstraction of an experience in list form—from ‘The ride down town’ to ‘The limping home’ and then to ‘The bed.’”

How about trying that as a writing exercise? It might look something like this:


The Essay

The list of ideas.

The one that sticks.

The sitting down.

The desk rearranged.

The Internet.

The Internet some more.

The phone call.

The Googling.

The blank screen.

The sudden inspiration.

The first few lines.

The glance out the window.

The suddenly cold room.

The writing sweater.

The fluffy socks.

The blinking cursor.

The hunger pangs.

The walk downstairs.

The refrigerator door opening.

The leftovers revealed.

The plastic container removed.

The beeping microwave.

The lunch break.

The games on the iPhone.

The walk upstairs.

The email checked.

The ticking clock.

The looming deadline.

The need for tea.

The walk downstairs.

The steamy mug.

The mailbox checked.

The junk tossed.

The walk upstairs.

The sigh.

The chair, the desk.

The cold cup of tea.

The afternoon nearly gone.

The sentences and paragraphs.

The deleting and saving.

The spellchecking.

The final edits.

The End!


Happy New Year to Hippocampus readers everywhere!

risa nye wearing wingsRisa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, and she continues to mine her vast experience for more ideas. She also eavesdrops. Her three children live far away and cannot stop her from mining their experiences too. She’s a neophyte blogger at

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