WRITING LIFE: Living By Lists by Melissa D. Sullivan

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I am a woman who lives by my lists.

In my professional life as an attorney, in my personal life as a parent of toddlers, and in my secret nightlife as a writer, I feel mighty, secure and invincible if I have my lists. Handwritten on a small sticky note or a long yellow legal notepad, my lists lay out a plan of attack for buying a house, forming a company, or finishing a book. They are organized logically, by subject matter and urgency, and numbered in the order in which each task will be undertaken. With my lists, I can accomplish anything.

Except, of course, getting to the next list.


This year, I finally finished my book. It wasn’t my first one. But this recently finished project is the one I’m undoubtedly proudest of. Finished at an exhausting pace over less than a year, it pushed its way out of my brain and survived several rewrites and brutal but well-meaning beta readers. Each step of its creation was driven by a list: an outline, a brainstorm, a schedule to finish the first draft, then the second, then the third. Each night, after convincing my son to at least stay in his room, if not actually go to sleep, I chipped away at my lists for twenty or thirty minutes, slowly building and rebuilding to three hundred pages of a completely finished manuscript.

Now that I have taken it as far as I can, my book is out making the rounds to agents, looking for its literary advocate, and the last sticky note, on which I wrote “QUERY AGENTS,” now lies crumpled in the waste basket next to my writing desk. My list, for now, is done.

And I feel lost.

When I expressed this to my writing group, my friends said, “Start something new.”

So I tried. If you ever want to see the weakest Star Wars rip-off, come see me. If you’re not into truly terrible sci-fi, I’ve also got a couple pages of the lamest Jane Eyre-inspired historical romance you’ve ever seen. Really, if we ever decide in this country that the true aim of the penal system is deterrence, I think I’ve got a couple of cost-effective alternatives ready to go.

I decided for my own sanity (and the sake of literature itself) to try my friends’ next suggestion: “Relax. Take a walk. Watch some Netflix. Just give your brain a break. You deserve it.”

Did you know that six entire seasons of The Americans are now available for streaming? Well, I did, and I am now paranoid about our semi-reclusive neighbors, checking for trails of blood or multiple license plates or a tendency toward treason. Although, if they’re Russian spies, I guess it’s technically not treason. Either way, they’ll do their patriotic duty, and I’ll do mine, which also involves the bingeing the second season of The Good Place, which is infinitely better for my mental state, insomuch as there are fewer spies and less commentary on the current administration. At least, I think that’s what they were going for…

But even spending hours with a well-made sitcom isn’t enough to keep me distracted from the truth: I miss my lists.


Without a project, I am floundering. I’ll do a little research on the history of the suburban lawn in America, then return the book to the Doylestown Public Library unfinished. I’ll start an essay about how, in The Lord of the Rings, Arwen fulfilled the Victorian fantasy of the beautiful, selfless and pure woman, and then pitter out after two hundred words. I’ll poke around on Twitter, and become more and more despondent as people celebrate achieving their daily word goals. I’ll tell myself, “Tonight, after everyone’s in bed, just head up to your office and write. Just for a little while. About anything.”

But I can’t. Without a direction and a plan and a list, I avoid my writing desk and I cower on the couch with Mad Men and a large mug of pumpkin ice cream. I imagine the lists Don Draper might have around his own office. Be misogynistic. Hide true self from family. Forget to buy milk. It’s ridiculous, I know – but I can’t stop thinking about them. Will I ever feel that rush I felt when the book was going well and I would lose hours fixing voice or tension or even just plural possessives? Will I ever feel that glorious snap when suddenly, after weeks of working, a plot point or a line of dialogue crystalizes? Will I ever feel the perfect accomplishment that comes with striking through a to-do item, that heady feeling of doneness?

Will I ever feel like a writer again?

I take a step back from my dramatic inner monologue and remind myself that this latest book, the one that flew out of me, one perfectly organized sticky note at a time, was an aberration in my usual process. For almost a year before I started it, I had been kicking around a completely different idea. Each chapter had to be dragged screaming and clawing out of my brain, with character webs and writing prompts and months of revisions and false starts. At times, I felt like I was digging through a mound of dirt with a teaspoon, uncovering each plot point with aching slowness. It was excruciating and infuriating and downright disheartening.

And I loved it.

So now that I’m out of Netflix suggestions and excuses, I am a woman with only one item on her list: Keep Writing. And that will just have to be enough.


Melissa D. Sullivan is an attorney-by-day, writer-by-night and spends the in-between times wrangling two toddlers in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Her writing has appeared in Sum Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and the Unlost Journal.  She is the recipient of the 2016 Parent-Writer Fellowship in Fiction from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and is currently working on her next list.  You can find her at melissadsullivan.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @MelDSullivan.


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