To Do or Not To Do: On the Comfort of List Essays

November 5, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Jill Kolongowski

As a nonfiction writer, I’m scared of plot. Perhaps that’s why I’m a nonfiction writer. I’m drawn to writing about the way things are, or thinking about the way things could or might be. It feels like my job is to find a plot in the senseless.

And the past year and a half has felt utterly senseless. Our first daughter was born three months into the first lockdown in Northern California. I wrote some pieces about the weather, but they were fragments, incomplete. I felt like I could not write any beginnings, and I couldn’t write endings either. Especially in the early days with a newborn in a pandemic, time felt unmoored, and completely beside the point.

But what I could do was make lists. With a list, I could put a small bit of sense in the senseless. Do this, then do that. Sometimes, there was no “then,” either. Just a list—one thing, another, ways to shape the day, a container of some form of order, when every moment felt beyond unpredictable. In between feeding the baby every two hours, I made small lists. Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. I sometimes crossed things off, and sometimes crossing things off felt like it took too long, but the list was a concrete object narrative I needed.

My writing started to take the same form. All I made were list essays: “Ways I Was Afraid My Daughter Might Die In the First Two Months of Life.” “Things I’ve Forgotten.” “Cliches for New Mothers.” “Things I’ve Googled at 3 am.” The lists had no beginning, no end. They jumped in wherever my brain was stuck, and followed with me as my worries jumped from one thing to the next. The list essay didn’t demand anything from me, didn’t tell me I was doing anything wrong—all things I needed to feel, as a new mother. The lists were expansive, welcoming, and forgiving. I didn’t need to put things in order. I didn’t need to find sense in the senseless, or have an epiphany. I didn’t need to get anything right. I just needed to get it down.

Of course, the trick is that list essays do have plot. They do have story. Their story lives in the rhythms, in the juxtapositions, in the crescendos. When I wrote the collaborative “161 Things That Scare Me” with my students for Brevity, I collected our fears on notecards, and then spread the fears out on the floor. I looked for patterns. I saw fears of creatures, fears of voids (heights, depths, space), fears of the body, fears of the heart. I saw how often we listed the same thing (fear of a loved one dying. Fear of losing ourselves. Spiders). The plot, as it always does, revealed itself as I wrote—that we have our own fears that are uniquely ours, the result of traumas or circumstances, and we have fears that we all share. The cumulative list was a list of human vulnerability.

The list essay is what I use to get unstuck. When narrative or plot or sense seem impossible, there are still rhythms, juxtapositions, and crescendos worthy of consideration. Make a list of what you did today. Make a list of what your cat did today. Make a list of things that scared you today. Make a list of your internet searches today. Make a list of texts you wrote then deleted. Make a list of the flowers in your neighborhood. Make a list of what you see in your neighbors’ front yards—the dog and the fence that were there, and now are gone. Make a list of things you saw in the gutter, and wonder how they got there. Like Ross Gay, make a list of what delighted you today.

Then, look for patterns. What came first, second, and last? Does that order mean something? What kinds of things do you list? Why do you think you’re drawn to those lists? As Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in Several Short Sentences about Writing:

“…everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice.
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. |
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you”
(37, emphasis mine).

Make a list of what you did today, and you have a story now. It’s not just a story of the day-to-day minutia that can feel oppressive, but it’s your story, the story of how you’re spending your moments. Story lives in every object, in every list, in Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. That’s a story about me, becoming a new mother and a new person, and learning to put the fragments together into a bigger whole, even though it feels slow. Thaw chicken is a story when a family needs to eat. Write a paragraph is a story of a writer trying her best. Put away laundry on a list for three weeks / forever is a story of how we choose to spend our time, what matters, and what doesn’t.

The list essay taught me that there is always story to be found, even if your lens focus feels microscopic or unimportant. The story is yours. What should you write about? Make a list.
___

Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). Other essays are published in BrevityWaxwingSweet: A Literary ConfectionRiver Teeth, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster, and you can find her online at jillkwrites.com.

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§ 17 Responses to To Do or Not To Do: On the Comfort of List Essays

  • Karen says:

    Thank you for helping me imagine possibilities and feel less stuck this morning.

  • “If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.” Yes.

  • […] cranberry bread myself (I get the heel), I went back to work and wrote more words. Today’s Brevity blog post by Jill Kolongowski inspired […]

  • Mary Hannah Terzino says:

    Fun and helpful essay. I’m a little stuck on something and I’m going to start with a list. I like almost anything in mosaic form anyway, for the reasons you note.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      I love this! I was just telling a friend that almost all my drafts start as list essays these days. I almost wrote this piece about collage/mosaics, too–they do a lot of the same kind of work for me! Good writing vibes to you 🙂

  • dkzody says:

    There is always a place to find a story. Lists make a good place. I am living with lists now as I am trying to get back in a pre-pandemic routine but with pandemic protocols.

  • Heidi Croot says:

    What a wonderful, actionable, productive solution! Thank you for the inspiration. (I, too, love Klinkenborg’s book.)

  • Fscott says:

    Thank you Jill.
    A fellow writer invited me to be a part of a weekly writing group that started just after the pandemic. We wrote list in order to make it doable, no pressure. Some of us created beautiful essays that stemmed from a list. (my essay came from a list of things you’d like to ask a departed loved one)
    Our group became pretty close and got to know each other intimately just from our lists. We still meet, only now it’s once a month.
    Congratulations on your little one. I can only imagine with a newborn and the pandemic lists were your friend! Frances

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      What a terrific exercise! I’m so happy to hear this. I hope you stay close. And thanks for the kind words–it’s been both the worst and the best time.

  • Lizzy says:

    Mmm. (Savoring) Someone above mentioned mosaics, and I’ll add my association of ‘webs.’ ‘In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions’ reminded me of a new word I learned this week through a zoom production/discussion called the Oedipus Project – percepticide. and this whole post seems to speak to the web of ‘how’ we might counter that training and dulling of senses.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      “Percepticide”! Thank you for teaching me about this–I think you’re exactly right. Thanks so much for reading!

  • darlene says:

    This is wonderful — and timely for me — I’m taking a non-fiction writing class and this past week we were discussing “hermit crab” essays. Your description of the list essay really put a fine point on that lesson for me. As one who incessantly makes lists at work, and at home, I’m feeling inspired. thank you!

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