You don’t always know when you’re reading a list. Sometimes, you just notice you’re reading something wonderful, which means – if you’re me – you highlight the passage, not quite sure what you’re going to do with it, just sure you want to be able to find it again. Then one day, while planning a writing workshop, you sort through these favorite passages and realize that many of them are really just lists. Short lists that barely seem like lists. Long lists that seem almost too long until they end with a bang. Lists that wander in and out of the list format. Lists of questions. Lists that pause the action and force the reader to pay attention to every tiny detail of a moment. Lists that feel like poetry. You get the idea. Here are 5 of my favorite examples of literary lists, plus a prompt to help you write your own.
“The dining table was covered with platters of food: everything and pumpernickel bagels, everything minibagels, everything flagels, bialys, cream cheese, scallion cream cheese, salmon spread, tofu spread, smoked and pickled fish, pitch-black brownies with white chocolate swirls like square universes, blondies, rugelach, out-of-season hamantaschen (strawberry, prune, and poppy seed), and “salads”—Jews apply the word salad to anything that can’t be held in one’s hand: cucumber salad, whitefish and tuna and baked salmon salad, lentil salad, pasta salad, quinoa salad.… And there were pickles, a few kinds. Capers don’t belong in any food, but the capers that every spoon had tried to avoid had found their way into foods in which they really didn’t belong, like someone’s half-empty half-decaf. And at the center of the table, impossibly dense kugels bent light and time around them. It was too much food by a factor of ten. But it had to be. ”
“We stand there, quiet. My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit? When did you stop having parties? Did everyone else get old too, or was it just you? Are other people still here, hiding in the palm trees or holding their breath underwater? When did you last swim your laps? Do your bones hurt? Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind?”
“He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.”
“And I hadn’t even set out to be a muse. I’d just been mistaken for one, a specific kind of muse: the manic pixie dream girl. Manic pixie dream girls, for the uninitiated—lucky you!—are the lazy man’s modern-day muse. They don’t have personalities. They have quirks. They wear rain boots and call coffeepots “elf beaneries” and talk about how the stars are God’s daisy chain. They descend on nebbishy male writers in search of muses the way seagulls descend on a French fry. Their hobbies include but are not limited to: running in the rain, dancing in the rain, listening to better bands than you in the rain, playing the ukulele in the rain (it sounds no worse), coming up with twee nicknames for household objects in the rain, and breaking up with nebbishy male writers for reasons that said writers find completely impenetrable, sometimes also in the rain. And then, as the writers sob over their departure, they realize that this heartbreak was just the impetus they needed to create That Elusive Masterwork That Was Always Lurking Just out of Reach.”
“You can write it all down, you can put it in your book of facts, but the truth is no one can ever really understand the tangle of experiences and passions that makes you who you are. It’s a secret collection, a private language, a pebble in your pocket that you play with when you’re anxious, hard as geometry, smooth as soap.”
*Also, as an audio bonus that I couldn’t help but add onto this post the moment I heard it, here’s an act from This American Life podcast, in which J. Robert Lennon reads an excerpt from his short story “The Accursed Items.” It’s about objects that fulfill a fate different from the one for which they were intended. (Lennon’s most recent novel is called “Broken River.”)
Want to try this yourself? Here’s a prompt to get you started.
Write one of the following lists. Like the authors above, feel free to wander on and off the format of the list if that’s where the topic takes you.
- Option 1: A shopping list for things money can’t buy.
- Option 2: A to-do list… but not for yourself.
- Option 3: A list of questions you’ve been meaning to ask.