Recently I went to Mexico for five weeks, leaving my dear husband at home to fend for himself. He did a pretty good job. After all, he did manage to feed and clothe himself for years before I came along. But, as he’ll be quick to admit, living with me has increased his standards, and he’s grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle of health and tidiness.
While I was away, he tried hard to maintain this lifestyle. He learned how to make his own fruit-and-veggie smoothies. He made the bed most mornings. But, he also had some struggles. One day I was talking to him on Skype and noticed, in the background, that all the kitchen cabinet doors were open — and the cabinets were empty. “Where are all the dishes?” I asked.
Paul glanced behind his shoulder. “Oh. Um. Yeah. They’re all dirty.” He then told me about his recent trip to the grocery store. He didn’t know what to buy, so he ended up buying four pounds of chicken and six pounds of yogurt… and that’s it. “It was twenty dollars worth of yogurt,” he said. “I got up to the cashier, and she probably thought I was crazy. Like, what am I going to do with all this chicken and yogurt?”
“Paul lost weight while you were away,” one of his coworkers told me the other day. “I think he ate nothing but beans and rice for a month.” And, apparently, chicken and yogurt.
When I got back from Mexico the kitchen was rather bare, except for several cans of beans and a bag of brown rice. So I headed to Trader Joe’s.
“Thank god you’re home,” Paul said when I returned with four full grocery bags. “How do you always know what to buy?”
“I don’t know.” I laughed. “I think about what we have, and what we need, and what we might want to eat.”
“Do you make a list?”
“Well, yeah. That, too.”
Do I make a list? Ha — what a question! At any given moment you’ll find at least three lists on my desk. One is usually a grocery list. But I also write lists with to-dos, people I need to call, topics to write about, books to read, fun things to do on the weekend. The other day I sent Paul and email with a list of places I want to go before I die. He thought it was weird, but what can I say? Making lists makes me feel in control of my life.
When I was in high school, I used to make “favorite” lists in my diary. I would list top my ten favorite outfits, bands, food, books, people. I would list boys I had crushes on, and, as I got older, I’d make lists of the boys I’d kissed. I thought I would use these lists when I grew up to be a writer and needed to remember what it was like to be a teenager in the 90’s. That was my reasoning back then, but I think what the lists actually did was help me define and understand myself at that crucial time in my life.
I think making lists can be really helpful for all sorts of reasons, including writing. And I’m not talking about those “list” articles that pop up online and tempt me into wasting time by clicking through them, although it’s true people do like those. What I’m talking about is making lists as a part of the writing process.
Several years ago, I went to a storytelling workshop through Speakeasy DC in which we had to list every person we could think of who might make a good character and list every location we could think of that might make a good setting. We were to mine our own lives for possible stories.
But the idea of making lists as part of the pre-writing process goes even deeper than that. In Book in a Month, Victoria Lynn Schmidt suggests making some of the following lists before you start on your novel:
- What are you passionate about? What is important to you creatively?
- What keeps showing up again and again in the stories you write and/or the stories you love to read?
She says that until you answer questions like these, developing your writing goals can be difficult. “You’ve got to tackle the big questions: Who am I? What genre should I specialize in? How do I want to be remembered?”
John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story, says that before you start writing your novel or screenplay, sit down and write a wish list “of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater…you might jot down characters you have imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue. You might list themes that you care about or certain genres that always attract you.”
Once you’ve done that brainstorm, he suggests writing a premise list: every premise or idea you’ve ever thought of, each expressed as a single sentence.
Both Truby and Schmidt recommend looking for patterns in these lists and using the lists to determine the answer to this one question: what is it that you love? Because that is what you should be writing about. If you are writing about something you love, the writing will come easier than if you’re writing what you think people want to read, or what you think you should be writing. Like my “favorites” lists from high school, you are defining and understanding yourself as a writer.
In a way it’s similar to making a grocery list. You think about what you have already — your experiences and passions, for example. Then you think about what you need — the sort of book that will make you feel proud and understood. Finally you think about what you want. Because, most importantly, you should be writing a book that you would totally want to read.