We are all creators of lists. Whether we write them down in an organizer, keep them in our head, or post them on the refrigerator, we all keep running tallies of what we need at the grocery store, what we must pack for a trip, who we have to invite to a birthday party, questions we have for a doctor. Lists can give us a feeling of control. We write something down and it is the same as having an action plan; buy milk, pack a warm sweater, invite the new kid to the party, and we can go to sleep feeling secure that the day went as we expected. But lists can also be our tormentors, taunting us with all we have to do, questions that have no answers, goals we may never reach.
When woven into our writing, lists can help set a scene, convey what is overwhelming us, add a rush of forward motion to the narrative. They are a catalogue, evidence of who we are, our values, our desires, our needs.
The first chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a prime example of how lists can make the lives of a group of soldiers in Vietnam real for a reader who has never been in a war.
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C-rations, and two or three canteens of water.”
O’Brien uses lists to differentiate between the personalities of the men.
“Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations … Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia.”
O’Brien will also interrupt his lists to elaborate on a specific item, such as the letters First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried from a girl named Martha. He keeps them wrapped in plastic and O’Brien brings us into Cross’ inner thoughts as a reads the letters and fantasizes about a life with Martha.
Lists can also accentuate the mundane and ordinary, something you might see or experience over and over again, as a contrast to events that will occur later. This is what Don DeLillo does at the beginning of White Noise when he describes the arrival of students on a college campus before a mysterious toxin appears to be making everyone ill.
“The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts.” From their cars, students removed, “… stereo sets, radios, personal computers, small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes, the hairdryers and styling irons, the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags …”
Play with making lists to tell a story, paint a portrait, set a scene or a mood. Some suggestions include:
. Things you carry
. Steps you take to get ready to go out
. Questions for the doctor
. Directions on how to assemble something, get somewhere, prepare a meal, cure an illness
. Gifts that people have given you
. People who come to visit
. Music playlists
. Steps of a ritual
. What’s in your closet, pocketbook, briefcase, sewing box, garage, tool kit, junk drawer, etc.
Now look back on the lists you just made and think about what you would have written five, ten, fifteen or more years ago. Create a list timeline to illustrate how your interests, tastes, and needs have changed, and/or to show what aspects of your life have remained constant.
If one or more items on your lists jump out at you, take some time to develop your thoughts about that one particular item. If it’s an object, describe its qualities, how you use it, how it makes you feel, its history. If it’s intangible like a mood or feeling, write about its weight, its effect on your body, use metaphor, what you do in response to the feeling.