Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Power of Lists

About a week and a half ago, I was supposed to go over to Vasnefy’s to help her review some pages of her dissertation. She unexpectedly got sick, though, so the visit was postponed and I suddenly found myself at loose ends. I decided to take a trip to one of the local libraries, as it was the only one in the region which professed to own Grendel (by John Gardner, whose writing exercise I used a couple of weeks ago). Well, it turned out that the book had been missing for years, so they ordered a new one for me. That, however, left me without my planned reading material, so I had to decide what new book to check out.

The reason I’m telling you this is because a few months ago, this turn of events would have left me stumped. I’m the sort of person who can go into a bookstore or a video rental place or a library and immediately have every book or movie in which I was interested disappear from my memory. I’m not sure why this happens, but it infallibly does. Perhaps it’s the multiplicity of choices suddenly presented.

Of course, it’s also not very convenient, since it means I often leave empty-handed!

Back at the beginning of January, I started a new notebook to keep in my purse. I have a list of projects I want to complete in the first half of 2015; I have some reminders about my trip to Norway in the summer. It also occurred to me, when I was first setting it up, that keeping a list of weekly tasks to check off in my calendar was working really well to help me remember them in the first place. I decided to write down a list of all the movies I’ve been wanting to see. Since I cancelled my Netflix subscription, as well, in the hopes of removing writing distractions, I no longer had a good place where I could keep track of movie interests.

Well, it occurred to me that along with a movie list, a book list would be helpful as well. I wrote down some intriguing books about which I’d read articles on line: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, the aforementioned Grendel – to name a few. I also scribbled down the name, ‘Joyce Carol Oates,’ because I’ve been intending (but forgetting!) to read something by her for years, and also because she had been mentioned favorably for her writing style in Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

So there I was in the library, and instead of leaving empty-handed, I pulled out my list and went searching for some of the items I’d jotted down.

I ended up coming away with a novel by Oates called, The Falls. It won a prize in France, so it seemed like a fairly prestigious place to start. It’s the story of a woman widowed on her wedding day as her husband commits suicide in Niagara Falls, and the new man she meets during the week of looking for the body, whom she later marries. It follows them and their children through several decades of their lives.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through now. I’ve been impressed; I see why Gardner approved so much of her style. She writes beautifully and evocatively, and also experiments with form (for example, she’ll include random one-line snippets of first-person narrative, interspersed with the bulk of the third-person omniscient viewpoint. These lend an incredibly vivid sense of the characters’ direct experience). However, at the same time, I find the novel very cold. I wonder how Oates feels about her characters. All of mine, even the bad ones, are very close to my heart. I only get that feeling – of the characters’ being loved and lovable – from a couple of the male characters.

Perhaps Oates is writing about a character she finds interesting rather than lovable, which I can understand, or perhaps she wants to create a cold atmosphere so that the readers don’t become too attached to any one character. All of them are flawed, after all, so the reader is perhaps supposed to be able to judge them fairly.

So in short, I’m enjoying the book, learning from the style, but still it’s interesting to discover that for purposes of my own entertainment and from the point of view of my artistic craft, even a famous writer has flaws.

That sounds incredibly presumptuous, no doubt, but you know what I mean: every artist and every reader is different, and not every taste meshes, even if the artist is universally admired and the reader is completely unknown. It’s a good reminder, actually, since I sometimes wonder if my stories will be appealing to anyone. No doubt, just as Oates has found a wide and admiring audience, some readers will also have the right taste to appreciate my writings.

Anyway, I would probably never have actually remembered to read something of hers if not for a little brown notebook in my purse, with her name scribbled hastily as the fourth entry in a list of ten authors and books. I told someone recently that my brain is tied to reality by scraps of paper – and that is true when it comes to lists, which help me remember, and also when it comes to my stories which somehow express and clarify my sense of reality and existence.

Not everyone needs lists, of course, but I’m glad I’ve rediscovered their usefulness. I’d like to keep reading great writers and watching great movies, so that I can learn and be inspired, but by example and by contrast. I’m sure every writer and artist, and even people just wanting clarity in their lives, must find ways to remind themselves to read more and find new avenues of learning and entertainment. I’d love to know what good books/movies my visitors have been enjoying lately, and how they were inspired to pick up that particular story to explore.


  1. I'm just not a list maker. Though I've tried.
    I've just gotten to the point where I carry a wallet in my back pocket.
    To me lists are reminders of what I haven't done and just frustrate me.
    Kind of like journals. I can't keep them either.

    But there was a prompt recently (actually just one) that I used for a piece. The prompt was; 'I have here in my hand a list of___'
    Which resulted in a piece of fiction - enjoy:

    1. I am terrible at journal-keeping too, but lists work for me. They exert the right amount of pressure on my mind to get me to actually do things!

      I liked your story :) I was a teacher for a while, so I know what 'Jim Smiley' was talking about in his introduction!