The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

1. Here is the horror writer and mother-of-four Shirley Jackson on the subject of list-making:

I believe that all women, but especially housewives, tend to think in lists; I have always believed, against all opposition, that women think in logical sequence, but it was not until I came to empty the pockets of my light summer coat that year that I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only possible reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely.

2. I pulled this sentence from Jackson’s 1952 parenting memoir Life Among the Savages. Aside from its sly humor and subtle craft, I love how Jackson plumbs the psychological depths of the list-making drive. She considers our need to assert control over a domestic situation that is laughably (and terrifyingly!) impervious to it.

At times, these feeble attempts to order our households, our marriages, our kids, reveal instead the underlying disorder. They manifest the inherent unpredictability not only in our private worlds but of the world at large.

3. Tis the season for lists.

I am a year-round list-maker—habitually, and often happily, so. But December is the month when the list-making habit, much like your typical Shirley Jackson story, takes A Dark Turn. Added to the usual grocery lists, to-do lists, etc., there are now lists of gift ideas, mailing lists for Christmas cards, packing lists for holiday travel.

The lists metastasize, loom.

They stop behaving docilely.

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4. Contrast this rather burdensome and banal type of list with the list-making exercises that literary folks use to generate creative ideas.

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury describes his technique of brainstorming long lists of nouns in order to unearth story ideas. He would discern patterns, old associations and memories, compelling themes. This particular list of nouns, for example

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

became the springboard for Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes.

From the v. fun and inspiring writing manual This Word Now, developed by fellow Austinites Jodi and Owen Egerton, I’ve adapted another list-making exercise for beginning each new chapter of my book manuscript. For each of the following categories

A CONFLICT.

A QUESTION.

A CHARACTER.

A WORLD.

A MOMENT.

A JOURNEY.

I’ll list, as quickly as possible, as many ideas as I can pull from my research notes. Out of these lists, I’ll chose the most intriguing option, as a way to begin the chapter or to structure it. Even though the advice is meant for fiction writers, it works well to add narrative techniques or human interest to non-fiction.

It’s not surprising that the Egertons have a background in improvisation – the goal of this exercise and others like them is to recover the intuitive, playful, unfiltered.

If domestic list-makers are charged with keeping things running smoothly (or at least not running off the rails), creative list-makers have the luxury of letting go. They relinquish control to the subconscious, to the muses, to anyone but the stuffy grown-up self in the room.

It is a blissfully childish act.

5. As far as I know, the closest that anyone has come to transforming lists of daily minutiae into capital-A art is the British visual artist Alice Instone.  

Her recent exhibit The Pram in the Hall takes its name from this quote from English writer and literary critic Cyril Connolly: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Instone writes that the series originated with her relocation from London to the English countryside with two young kids. The isolation, the incessant chores – and the lists to organize them – drained her of the time and energy for making art. 

So, Instone decided to make art out of list-making:

I started to think about the point of these lists. An attempt to keep track, to soothe a tired mind at the end of the day or nagging worries in the middle of the night. I started to see the lists as portraits of my time and my state of mind. 

 She describes her lists as having a biographical, even “confessional,” aspect. They were also Polaroid-like snapshots of a particular moment in the list-maker’s life.

Image of a canvas from  The Pram in the Hall  series. Via  Alice Instone .

Image of a canvas from The Pram in the Hall series. Via Alice Instone.

In addition to transforming her own lists into layered, almost abstract prints, Instone collected the lists of celebrated British women in a range of fields, from politicians and scientists to actors and activists. These lists often reflected the sheer incongruity of tasks that our brains are tracking, the absurd hodgepodge within.

Take actress and designer Sadie Frost's contribution: “Get teeth cleaned, sort kids’ tea and ideas for new range of Floozie bikinis.”

Or human-rights activist Shami Chakrabarti’s: “buy Christmas tree, Christmas cards and cotton wool” alongside “re-read the Counter Terror Bill.”

6. Instone also created a large-scale installation that encouraged public participation:

I decided to invite women everywhere to bring their lists to an exhibition and peg them onto washing lines, as laundry was once a communal activity and seemed to reflect the domestic aspect of most of the lists.

This collaborative element of the project enabled her to reflect on the unequal division of housework that persists in modern heterosexual couplings. The Pram in the Hall called attention, among other things, to the emotional work of women’s list-making.

Laundry lists; lists as laundry. Via  Alice Instone .

Laundry lists; lists as laundry. Via Alice Instone.

My husband refuses to keep lists. He prefers instead to set reminders on his phone. Of course, this could be a question of our different temperaments or attitudes, perhaps a bid to resist the physical trappings of adulthood while still being a responsible father and thoughtful partner.

But it likely also reflects gendered expectations around who should be the keeper of all the domestic knowledge. (Or, as Biz Ellis, host of the podcast One Bad Mother, puts it: “the president of all the things”). I glimpse in my own relationship, collaborative though it is, a vestige of the idea that household management – those running mental inventories of children’s clothing, doctor appointments, social activities – falls squarely within the mother’s purview.

7. Like Instone, I am unaccountably curious about the List-Making Impulse. Unlike her, though, I don’t experience domestic list-making as particularly “empowering” on an individual scale. Instone’s The Pram in the Hall, however, succeeds because it tells a collective story: it makes women’s worlds, and their work, visible.  

8. My taxonomy of lists contains a meager two categories: lists as generative of new modes of thinking vs. lists for when one’s cup (or brain) spilleth over. Lists that fuel the artist’s creative brain vs. lists that reflect the parent’s muddled, anxious, distracted one. Rarely do the two overlap.

9. The musical accompaniment to my own lists of household miscellany would be that Pixie’s tune “Where is My Mind?” They are, at best, a form of mental unburdening, an attempt to stay sane.

10. This is not a sponsored post. But, Staples, Paper Source, call me!

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