The boys like to work in my studio, but they’re rascals, so we needed to set down some rules.
It’s obviously going to be an evolving list…
In my favorite writing book, What It Is, Lynda Barry explains how to make a “Word Bag.” A word bag is basically just a bunch of words you like that you write down and stuff in a bag and pull out randomly when you need to begin a piece of writing and you’re not sure where to start. (Here’s Lynda, taking you through the exercise.)
This is pretty much how Ray Bradbury got started, too.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this?
Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.
Here’s more from Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, about about how these “long lines of nouns,” these lists, helped him figure out who he was as a writer:
These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull… I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.
He encourages other writers that making “similar lists, dredged out of the lopsided of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.”
(I talk more about the magic of making lists in chapter one of Keep Going.)
About five years ago, I came home from a walk with my wife and wrote down this list. I found the scraps yesterday when going through some flat files.
Most of it I still agree with. (It’s always a bit disappointing when you agree so much with your former self — good thing I no longer believe in linear progress!) Except for #13. You don’t have to play “The Game,” whatever that is. There are alternatives. (Start by reading Thoreau.)
Starting to be able to see up ahead to the end of this tour.
I made this list when my oldest was only 3. He’s 6 now.
Before I closed his bedroom door last night, I said, “Happy reading!”
“Happy… whatever it is you do after I go to bed,” he said.
“Goodnight!” I said, smiling and tiptoeing away…
I don’t post my year-end reading list until the end of the year, but I definitely start working on it this early. (This year’s biggest problem: I’m devouring Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, and if I keep up at this pace, I’ll have to bump something from the list above.)
Last year I wrote about rethinking making lists entirely, and this year in August I posted a list of favorite reads (so far) of 2018, but I’m still loathe to finish this year’s final list. Reading has become more and more of a private thing for me as the online universe has disintegrated: The page is where I go to not be judged, but to be understood (a book is a mirror, etc.). The minute you make some kind of public list you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of judgments and scrutiny about your habits.
Overall, I think the best move (as a non-critic, at least) is to go with an unranked list. Music writer Ted Gioia, for example, switched to an alphabetical ordering for his Best of 2018 list. “I am doing this because each of these albums deserves recognition and the sequential ranking tended to focus too much attention on just a few recordings.”
I also like Gioia’s explanation for why he still makes lists:
Like any music lover, I enjoy sharing my favorite music with others. But in the last few years, a different motivation has spurred me. I believe that the system of music discovery is broken in the current day. There is more music recorded than ever before, but it is almost impossible for listeners to find the best new recordings….
I have nothing so noble for a cause, but let’s face it: I’ll suck it up and make this year’s, if for no other reason than because I’m a list junkie and a completist.
Just some notes to myself:
I’m working on my 2017 year-end list. (Above list is from September, so no spoilers.) 3 years ago I got up on a high horse about how ridiculous it is for readers who aren’t professional critics (or affiliate bloggers) to make their year-end lists before the actual end of the year. (Do none of these people read books in December?) It’s a dumb thing to make a big deal about. People love year-end lists before the year’s end (including me, honestly) because they can see what they missed, argue, add to their Christmas lists, buy and write-off their taxes while they still can. It’s mostly harmless, so who cares?
I’ve been keeping a list of my favorite books for over a decade now, and the question on my mind is whether I should bother making a year-end list at all. I mean, I love sharing books I think deserve an audience — it’s the best part of putting out my weekly newsletter — but I’ve begun to weary of ranking books. (My favorite year-end list features no ranking at all: Steven Soderbergh’s media diary.) Reading is such a unique, personal experience, created by the author’s text, the quality of the printing (or e-device), the setting, and the mind (and mood) of the reader. Ranking books in any way, even by gathering up a top ten list, seems, at best, arbitrary, at worst, harmful to the spirit of what makes reading so awesome.
Still, I love a good list, and I love looking back on the year and making a list. I’ve always thought the best lists are more like a diary or a snapshot of a moment in somebody’s life, like John Porcellino’s Top 40 he’ll put in the back of King-Cat:
Reading JP’s lists give you another glimpse into who he is, beyond his comics. (For the past 3 years, I’ve ripped him off with my year-end top 100 lists.)
So I’ll keep on, but I’m going to try, as best as I can, to acknowledge that each of these lists is just a moment in time, just a snapshot of how I feel when I make them. I love the idea of the year-end list as an “interchangeable set of favorites” in the words of Stephanie Zacharek, who wrote of her year-end list: “If I’d eaten something different for breakfast on the day of making up the list, my number 2 might have been number 1, or vice-versa.”
One other thing: I’d like to go back occasionally, revisit my lists, see how they hold up. I’ll usually make a top 10 list of books, and then add on another list of 10 more good books. Often it’s this second list of books that contains the most interesting stuff. To quote Zacharek again:
[T]he end of a critic’s, or a moviegoer’s, list is where the oddball magic really happens. The movies here are the stragglers, the drifters, the hobos that not all of society loves. These are movies that may have been kicked off the list, put back on and kicked off again – they don’t ask for easy membership in any club. These are movies that may have reached us in ways we can’t quite parse, even after we’ve spent hours or days thinking and/or writing about them. If all top-10 lists are subjective (and all are, no matter how pompous some critics may be in presenting their choices), the tail end of the average list is truly the untamed wilderness, the place for inexplicable passions, for wooliness, for massive quantities of “What the f—itude?”
So, let’s have a little fun at the end of this post, and revisit a few years:
2015. Great year. No complaints!
2006-2010. Too painful to think about!
Stay tuned for 2017.
A sampling of one of Leonardo’s to-do Lists:
I doodled this checklist after seeing a Goethe quote that pops up from time to time: “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” Sounds good to me!
Funny thing is, Goethe never spoke or wrote it as actual advice — it’s a line of dialogue by Serlo, a theater manager, in his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship:
[Serlo] was wont to say: “Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason,” he would add, “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
Serlo’s advice is about appreciating, not creating, which is one reason why I like it so much — appreciating (input) is the first step towards creating (output), and too often today we emphasize output over input.
Goethe himself doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would make a checklist for his input, and especially not his output. The entry in Daily Rituals tells us that towards the end of his life he wrote in the morning, “when I am feeling revived and strengthened by sleep and not yet harassed by the absurd trivialities of every day life,” but he felt that he couldn’t get much done if he wasn’t feeling inspired, or was in an unproductive mood: “My advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”
This is quite different than the common advice you hear from writers today (myself included!) who admonish us to write a little bit every day no matter what, although, there are some wonderful modern writers, like Marilynne Robinson, who are “incapable of discipline”:
I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me.
(“That work ethic thing”! She’s so great.)
Productivity and creativity often get confused — anybody who has done creative work knows that good ideas often come when one is least productive. Everybody does it differently: some writers need inspiration before they sit down, and some writers need to sit down for the inspiration.
What seems universally true is that we could all use a little song, a good poem, and a fine picture in our daily routine. (Speaking a few good words seems entirely optional.)