The novice makes a list.

March 15, 2015 § 8 Comments

Atticus.I typed “list” into Google Images to see what I’d get.

What stood out among the images of pencils, check marks, and to-dos was this very nice photo of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It was completely irrelevant to the search, but perfectly illustrative of how my random-access brain works.

It always finds “Gregory Peck” when searching for “list.”

My brain’s motto is, why be direct when a walk around the block is so much more interesting?

But lately I’ve trying to play it straight by making actual lists–it seems to work for others.

The most adamant list maker I know is my singing partner. When Craig says “I have a few things to talk to you about,” he always has a small spiral bound notebook in one hand and a pen in the other.

Craig is pretty sure that he forgets. I don’t know if his memory is worse than anyone else’s, but since he is convinced it is he relies on an outboard memory.

Backing up memory is a common, straightforward use for a list, but the purpose of a list can be as varied as the people who make them.

My mother had a bound notebook for her Christmas gift giving. Her lists were a way of comparing the gift load she had stashed throughout the house for each of her three children.

My mother’s sense of fair-and-equal was finely calibrated. Sure, a microscope was a great gift, but the Suzie Homemaker Kitchen came in a much larger box so it looked more significant—better take that plastic kitchen out of the box.

My husband, now retired, scoffs at list making. These days he does what he damned well pleases, convinced this is a luxury everyone aspires to; the freedom to not make a list.

But since so many of us do make lists they must be more than sand between the sheets.

I will now make a list of some of the uses of lists (remember I am an amateur at this and don’t mind you adding more in the comment section).

Lists are a way of turning chaos into a linear progression. If the destination is distant and the journey complex a list breaks it down into steps.

A list cuts out a small segment of all-that-is and says, this stuff is important, forget everything else.

Lists create markers across time. Each year I write down what seeds I start, how many germinate, when I transplant the seedlings into the ground. Knowledge accrues. And by selecting just two or three traits the comparisons become clear and useful.

Lists allow us to savor things. As a writer I often jot down lists of favorite words–a list which makes no demands.

Writing something on a list provides the pleasure of crossing it off.

Lists make us seem important. Hey, my list is longer than yours.

Lists keep us from doing things we don’t want to do. I’d like to help you out, but as you can see from my list I’m swamped.

A list efficiently proves the existence of time and self.

I have never been a list maker. One-shots like a grocery list at the holidays are okay, but a to-do list has always terrified me. I find them so overwhelming I want to surrender before I begin.

I’ve preferred to bump along tripping over the things that must be done, then doing them–always with the possibility of a detour that leads to a random outcome like Gregory Peck.

Living as a non-list maker has worked for me. A creative person, I have come to trust my random-access brain. I cannot sit it down and demand an idea, pencil and pad in hand, but with patience I know that sooner or later I will walk smack into an idea I can turn into a story or song.

But lately I’ve begun making lists.

In order for a list to work the list maker has to decide what purpose the list will serve–so far I have done little with lists since their sole purpose seemed to be to terrify and overwhelm.

The purpose of my current spate of list-making is to work less.

As a self-employed writer I get up and I work, often before five o’clock. I work until I am too tired to think, or physically sit at this computer for one more minute. I have no designated days off.

The privilege of being a writer and my own boss is great. But I am a tough boss—or maybe just a disorganized boss.

I have been making lists to prove to myself that what must be done is finite.

I make lists in the hope that they will show me the unclaimed spaces between things.

So far, I seem to be getting more done. Efficiency is up (I’d say 12.4 %).

Now to find those empty spaces.

What will I do with them?

I don’t know. The answer exists in the weeds beyond the edge of any list.

I’ll leave their use to my random-access brain.


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§ 8 Responses to The novice makes a list.

  • craig reeder says:

    for me, lists are primarily a memory aid, but I feel like they are also an empowerment device, because the list ensures that I will complete certain tasks within a certain time period, so they amplify my productivity. I also get a feeling of accomplishment when I cross something off.


  • Word lists
    partee lists
    lists of gre8t names
    lists of words for poem starting

    are some of my favorites.

    Your seedling & plant lists bring up a lovely memory, Adrian. My dear Dad kept a great seed & bulb record. Those lists were special.


    • I got my love of gardening from my own father, peruser of the Burpee catalog at the dark heart of every winter.

      Come to think of it, a seed catalog is a list of sorts. They enumerate some of the many possible outcomes of seed + dirt + water + sunlight.


  • Mary says:

    Lists for grades , lists for attendance , list to go places like the nurse, library, office, bathroom and “other”. Lists to keep track of all my meetings with parents, peers and important people. My whole day is about lists and I feel driven to keep them or I might forget something. There are the paper lists and then one inside my head which nags at me until I accomplish the task. So without a list, my life would be a little unmanageable😎


    • Perhaps one of the perks of retirement will be to tear up your last list and throw the scraps up in the air.

      I read about a ballerina who lived an anorexic life, afraid to gain an ounce because it was unthinkable in her profession. Upon retirement she threw all her toe shoes out of the window of a moving car and promptly began to eat her way to being happily fat.

      At least you don’t have to get fat to liberate yourself from lists…


  • KM Huber says:

    I am not a paper/screen list maker, either. When I did try it, I kept forgetting the list.

    These days, I confine myself to the day I have, mentally ticking off any “must do” items. It allows me a kind of balance, albeit an ever-shifting one. More and more, I trust that I will take care of what is really necessary. Of course, the flaw in this thinking is obvious but recent data shows it’s serving me quite well 88.2% of the time. I’ll take it!

    Great post, Adrian!


    • You are living on the “trouble sufficient” model (although I know you would replace “trouble” with something more positive).

      We know that there will always be “trouble sufficient unto the day” and so we deal with it as it comes.


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