A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

I make lists. I’m soothed, in particular, by the kind where you eventually get to cross things out or check them off. But I make other kinds of lists, too. Lists are containers; they are maps, taxonomies, blueprints. As a kid, I listed ways to make money, things I wanted to have when I grew up, things I needed to pack for vacation, boys I liked, books I liked, songs I liked.

I like writing that’s based on lists. I liked the litanies we said in church when I was a kid—Heart of Jesus, Lamb of God, pray for us. Nowadays I often used list-based writing in teaching.

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right…

List poems are a great exercise for beginning writers. I’ve read Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” in class and asked students to write their own poems in response.

I’m the woman with the fangs
I’m the woman with the guns
I’m the woman with tomes
I’m the hook woman
I’m the stolen book woman

I’ve read excerpts from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and asked students to list what’s in their protagonist’s pockets or purse as a way of developing character.

They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

Litanies. Catalogues. Series. Shopping lists. To do lists. Wish lists. We live amid visible and invisible inventories. We are list-makers and we appear, each of us, on countless lists ourselves. We are categorized and classified a million different ways. Roll call. Think of the unknown lists your name is on: Your kiss is on someone’s list. (Hall and Oates, anyone? My friend Jordan is singing right now.) You’re on multiple folks’ lists of friends, family, adversaries, maybe, dog owners at your local park, regulars at your café or pub. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

As fond as I am of lists, I do not care for listicles, those articles that shout: “10 Inspirational Summer Reads,” “7 Tips for Taking Better Selfies,” “6 Secrets to Finding Lasting Love.” First off: listicle—ew. Writing for The Guardian, Steven Poole defines listicles as “essentially, themed compendia of micro-articles.” In “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists,” Maria Konnikova compares listicles to drinking green juice over eating a bunch of kale—a shortcut to acquiring and processing data. For writers, it’s also a quick and dirty way to throw together content. I’m guilty of it myself: “Tarry a Moment,” in which I pondered ways to procrastinate, “squirrel, toy, rage, rocket, lemon,” wherein I enumerated items I discovered on my old computer and “A Handful of Residencies” which described last year’s teaching projects. My last post, in fact, contained a list within a list. But I refuse to call them—that word. I read “themed compendia of micro-articles,” of course; they’re ubiquitous and click-bait. Easy, breezy. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of my aversion. Maybe they feel too composed to me, too processed. Maybe I like more organic lists that prioritize idiosyncrasy over formula. Windy, twisty, messy lists, with cross outs and arrows to addenda in the margins.

This week, I was working on a chapter of The Saltwater Twin and thinking about lists. Often when I’m writing a piece of narrative nonfiction, wandering the paths of memory, I recall a story that links to another, and that one to a third. Memories are cross-referenced in different categories.

Friendships: Grammar school. Friendships: Waitressing.

In my last post, for example, I described sketching my history through sweets.

Baked Goods: Homemade. Baked Goods: Pastries. Baked Goods: See Overindulging.

This week the grouping was Rituals—religious and secular. There was the Dominican waitress I worked with who blessed my apartment in a procedure that involved eggs and Florida water, the time we purified my friend Lauren’s car with sleigh bells and sage before she drove out to L.A., the Friday Lenten Benedictions of my childhood which often meant some skinny kid passing out in a cloud of incense.

Maybe we’re not always aware of the records we carry, but we’re all compilations of lists. Likes and dislikes. Fears. Losses. Accomplishments. Somewhere I carry a list of people I’ve kissed, gone on road trips with, called friends. A list of songs that remind me of roommates and exes. Songs that remind me of running through Northfield, MN. Songs that remind me of riding my bike in winter. Bridges I’ve ridden under or over. Some lists are incomplete, because my memory is imperfect. But I like those lists anyway. The list of couches on which I’ve watched movies, eaten sandwiches, taken naps. The list of things I used to believe but don’t believe anymore. The list of things that scare me. The list of fears I’ve overcome. The list of times I was brave. The list of my scars.

We have secret lists, litanies, running through us. Animals we have cared for. Dishes we have broken. Doors we’ve unlocked. Beds. Bodies of water. And so on. And of course there’s the quotidian list of to dos. Even those can be significant. They map what matters to us in a given moment, on a given day. I bet a lifetime of to do lists could tell you a lot about someone. In 1726, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty, he wrote a list for himself that included “Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” And Woody Guthrie wrote in his New Year’s resolutions in 1942, “Love everybody” and “Wake up and fight.”

And you? Are you a maker or fan of the list?

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

  1. Yes!!! I could not have said it better. I just loved this post. My favorite quote: “Windy, twisty, messy lists, with cross outs and arrows to addenda in the margins.” Exactly.


  2. This article seems relevant to me since I’ve been working on a poem that a friend called a list. I was ready to stop it when he said so. I’ve spent many months first reading and then simplifying and making metrical The Basic Writings of Immanuel Kant to where I’ve felt that the next step of extracting the non-melodic aspects for the sake of the poem but which would diminish the exhaustive/complete presentation of his writings has me stuck.

    Here is the beginning of the poem, which goes on for pages and pages. When you get to the word “Gaining,” the breath of the poem seems to fall away. This is where I question flow for including all his ideas.

    Poem of Kant

    Sensibility and reason,
    The critique of pure reason
    Missives encapsulated
    Or abbreviated.
    Critiques of this and that
    Dialectical, practical
    Abstraction attention
    Objects in suspension
    Confirming or disturbing
    Assumptions in predictions
    Gaining anything
    Like Scientific Knowledge
    Of human nature
    Dissatisfied with all humans,
    You must willfully act
    In order to affect.


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