In this season of giving and gratefulness, I have a confession to make: I am a big old pessimist. Any glass I see isn’t just half empty, it’s parched dryer than the Sahara and has a crack bigger than the San Andreas fault.
So you can imagine what I’m like during the holidays, which are all about thinking good thoughts and making lists of good things: resolutions for the new year, gifts we want to receive and give, things we’re thankful for, the best things that have happened during the year, the best books, the best people, the best clothes, the best, the best, the best.
All that positivity. It’s exhausting.
Still, since the holidays are here, I’ve been trying to resist my penchant for pessimism and find something good to focus on. Which led me to lists and how helpful they can be, especially to writers.
I recently read a great post on Beyond The Margins called “1. Because they’re simple. 2. Because they’re playful. 3. Because they work.” by Kathy Crowley. In it, Crowley muses on the way authors use lists in fiction to create a more expansive view of the fictive world. She points out that, what might seem like a rather random listing of what a narrator sees and hears, instead is “a carefully curated collection that tells us, with terrific efficiency, both about the neighborhood and what it’s like to be inside the narrator’s head.”
Lists are particularly useful in flash fiction (loosely defined as stories under 1,000 words), where a character’s voice and world view must be established as quickly and economically as possible. Two fabulous examples of flash fiction stories that make excellent use of lists to establish the characters’ motivations and desires are “To Do” by Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and “What I Could Buy” by Leslie Pietrzyk, author of Pears on a Willow Tree and editor-in-chief of the online magazine, Redux.
All of this got me thinking about the lists I like to make (of things that make me panic; of things I need to finish but never will; of grudges I need to forget; of grudges I’ll never forget) and the way those lists define me. And then I started thinking about lists that my characters might make. And then I couldn’t stop making lists. Which led me to this exercise.
Spend 20 minutes writing a scene (either nonfiction or fiction) based on an item on the list.
And by the way, I’ll be on hiatus the rest of the week (trying to enjoy the holiday, as best a pessimist can). I’ll be back next week with more exercises and posts. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Now, set your timer.
Ready, set, write!
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