build The Magic List

by Flora Jardine

Published in Issue No. 278 ~ July, 2020

Writers love lists, and locked-down writers adore them. These days we have more time for them, and they fill moments when creative inspiration fades. Usually, we greedily grab creative writing time from paid work, grocery shopping, family obligations, and so on. Still, in stay-home COVID-19 times, we may have more hours than we always productively fill. We turn to list-making to jump-start the magic of creativity.

Your “to-do” list may hide a cache of secrets. On closer inspection, you may see it’s a wish-to-do list. What are your real plans? To find out, write an anti-list of hidden goals.

List-making feels like action, and during pandemic lock-down, we don’t get enough action. Writers feel good with pen in hand (or keyboard under fingers), and even list-making is writing. It’s an organizing ritual, preliminary to real writing, it’s practising the scales before you play the sonata.

Does any other animal make lists? Mentally perhaps, of places where they found prey, experienced dangers, located enemies. There may be genetic lists in the deep minds of snakes and cats, orienting them to the sunrise. Our deep lists too may have more to do with preserving our instinctive lives than changing them. If I were a psychological therapist, I’d ask clients to show me their lists, which would reveal what they want, or the opposite of what they want, or both.

Do they itemize positive things or negative? Past events or future plans? Facts, or dreamy fantasies? Every list aims to reconfigure the world, set priorities, arrange thought, cheat forgetfulness, (continue this list for yourself), but here’s a tip: don’t over-curate your lists. Write them in stream-of-consciousness style, to capture things that part of you thinks shouldn’t be there. Not nice? Irrelevant? Too revealing? Stream away then; revealing is just what the exercise is meant to be.

List-writing both soothes and inspires, which is why many people start the day by writing one over the first cup of coffee. It may be the same list every day – one of the tasks and errands which never get done – but re-writing it is calming, a way of feeling in control. Maybe a typical work-from-home-pandemic list goes like this: Dress in business-like attire for your day at your desk. Do a chunk of work first; open email later. Never look at Twitter until after lunch. Start your novel early. Take exercise breaks: do floor stretches. Drink water: this is a pandemic-marathon. Start your novel.

Wait: delay your novel by listing the components of a good story (this is Sub-list One): Suspense. Plot twists. Cliff hangers. Vivid hero. Vivid settings. Old-fashioned narration as used around the fire since human culture began. Magic.

So: magic again. Maybe lists too should be vivid stories full of plot twists and suspense? Write one as a story-list, building to the final climax of your favourite intention. Write fast. Make it good and twisty. Whatever you thought you were planning, write the opposite and see how that drives the plot. Put exotic characters in your list, not the people you know who wrote the emails you’re delaying looking at.

Write your list as a poem, unless you’re a poet; then write it as prose. Later as a play-script, kids’ book, graphic novel, comic strip, (Here: list more formats). Even if they’re “not you,” go ahead and try these formats. This is about the extra-you, the meta-you. Some people think list-making is time-wasting, but that’s because they take it seriously; they forget to play with the mirror-image alter-list, the list of things your obedient self wouldn’t dream of doing. (Like: go outside for no reason; get closer than two meters to someone; call two friends and make a subversive crowd of three.)

You may unleash a whole second writer inside you, or at least give the existing one permission to think outside the query letter. Being a more exciting protagonist in your own life might make you produce more exciting work.

Every list tells a story, so if you’re going to write one, make it suspenseful. You may be locked-down, but your alter-list doesn’t need to be. Even your sober business-like “real” list doesn’t need to be. If it doesn’t excite you, you certainly won’t follow it. If you’re feeling uninspired at your work-from-home desk, a plot twist may be just what you need. Live every day – even self-quarantined – like it’s a cliff-hanger. Your magical fairy-tale adventure-list could change the world – at least your own world.


account_box More About

Former librarian and bookseller, current writer of fiction and nonfiction.