Even After 46 Rewrites, This Essay Sucks


Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Sometimes, Two Rewrites Make a Wrong—and That’s OK

Words are hard. Yes, I know. That’s weird diction; I probably should say, “Writing is difficult.” Nevertheless, I tell my composition and creative writing students that “[w]ords are hard.” They get the concept, so there’s no reason to revise or change my simple, albeit grammatically questionable, statement. Why? Because those three words make an impact.

And writing from an emotional stance (pathos!) is the most difficult composition style for me. Yes, it is hard. Fiction and poetry? Well, sure, I suffer when I write those, but most times I can distance myself from the final product. However, this creative non-fiction gig is brutal.

This past month my writing life (and life in general) has been painful. In a couple blog essays, I wrote about a time long ago when I was assaulted (I hid those posts for a few days of quiet healing—self-preservation is a mighty motivator). Then, this week, in another essay, I paid tribute to my friend Ilyse Kusnetz; she passed away on September 13. After I’d posted all three of these essays, I re-read the work within hours of hatching. Each time, I found the words lacking. So I walked back on them and revised all of it (and the corresponding Facebook links).

This kind of revision is always a weird endeavor, retooling essays while they are “live,” still under the public’s watchful eye. Why? When a piece of writing is live on the Internet, it means that anyone might be reading it at any time. As I revise, I feel the added pressure under this no-time deadline. Every second that ticks away on the analog clock under my screen is a second someone has seen my crappy eighth draft.

In my case, about these three most recent essays, I must come clean. I admit they were problematic as soon as I hit “publish.” After many repairs and revamps (WordPress shows me that one of these essays was drafted 46 times), I now think they’re fine. Not good. Never great. And of course, never perfect. Not ever. But at least I can live with myself. However, next week, I might scan what I thought was OK today, and I’ll have to gut it.

With print, it’s different. After a work of mine is accepted by a lit mag, I get one shot at changing the galleys. It was the case with my book of short stories, too. Once the work’s on paper, unless it goes through a major reprint, an author’s stuck with what’s sewn or pasted into a book’s spine. If my editor has been attentive to details and caught any silly (major) errors, then more power to the work—I’ll trust that my stories or poems will stand the test of time.

Well, except one. I had great editors for my story in Norton’s Flash Fiction International, and I blew it. It was my fault. The galleys arrived in time. So for my selection, in the last paragraphs of my galley proof, I penciled in a change at the eleventh hour. I revised a verb. I erroneously changed “were” to “was”–from the subjunctive mood to the indicative. I wish I hadn’t. It was a stet moment, but no one caught it. Sure enough, I’d over-revised myself into a major grammatical error. The editors didn’t catch the gaffe. And so, there I am anthologized in a book with literary giants; my work’s alongside some of my idols, Kafka and Kawabata and Keret, and it includes a glaring predicate mistake!

An author friend, a very successful writer, confessed to me in a recent conversation that he’d found blunders in his National Book Award nominated novel only after it went to print (this was almost fifteen years ago). And just recently, he’s had a chance to correct the problems; his book is going through a reprint in honor of his latest novel, which is a huge success and was just long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award. He admitted that it’s a relief to repair those parts of his older book. OK, so if he feels this way about his fiction, and he’s a two-time nominee for the National Book Award, maybe I need to take a chill pill. Do all writers feel like frauds, or is it just me?

And look, there’s a danger with never-ending revision. Blog essays, tweets, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook posts? Folks can delete those. We can furl whatever freak flags we’ve run up the pole. We can also edit the hell out of our social media posts (well, not tweets). But the constant temptation (or is it readily available access) to revise makes for lazy writing. We never let the work rest in place. After we’ve composed it, we post it without letting it marinate and then stew. Our quick-as-a-nanosecond-cyber-society requires that we reveal all, tell all NOW. So we race to say something in public forums, then we revise, and we keep revising. Sometimes we can over-edit, change the life and passion of a piece. Sometimes we over-revise and over salt so much so that our work no longer resembles its original flavor. I keep thinking of Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery. He sure looked different at the end, didn’t he?

Yes, some of my blog essays are very different today than they were when many people read them. But, in my case, I think they’re better. I should’ve waited to post them until I was certain I’d found the perfect turn of phrase, more apt metaphors, more pointed, less sentimental descriptions. Whatever. I’m embarrassed some folks trudged through those nascent essays.  How can I alert them? Can I tag them and say, “Hey, these are much better now!” No, I can’t. So I lie awake at night and worry.

I delete a lot of posts, a residual of all this revision. I’ve taken to strafing my social media after a week or so. The ideas have grown stale; people have moved on. When I initially post, I like to think  I’m starting a conversation with my far-flung friends. I’ll post an Oscar Wilde quote or tell a story about how a turtle appeared in my mailbox. If someone doesn’t read my words, that’s OK. More are coming. Conversations, even online, should be ephemeral. Impermanence makes our discussions precious. So if someone ever visits my social media, she might only find a couple pictures (rarely selfies), a few personal words.  I come and go. And just like a phone call, I hang up when the talking ends.

So the upshot? I have to let go. I have to let my work live on its own. Just like when one raises a child, at some point, the writer must push its hatchling out into the world and hope it can survive.

I know I sound neurotic and obsessive-compulsive, but I believe in words. I believe that the correct combination of sentences and paragraphs are a magic spell. They sift through the ether to shine light on a new idea; they fire readers’ synapses; they shift paradigms. If I compose correctly, if I play my cards right (write), the reader and I might even connect on some karmic level. Well, we can connect if I can get the friggin’ words right. Sometimes I can’t. Writing is difficult. No, words are hard—like a rock upside the head.


Troll This!

We’re living in a scary political climate now, aren’t we? That said, eight months ago, I shuttered this blog (right before the November 2016 elections). I encountered bullies, trolls, upbraiding, and vitriol. It was too much to take.

Obviously, I’ve returned, but I’ve hidden most of my old posts, made them private. I’m stronger now, bolstered, and girded.

Now, in this space, I’ll continue to write about writing and provide an honest perspective about the publishing world. However, I think it’s best to keep this essay about “business.” I’ll avoid the personal. Meanwhile, I have lots of juicy material in the works for a real, honest-to-goodness memoir. Fingers crossed that it comes together.

Cheers to comebacks!–Cate

Sit a While and Talk to Your Ideas

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”―Gustave Flaubert

Horizon-Ocean View (1959). Richard Diebenkorn.

Horizon-Ocean View (1959). Richard Diebenkorn.

Writers are a frustrated lot. We just KNOW that the perfect idea, the bestseller, the right poem is around the corner if we could just find the map to get us there. Yes, we’re always looking for a quick fix, a magic bullet, the newest sensation. Well, none of these exist. Every writing teacher will tell you to sit your butt in the seat and get to work. But how the heck do you do that? When you want to work, how do you start?

Well, my method is easy. I carve out empty space, empty time. I make time for boredom. Look, we all hate the idea of nothingness. I dreaded nap time as a child because I wanted to go, go, go. But the best gift for a writer is if we stop, stop, stop. And then we reflect.

The best writing I ever do is when I have mental and physical time to just “be.” I call it writing meditation. What’s that? I have choices for how I keep my mind occupied. I might lay in bed when I’m not sleepy or sit in a chair with no electronic device. Mowing lawns, vacuuming, swimming, any repetitive task that includes white noise or silence works for me. Sometimes driving works, but only on long stretches of highway.

During my contemplative periods, I’ll think about my past, dredging up memories of shame, happiness, and rage, and I try to figure out why I feel the way I do right now about things that happened back then. Or I have a germ of an idea for a story or poem, so I have a pretend conversation with a friend or old acquaintance, and I explain it to them. Or I fixate on a particular word or line I like, and I try to write the rest of the piece, word by word, sentence by sentence, repeating it over and over, memorizing it in my mind as I sit with it alone in the space of silence.

Usually, when I’m in this meditative locale, a piece waves its arms for attention, and I can give it the petting it deserves. I try not to fall asleep. And after, I try to write it all down as I come out of the clouds. It’s only then when I start to get antsy, that I head to my computer to type it out.

Remember, the blank page is a blessing. You can do whatever you want with it! A simple life is ideal; yes, a quiet life, one full of sensory sensations, one that allows for personal time, is heaven for a writer, if only for a few minutes or an hour.

Turn off all your distractions and let your mind wander, but focus it on the task of creation. You’ll be surprised what your brain can generate to keep itself entertained, to keep boredom at bay. Sometimes your mind games will translate into dynamite writing. Or you’ll end up snoring, but at least you tried.

Every Day I Sign the Book

How the Hell Do I Sign a Book?

Last week, Moon City Press officially released my collection of short stories. It was the second week of April, that dreaded day in the middle of the month (yep, Tax Day). Well, I hadn’t really expected it, but folks wanted to buy my book. I mean, here I’ve been laboring over writing and promoting the damn thing, and it never occurred to me that friends, family, and acquaintances might actually want to take a look inside the beautiful cover. 
One thing that I REALLY didn’t prepare or think about was that I might have to sign my book. Now, don’t get me wrong, I used to have good handwriting. I even won a penmanship award in grammar school. And hell, I practiced calligraphy for years, but this signing thing? Nope, I have no clue how it works. And I’ve found out there are different camps amongst published authors– the cross-through signing camp and the leave-it-be signing camp.
So my book is selling, and sure enough, when folks are buying it, some are also asking me to sign it. How the hell am I supposed to do that? I have no clue! But I smile and say, “Sure thing!” After all, I’ve had books signed by authors, so I’ve seen it done, at least. 
What does signing entail? Well, first, I’m supposed to ask the book buyer or recipient the exact spelling of his or her name—how would he or she like the book inscribed? Then, I must write something pithy and profound, maybe even inspirational. And this is where the actual signing of the name comes in. 
Some writers cross through their name; a cross-through author, when she signs on the title page, and writers ALWAYS sign on the title page, draws a line through the printed author’s name, then signs under or over it. On the other hand, some authors prefer to leave their black and white name intact, letting the first name and surname float unmarred on the clean title page.
Honestly, though, I’m still not sure which signing method to employ. So I’ve asked my published friends. Everyone has an opinion. My intrepid editor Mike Cz., a great writer who just released a killer collection of short stories (not his first!), told me he’s been crossing through his name for years: “It’s just done,” he shrugs, looking at me like I’ve lost my mind to even question this method. But when I mentioned the cross-through to one of my mentors from grad school, Melissa P., she looked horrified: “Well, that just negates your name, doesn’t it?”
I’m about half-and-half right now, trying to find my footing— I sometimes cross out my name and sign over it, but it feels pretentious. Most times, I leave my printed name blazing on the page (after all, it took me a long time to get it there!).
Now what instrument to use? Apparently, that’s very important, too. Any old pen won’t do. I’ve heard various authors extolling the virtues of blue pens. For my own scratch, I’ve narrowed down the writing implement choices—I prefer Rollerballs or Paper Mates in green. The last few times I signed a book, I attempted to draw a bird. It didn’t look half-bad, but I’ve got to work on the scale of the wings. The poor creatures are a little big on the feet and narrow on the feathers. You know what they say about birds: Big feet, big branch. And I’ve also started referencing setting or veracity, oblique suggestions to my title, True Places Never Are
Unfortunately, my first few signatures were pretty bad out the chute. I wish I could chase those down and fetch the tomes to revise my inscriptions. I thought about putting a call out, offering replacement books, but I can’t remember who purchased them. Those early signing attempts read like yearbook inscriptions, though I can assure you that at least I didn’t write something like “You’re my BFF! See you next year in homeroom!” 
All this signing and shilling (and writing and sharing ideas) does feel like I’m exhorting someone to love my book, to love my words, to love me. And that’s why this whole experience harkens back to high school. My short signed messages in folks’ copies of my book might just echo those desperate teenaged scribbles we all wrote in high school yearbook messages. But isn’t everything like high school? We all want to be accepted.

Ways of Seeing (Thank You, John Berger)

“I wanted to write about looking at the world, so it’s more about helping people, or persuading people, to see what is around us; both the marvelous and the terrible.”–John Berger

From Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin

All my life, I’ve loved looking at things. What do I mean by “looking”? I mean observing people (and writing about those observations), gazing at a work of art, appreciating a stormy purple sky or new spring green leaves outside my window. When I was a child, I spent my nap times trying to capture the essence of all I was taking in. I sketched on my walls. The act of creating art was my way of seeing, of making sense of the world that was overwhelming my senses, of unpacking the overwhelming beauty I could not contain.

My family was not pleased with my graffiti. Sure, I come from a family of artists, but defacing my light blue walls was not considered creative. It was considered a digressive act, an act of resistance. I resisted the punishments for my crimes; spankings did not prevent me from continuing my pencil and crayon murals. My mother was desperate. I was stubborn, refusing to give up my art.

My parents decided to curb my compulsive drawing by dangling the carrot. They offered to redecorate my room. They gave me artistic license, asked me to design my room on my own, choose everything. I found a lovely shade of lilac paint for the walls, bought white wicker furniture with one of those loopy headboards that looks like a peacock’s tail, and my grandmother sewed me a beautiful violet flower-patterned dust ruffle and curtain/valance edged with purple rick-rack. Unfortunately, my drawing days were over.

I converted into a designer then; my room was now my outlet. I arranged and collected antique toys and items for years after that. And I lost my drawing bug. Though, years later, when I was accepted to Atlanta College of Art (now Savannah College of Art and Design), my drawing and draftsmanship sealed the deal.

I’ve never lost the need to create something beautiful and visual. And if I ever need to calm down or to go to my happy place, I look at or write about art.
So now, my eyesight is not so great. The last few years, I’ve found that I don’t see anything as clearly as I used to. The world’s kaleidoscope has muted for me. I am walking around in a haze, squinting, wishing I could see minute details like I could years ago. Glasses, contacts, none of it helps. When I wear my glasses, I feel as if I’m framed in, the edges on the periphery. My contacts are progressive, so I’m constantly craning my neck, adjusting the angle of my head like a curious bird. Unfortunately, the fogginess over my eyes is as if someone’s smeared Vaseline over a looking glass. Outlines are fuzzy. 
Without 20/20, my world has changed. It’s an alternative universe that’s not as beautiful as it once was.
And then I over-use these poor eyes, spending so much time on a computer, reading students’ papers, designing courses, writing stories and poetry. My absolute favorite activity, looking, which includes reading, is no longer as enjoyable. I find my eyes get tired, and I can no longer enjoy long stints of immersion in a book.
Just the other day, I was in my doctor’s waiting room. While I waited, I turned on my smartphone and swiped through my blog compilation app, where I started to read an essay. I couldn’t see it very well, and there was artwork in the header and scattered throughout that looked like collages.The article, written by a right-wing pundit, made me spitting mad that it had found its way to my political-neutral feed (I refuse to engage in those kinds of debates in my off-hours–I get enough of that in the classroom from my students [and in class, I put the kibosh on it as much as I can]).
I couldn’t stand that darn article, so I fired off my outrage to the blogger. How dare he post something like this? Well, I received comments back. The blogger asked me nicely: had I not understood that what I had read was satire? Well, no, I had not. I hadn’t been able to make out all the words or even the tone, just the gist, and so I jumped, made a snap judgment. A stupid, stupid mistake. I’d spoken out like an outraged troll because I couldn’t properly see the words on my screen.
And perhaps that is one of the reasons why things are so wrong now in the world. We’ve stopped seeing clearly. We’re myopic, seeing only bits and pieces of the big picture. 
I think it’s time for a visit to a new optometrist. And I have a new signature for all emails created on my phone. Perhaps this message should also apply to all activities involving my addled sight: I typed my text above on a smallish quadrilateral of alkali-aluminosilicate glass, a task that would have been unimaginable to most people even a few short years ago. Mistakes are inevitable.

Pulling Strings for Stories

Ideas for Finding Tales to Write

I’ve had students ask me how to generate ideas for stories. It’s not easy to explain how to do this. I can teach all kinds of plotting and characterization methods, exhort folks to listen to the people’s conversations for dialogue and point of view strategies, but coming up with a good story? There’s no surefire system. I do have some ways I find my own stories. Shhh. This is a secret!

NEWS SOURCES: One thing I do is look to the news. In fact, I read all the newspaper articles I can, especially human interest stories. Sometimes magazines like People run weird features about average Joes– mostly survival, death, murder, and dismemberment stuff. Good juicy fodder. And I love using the Enquirer. I used to use all the supermarket tabloids for sources, but now, I just can’t stomach the Kardashians.

MEMORIES: Another method that has served me well is mining my memories. I think back on little incidents that made their mark or touched me, even a time when something that made me furious. Then I try to discern WHY this memory is important (which helps when telling a story—you know, the theme). I usually change up the players—the narrator is never me, and voila! a new tale reveals itself.

COMBINE OR LAYER STORIES: If you are not happy with a piece of fiction that’s a work-in-progress, add another tale to it. Once I have a one-track story, something with a simple plot that seems to be going nowhere, I usually then look around for another one that also has a single thread or plotline. I then combine the two stories into one. I call it layering. You might notice that most of my longer essays do this—there are multiple stings I’ve pulled through my compositions, but I tie it all together with an overarching theme. I do the same with my fiction.

For example, years ago, I wrote a story about a girl whose father forgot to attend her dance recital. It was emotional crap, way too sentimental because the girl was feeling sorry for herself. My grad school advisor suggested I backburner it. Well, I did. Then, later that year, I started writing a story about a boy who was dealing with an alcoholic parent. Bingo! I took that story, the one about the drunk dad, added it to the father missing the recital story, and I had something. 

So the trick is to stay open to the world around you. If someone says, “Did you hear what happened to so-and-so?” Prick up your ears. There’s a story you can use!

Easy Writer

A Few Tips for Keeping that Pen on the Move Every Day– Write!

I have a crazy busy life. We all do! So many of my students ask me how I make time to write, and I have a few methods I share with them. Sometimes, I don’t write a lot, but I do try to write something, anything every day.

Here are a couple tips to keep you going when you’re feeling you just can’t fit writing into your schedule.
ADVICE #1: Keep an image notebook. I used to carry around a little spiral bound notebook– kind of like a reporter’s. Now, with my smartphone and its accompanying stylus, I don’t need to do that. I call it my Image Notebook. Over the years, I’ve collected thousands of images. What’s an image? An image is any sensory observation you make during the course of your day. Something you’ve smelled, heard, seen, touched, tasted. Describe your image, try to use figurative language (you know, metaphors– even if they’re cliché you can always fix them later). 
I try to write one a day. It can be anything. Honestly, many of these have found their way into my work.
Here are a few examples:
April 7, 2013. A dried-out wisteria vine drops onto my windshield, wrapping itself around the wiper. I accelerate, and the vine’s craggy fingers clutch, grope, scratch the glass, as if trying desperately to free itself from the wiper’s metal trap. 
January 20, 1997. A wave of recognition lapped over me when I smelled Bill’s leather work gloves and remembered the saddle soap my grandfather used. We’d polish his gun cases and tacks together. He’d let me lather up the cloth from the tin and gently smooth it over the dark smelling leather. 
July 3, 2014. Like a kite floating on thermals, the hawk twists and turns on an invisible string, pulled to and fro, searching, always searching for something to dive upon.
February 14, 1997. The chick upstairs has once again decided to take a lesson in clogging on the hardwood floor at 2 am. She stomps and scrapes, and I’m reminded of the dancing hippos from Fantasia. But she can’t dance. And has no rhythm. OK, maybe she’s not as graceful as those hippos.
ADVICE #2: Write a sentence every day. Hemingway would wake up every day and write 500 words, perfecting his draft until it was just right. Then and only then would he hit the sauce (or the bars). Well, I’m not suggesting any such thing. Though I did once call my daily writing practice the Hemingway 500.
Let’s keep it simple. Make a bargain with yourself to sit down for one minute and write JUST ONE sentence: “I will sit my butt down and compose a declarative sentence about how I’m feeling (or about that bird I saw or about my grandmother’s piano).” 
You will find sometimes that your one sentence flows into a paragraph, and it might even pour into a page or two. Or you may discover that you’re not inspired, that the sentence sits alone by itself for a while. But it’s a seed. It might grow into a beautiful flowering plant later. You never know! And by writing every day, you have kept a commitment with yourself.
Listen, folks! One sentence is nothing. And once you start writing, you will surprise yourself. You’ll want to write more. You really will. 

“Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet.” Or, “Once you’ve started, you’re halfway there.” (Horace, Epistles, Book I, Ep. 2).

A List a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Sometimes List-Making Is a Salve


Lists are important. Right? We all write them. Or we’re supposed to.  

In recent years, the GTD (Get Things Done) movement has converted millions with its many permutations and scions. It’s a movement for productivity. Ugh. That sounds awful. So business-like! But I’m down with getting things done. It’s better than the alternative.

Apparently, according to GTD gurus, there are optimal ways to color code, prioritize, and organize a register of things one must do. Unfortunately, no one can make a person do the things on a list. There is no dominatrix in a skimpy leather and PVC outfit cracking a whip whenever we need to complete tasks. That would be nice and blessedly kinky.
Sure, the to-do list is a great motivator, but the kinds of lists that intrigue me are catalogues, Dewey Decimal system, encyclopedic registers of items.

Wunderkammern, cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-16th century Europe as storage spaces for myriad extraordinary and exotic objets. Albertus Seba, a Dutch doctor and amateur zoologist, created a record of all the tropical or unusual plants and animals he’d collected in his home, a massive wunderkammern. In his celebrated musings, he included snakes, birds, insects, shells, lizards, and plants of all kinds. Seba’s long-titled, multi-volume work set the standard for an inventory of these cabinets, which informed natural science disciplines in their nascent stages. 
How does this title sit with you?  Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio – Naaukeurige beschryving van het schatryke kabinet der voornaamste seldzaamheden der natuur (TRANSLATION: Accurate Description of the Very Rich Thesaurus of the Principal and Rarest Natural Objects). 

Seba’s Enlightenment-era books included diagrams and illustrations intersecting the worlds of science and superstition. This type of record keeping became the groundwork for the founding of actual natural history (and art) museums.

Remembering Seba makes me think back to when I was a child. I collected things. All kinds of things. I liked antiques, and my grandmother, who was an artist and collector, encouraged my scavenging habit. So did my mother, who was convinced I would one day become a curator. I would set up displays of antique toys in my bedroom, arranging tableaus; I’d charge my neighborhood friends admission. Well, I think I made 25 cents from that endeavor. However, some of the best times of my childhood were spent in my room arranging my collections.

When I was about ten, I read about Seba, and I knew that I was on the right track. I tried to mimic what he had done— I still have the pads of paper on which I drew all my objects and the inventories I painstakingly managed. Then I discovered boys and sports and school. I gave up curation. I took it up again in college, studying art history and theory, but, alas, my career in museums never came to fruition. Now, though, in my humanities classes, I impart my art history knowledge, and I feel I have come home.

And though I left my cabinet of curiosities behind, I didn’t give up writing mundane records. They keep me grounded. You see, I’ve moved so many times in my life and had so many jobs that when I look back on my somewhat short time on this planet, it jumbles my brain. I sometimes confuse or fuse memories with dreams, often asking, “Did I dream that? Or did that really happen?” Sure, that means I’ve had a glorious life, but heck, it’s hard to keep things straight!

I keep lists now, not for pleasure, but to stay organized. I’m more GTD than Seba. Perhaps it’s obsessive compulsive, but if I’ve written something down, I rest easy—it’s out of my cobwebbed brain, and, thus, the item on a list is concrete and real. I can refer to an idea later if it’s written on paper.

My librarian friends seem to understand this concept. I once showed the librarians at the college where I work my catalogue of shoes (with accompanying photos). Apparently, later, when they attended a Florida convention of librarians, they told their colleagues about my shoe records. I was a star in absentia! Apparently, the librarians across my state can confirm that I’m a shoe whore.

Sometimes my students ask me how I never repeat an outfit. I tell them I keep a record of all the ensembles I wear. Some of the girls look at me with admiration; most folks, though, give me the “crazy person” look. You know, they tip their heads to the side, squint their eyes— I’m that person who wears aluminum foil on her head, staving off alien communications.

When did my list-making germinate? Before Seba, I think. I can trace it back to the summers of my childhood after my father passed away. My mother had taken a part-time morning job. It got her out of the house, supplemented the income, which was fine while we kids were in school, but during the summers, she had a plan. To keep us out of trouble (out of the woods, mainly) while she was toiling away in an office, she would leave us a note. I’d wake up in those the hot Atlanta summers, the attic fan going full blast, stumble to the kitchen, and on the table, I’d find a sweet note from my mother:

Please do the following: polish the brass and silver, water and fertilize the garden, clean out the linen closet, organize my sock drawer. When I get home, we’ll have lunch and go to the pool! Love you, Mom

The notes were always on my grandfather’s cement company’s letterhead pads. They were small slips of paper, yellow with a red band at the top. My mother’s pointy small cursive was a fast jot, nothing fancy (she would not print—“The nuns wouldn’t allow it!” she’d say).

I started to understand the power of lists.

They are a plan, a contract that results in action.

About seven years ago, I gave up my Palm Pilot, a place where I’d housed all my lists. I went rogue. I started writing lists on envelopes and chewing gum wrappers, on slips of paper bags and napkins in my car. It was confusing! I tried to use the iPhone; it didn’t work so well for me. Now I have my Galaxy Note. It has a stylus, which makes handwriting on an electronic device so easy. You will often see me with my little stylus in hand, scratching out a list.

See, if I forget something that I have to do, it drives me crazy. If I forget an idea for a story, a bit of conversation I can use for dialogue, or an image that would fit nicely into a poem, well, I’m inconsolable for days. I’ll ruminate over and over, trying to recapture the moment when I was thinking of that forgotten task, forgotten bill, forgotten idea for the Great American Novel. I cannot sleep when I forget things. Lists keep me calm; they are better than SSRIs.

Here are some records I keep:
  • The outfits I wear—to class, by semester. Photographed and labeled.
  • The outfits I plan to wear, with permutations based on the weather, comfort, and my current weight. Photographed and labeled.
  • A photo reference of all my shoes and purses. These are usually tagged with titles and organized by color and type (flat, heel, wedge, boot):
  • “134: Green Ferragamo Varas.”
  • “224: Gold Marc Jacobs Wedges.”
  • “21p: Brown Dior Snake Bag”
  • “43p: Vintage Tapestry Clutch”
Story, poem, and essay ideas.
  • “Man goes into a bar… Larry Brown style?”
  • “Man v. polar bear… Jack London?”
  • “List essay… Seba OCD”
An image journal of any cool sensory experiences:
  • “I lifted the tree limbs from the grass lawn as if I was lifting a lady’s skirt.”
  • “Describe the osprey’s flight like a kite lofting on thermals: too cliché?”
  • “The bitch upstairs is clomping around drunk in her heels right above my head. It’s 3 AM.”
Daily lists, usually jotted on my phone.
  • Pick up dry cleaning.
  • Get zit cream.
An inventory of all my goals accomplished (not really a bucket list):
  • “Get tenure.”
  • “Travel to India.”
  • “Write a heart-wrenching ballad.”
A plan with all the wishes I want to fulfill—this is the bucket list. (These are mostly unattainable or unrealistic, but you never know!). Yep, I’ve read Creative Visualization:
  • “Get a piano.”
  • “Take up tap dancing again.”
  • “Ride my bike at an average of 21 miles-per-hour.” 
  • “Revisit calculus and higher math—understand it as a spoken language.”
  • “Surf the Pipeline”
  • “Write a grammar reference book.”
A master list of all these items—the mack daddy list of all lists. Evernote is indispensable!

Now, I would love to keep writing, but I lost the list I made to help organize this missive. The good news? I can check off this essay from my tasks for the day. Only three more things to do.

(Afterword: I used Roget’s Thesaurus [a list] to find synonyms for the word “list.” Not to be tautological or anything— just trying to keep it interesting!)