Help! I have fallen into a deep, dark hole and I can’t get out! It’s called “The Top Ten Somethings of 2013” hole, and for obsessive list-makers like me, it happens predictably each December. The New York Times’ Ten Best Illustrated Books of 2013 and their Ten Best Books 0f 2013, Time Magazine’s Top Ten U.S. News Stories, Atlantic Magazine’s Top Ten Movies, The Nation Magazine’s Progressive Honor Roll 2013 (16 on the roll, 2 of them based in Seattle,and hooray for that!) The “Best” lists keep going – gadgets, inventions, dramas on Broadway, best goofs by anchormen…it’s endless. The dis-ease I feel about loving lists evaporates when I read poets like Paul Violi, who wrote many list poems, or when I come across whole books that are written about the writing of list-poems.
My mother has always been a great maker of lists, and I suspect I got the gene from her. Mom’s lists, though, are usually of the productive variety (starting with the words “To-Do”) and mine are more commonly headed “My Favorite….”
My lists are seldom useful; they’re not made to help me remember all the errands that have stacked up. They’re not meant to accomplish anything more than situate me in the current moment by naming several things that are either 1) favorites or 2) what I call “wish-listing.”
Wish-listing goes like this: “Name ten things you will do/buy immediately if you win the $648,000,000 Mega Millions lottery.
I make lists like this because they’re fun, no other reason. There are a few rules: First, it’s a given that I would donate a generous chunk to organizations like Doctors Without Borders, so I don’t have to put charities on the list. Ditto with even bigger chunks to my kids – that’s assumed. And the list can’t have anything that smacks of delayed gratification – like opening a savings account. So the list is pure fantasy. A restored centuries-old farmhouse in Italy keeps heading the list. A cabin on no-bank waterfront in the San Juan Islands. A first edition of Robert Frost’s first book – signed by Mr. Frost, of course. I fall asleep making lists like that, but I don’t keep a record of them. No need. I didn’t win that lottery.
The Top-Ten type of list is something I actually write down. It’s for fun, too, but it’s also an act of reflection and a measurement of what my priorities and tastes are at any particular moment in my life. My sister and I used to write (and revise, every so often) lists of The Top Ten Qualities in a Mate – this is both before and after we were married. The list accommodated our mood swings, jumping between truly ideal qualities (kind, generous, affectionate) to practical qualities (likes to weed, is good with fix-it jobs, screens my phone calls.)
The challenge going around on Facebook the past couple of weeks is a perfect example of the Top Ten list: Name ten books that have “stayed with you” over the years. To me, that means books that haunt me, books that changed me, books I keep handing to people and begging them to read, books that made a difference to me when I read them. Here is the list I posted; I immediately longed to revise and/or lengthen it. In chronological order, according to how old I was when I read them:
1. The Secret Garden (Burnett)
2. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (Thomas)
3. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
4. Leaves of Grass (Whitman)
5. Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)
6. Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
7. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
8. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce)
9. Pale Fire (Nabokov)
10. On the Natural History of Destruction (Sebald)
That will do –though — OMG — where is One Hundred Years of Solitude?? Poetry by Seamus Heaney? Jane Austen?? How about my top ten, with several hundred on the Honor Roll?
Still, making the list helped me reflect on what kind of writer I hope to be. There’s a children’s book that tells a fine, layered story and is still character-driven. Also, it’s optimistic – I need to try harder with that. All ten of the books have language that is carefully crafted. There’s poetry that cares about form, made for reading quietly by the fire. There’s poetry that is full-throated, made to be read aloud, to be almost sung. There are several that care about social justice and that remind me writers can be political and still tell a good story. There’s fiction that’s funny, and there’s fiction that combines the political with the humorous. There’s non-fiction that looks at the human heart and sees the dark along with the bright.
Making the list confirms what I believe now about storytelling – that it needs structure, form, heart, humor, song – and a conscience. Tomorrow I might put different books on the list, and I’d reflect again on how those choices speak to me as a writer.
It’s not a bad thing to do when the year is ending. Try it – give yourself ten minutes. Reflect. Make a list like this of books that remind you what kind of writer you want to be. January 1st, 2014 is coming – when it does, it will be time to work hard at being that writer.