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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

In Praise of Lists

From resolutions to literary devices...

With 2020 coming to an end, I have been thinking a lot about goals, accomplishments, resolutions. Although undeniably corny, I’m quite fond of the last of these three, and of the New Year variety in particular.

New Year Resolutions appeal to my more general love of lists. I keep lists for all kinds of things: lists of books I read and want to read, lists of films to watch and games to play, various overlapping virtual checklists of daily and weekly activities. There is an almost and acknowledged superstitious quality to how these are maintained, updated, and how I feel when the expectations these lists embody are achieved or not.

But as well as having an irrational dimension, they are (certainly not unrelatedly) great motivators too. This year I would have achieved a few things on this list of yearly goals irrespective. (For example, moving my books from Wales to London had to happen, and I have my brother largely to thank for making it come about.) But likewise, plenty would not have come to be. (I doubt, for instance, that without the prod of it being a prominent goal, I would have made a gaming computer; a task that was easily as difficult as it proved rewarding.)

But by making my goals explicit I can also see what I have not managed to achieve. 2020 has been an awful year for most of us; to get from one end of it to the other even half-intact means a lot. Putting the global pandemic, the madness of Brexit and the general tide of reactionary nonsense all to one side. It did not even start well for me, as a participant in what proved to be a failed political experiment. So, to a great extent, dwelling in judgement on what one has not done during such times can be unhealthy.

Still, and while accepting that we can never be fully revealed to ourselves, I firmly believe in treating the procrastination lists can expose not as an unavoidable part of human foibles nor merely as something to overcome through sheer will, but as a symptom of anxiety. We avoid doing what we are unsure about, and always find a way (usually unconscious) to justify such avoidance. And therefore, what remains unfinished is also possibly symptomatic.

For a few years I have made getting a literary agent and pursuing publication for certain creative works a major goal. Variously contributing to, editing, writing and releasing System Crash, Citizens of Nowhere and Writing Nowhere (a coauthored book on revolutionary politics, a multi-authored short story utopian anthology and my own short ebook on how to write utopias, respectively) goes some way towards starting myself on this path, but I very much wish to go far further. These books came about thanks to the efforts of so many others, while I too frequently preferred to put aside more difficult projects. (That is, works of prose fiction I have written already, and work I have yet to write, about which I am deeply passionate.)

Therefore, 2021 will be dedicated to that goal foremost. And in so doing that will mean interrogating my anxiety. Likewise, during a week when some task I have set myself is persistently left unchecked, I will reflect on why (often in a journal, since writing can give so much more power to thought) and so frequently then do find some lingering concern behind the failure, some feeling of inadequacy, doubt or conflicted motive.

It is chiefly for that reason lists will continue to feature prominently in the next year, which I hope is not so testing as the last one. Still, I equally now know to be ready for just that possibility, and lists are a part of that readiness. To that end the first list I shall compose will be a set of New Year’s Resolutions (placed on my MS To Do app on my new computer).

As well as the practical or psychological utility of lists, however, they have an additional feature. Lists are wonderful aesthetically. I love lists in literature, such as James Joyce’s one in Ulysses of Irish heroes; the various elaborate to do/to watch/etc. lists in Susan Sontag’s edited journals; or lists in poems and even just happening on a list you yourself have written on a white board or a scrap and finding that the juxtaposition of items or tasks has its own potent and possibly illuminating beauty.

Lists condense a certain kind of information to its most efficient form, but they also exist within, and therefore help to show, a context and lifeworld. They stand-in for a set of complex and deeply human intentions. Investing a character in a story with a list can be revealing in a way that requires no clumsy exposition or authorial interludes. Done with care it can further plots, embellish an imaginary world and/or develop a personality.

It is also possibly useful to create lists that don’t even make it into the story for characters, that are a mere exercise in your investigative efforts to get to know them. Lists of their priorities, of their weekly shopping, of their great loves and most profound regrets, or daily activities. It’s an exercise that can open up new dimensions to a character, much as I earlier suggested that lists in life can be a part of self-discovery. Even self-invention, as those ‘facts’ we uncover about ourselves often are too.

Finally, it is worthwhile noting with some caution that lists can also be unhelpful. Lists can become strictures that we are better liberating ourselves from. Having understood why we are avoiding the realisation of a resolution, in rare circumstances it might be wise to discard the resolution itself. The aforementioned fictional lists for characters can become a writing straightjacket similarly better discarded than adhered to. The imposition of a list into a story can be a clunky contrivance that is too harmful to its pacing to merit retaining in an edit.

Lists should be, at their best, supplementary tools or stylistic flourishes, not to be imbued with more life than the list-maker or wider literary work themselves more rightfully claim. At their worst, they are unkind and domineering things, that cause us to obey meaningless dictates we only once thought necessary. The fictional depiction of malicious lists can be quite fruitful, since we are often more at the mercy of our inventions than we know.

Lists are nonetheless in themselves wonderful and creative things. And at the somewhat arbitrary transition from one year to the next, lists come into their own. (And what are years but a way of listing off time that we grant a great deal of power over life?) In a previous essay I wrote at length at how much reading and books have meant to me during a particularly rough spin around the sun, and here I would extend that gratitude from literature to lists: literary lists included, but also the most mundane, un-literary lists, the throwaway ones that still texture and aid a great deal of life.


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