From Journal to Memoir: List-Making as a Discovery Tool

Biographile's From Journal to Memoir Series

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Biographile and Dr. Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start - and keep - a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part seven of this series, Dr. Jacobs shares with us how to use list-making as a tool for discovery. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

There are so many lists in our lives - shopping lists, to-do lists, birthday lists - that it might seem counterproductive to suggest you make yet another one. In fact, many people I speak with about lists confess to my own quirk: If I do something that is not on my "to-do" list, I add it just so that I can cross it off. Lists have come to mean accomplishment and the pleasure of making a checkmark or crossing something off is evidence of a job done, if not necessarily well, at least completed.

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Then there are the lists the media offers, usually the ones that fuel our national obsession with competition: Bestseller lists, richest people lists, top ten lists, sports rankings, car rankings, best of- lists, etc.

And there are even weirder lists. Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, gave an example of one of the most neurotic and most hilarious lists I know of: "Hungry Joe collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order so that he could put his finger without delay on any one he wanted to worry about."

In February 2009 National Public Radio ran a feature on "10 Reasons Why We Love Making Lists." Most of them are familiar - to remember, to get things done, to stop procrastinating (although list-making is a great procrastination), etc., but the notion that a list is an attempt to bring order to chaos is the one that intrigues me most. Since our minds are filled with the chaos of too much information and our hearts with chaotic feelings - how do we get what we need to know or need to explore down on the page? List-making for writing can help you focus on what you need to write about.

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In my journal-writing workshops I ask participants to write a long list of their desires, numbering at least fifty or even one hundred. People groan about the number but are relieved when I tell them they can repeat and then seem to relish that they can be silly or serious in the same list. Eventually, what is important gets repeated.

We don't always know how to get to the heart of the thing or even what the thing is, but I find that if I set myself the task of making a list and then writing quickly for about ten minutes without censoring myself, I usually get to the information I need.

Writing Exercise
Set the focus of your list, for example making a list of desires, and write "I desire" at the top of each page and then write quickly. You can choose to write until you get to fifty or one hundred or set a timer. The important thing is to write whatever pops into your head, even if it seems strange or irrelevant. At the end of your list-making, review what you've written. It may surprise you to find, if you're writing about desires, how few material items are on your list. It also may surprise you to find how a theme emerges - perhaps about relationships, career, travel, or spirituality. Once you've recognized a theme, you can begin to write consciously to explore that area of your life.

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If you prefer to write more specific lists, you can follow the same practice but with a set focus, for example:
-a list of unresolved issues
-a list of the things you would most like to hear someone say to you
-a list of the things you would never tell your parents
-a list of the characteristics you look for in a partner
No matter what list you choose to make, you will find that there is more to write about than you thought.

Related Articles from Biographile:
First Impressions: How to Open a Personal Essay
Unlocking the Diary: When Journals Go Public