Guest Blog Post, John Proctor: The List and Story of My Life

John ProctorI believe we are all storytellers. This hardly needs explanation—as people and as writers, we continually craft narratives to explain how and why things happen. From flippant anecdotes to sweeping epics, we use the power of narrative to give meaning to events, dates, and people by giving them context . As readers and listeners we feel empathy, understanding, even disgust and revulsion for the people and institutions contained in these narratives. We love to be immersed in story, sometimes as a reflection of the real-time occurrences (it feels like an overstatement to call them events) of our lives, sometimes as an escape from them.

But what of all those real-time occurrences? How do we take them in, before we’ve expended the time and creative energy to convert them into story? And just importantly, how do we take all those stories contained in a life, a mind, a world, and get them to behave enough to hold them all in our arms at the same time? And then, once we have them gathered, how do we figure out how they all work together in the larger fabric of a poem, or an essay, or a book? This is where the other side of our minds asserts itself. If we all fancy ourselves storytellers, we must also embrace that other, less glamorous side of ourselves: we all also compulsive listers. Here is a short list of the lists that I keep and read:

  • To-do lists – I even categorize them into Writing/Reading/Music, Teaching, Cleaning/Organization/Finances, and Fitness/Recreation.
  • Shopping lists – My wife and I even have synchronized our shopping lists via a handy smartphone app. Collaborative listing!
  • Listicles – Go ahead, google it. I would guess, if not guarantee, you’ve read at least one online in the last week. There are probably a few on your Facebook feed right now.
  • Outlines – I really hate this term actually, as it just makes me think of Roman numerals. But I do outline pieces I’m writing, especially in the early stages of their development. This has been my own way of forcing myself out of the immediate environment of the narratives I’m juggling—a global perspective, if you will. Speaking of process…
  • I’ve organized my own writing into “Stages”: 1) Development, 2) Drafting, 3) Editing, 4) Submission, and 5) Publication.  Ironically, the list gives my own process a narrative energy, moving the pieces I write sequentially along the list. Of course, many pieces swap back and forth between stages 2 and 3, and there’s always the logjam between stages 4 and 5.
  • Timelines – I’ve been obsessed with timelines for some time now. I would even go so far as to say they represent the convergence of the list and the story. When I was at college in Kentucky, my first time to live away from my home in Kansas, I began creating a timeline of my life. I plugged into this timeline every memory, every event in my life, in chronological order by year, month, and if possible even the day. This was my first literary framing device, giving my life a sense of linearity and narrative progression.

As a nonfiction writer, I’ve become more and more concerned with the convergence of listing and storytelling. In fact, when I was doing my MFA work a couple of years ago, I made it the primary focus of my studies. I got some critical perspective from various sources:

  • John O’Banion – In 1991, O’Banion wrote Reorienting Rhetoric:  The Dialectic of List and Story in response to a shift he’d witnessed in composition and rhetoric away from narrative (“Story”) toward purely systematic thought (“List”): “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.”  O’Banion’s work decried a shift he saw in academia away from story and toward listing as a rhetorical strategy, but I found myself approaching this dialectic from the opposite side: I was struggling not against systematic forms but against my own stories. I needed a way of containing them, of isolating them, and finally of addressing the burning question of what these stories meant to me.
  • Viktor Shklovsky – “The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other pre-existing forms. The content of a work of art is invariably manipulated, it is isolated, ‘silenced.’” Shklovsky’s method of enstrangement took awhile to sink in for me, until Douglas Glover explained it thus: “We rescue experience from conventionality by applying aesthetic techniques to it. The effect of using literary technique is to make the experience ‘strange.’…So poetry makes experience strange. Art makes experience strange and hence fresh to the observer.” Listing, for me, became the method of contextually isolating events, and artfully rendering them.
  • David Shields – His list-manifesto Reality Hunger has been discussed ad nauseam by now, so let me just say that it served as both instructional guide and working example of list-as-story.
  • A fortune cookie from Hunan Delight that read, “Digital circuits are made from analog parts.” In fact, my critical thesis, which was later published in Numero Cinq, was titled, “The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie: Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction.” This conception, in a nutshell (or fortune cookie), is this: my own challenge, in writing any piece, is to discover 1) the stories at work, and 2) the systematic circuit to contain them.

As for my own writing, especially in the early stages of gathering material, I started forcing myself to write not long narratives but short little vignettes, drawing inspiration from work like Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “memoir” composed entirely of paragraphs starting with “I Remember…,” and Eula Biss’s The Baloonists, a collage-like collection of real-time observations and deep-seated memories. I also became (and still am) obsessed with the “list-essay” as a form, poring over work like Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1977, 21,” Susan Allen Toth’s “Going to the Movies,” Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” (OK, technically a poem, but let’s not split hairs here), and the myriad lists and diatribes of 11th Century Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon.

Speaking of obsessions, I’m also a sucker for the decade-centered listicles that usually find their way onto my Facebook feed, VH1-like “Remember the [Insert Decade]?” lists of things that most people who lived through said decade will recognize. This pop-culture phenomenon has its literary antecedents. Two examples, Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My 80s” and Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties,” have become models for a long-term project I began in grad school and am currently publishing on my website, which I’m calling “The List and the Story.”

This project, a collection of memoir, anecdote, aphorism, cultural critique, literary/music criticism, and meta-writing in list form by decade, has functioned for roughly three years now as the dashboard for my writing, the place I begin work on longer essays, refer back when figuring out how individual essays fit together within the larger framework of my understanding, and add to when I’ve finished essays or am just bored or experiencing writer’s block. I’ve only recently, on the recommendation of friends who’ve read some or all of it, decided to publish it. I was hesitant until recently mainly because I see it as ever-changing and expanding as I write more and more into myself. For these reasons I decided to put it up on my author website, so I can let it change and expand publicly.

Being also a bit of a showman I decided to release it in pieces, one decade per month from September through December this year. I’ve begun in the Eighties this month, posting roughly one little (25-200 word) piece of the list per day on the blog and sharing each day’s post with my social networks. I thought I would share it as the podcast of my essay “The Revelator,” published in s[r] last year, was released yesterday.  An advantage of having my life online in list form is that I get to hear from readers—friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers—who frequently share their own stories that a given section evokes in them. If you have a story or a list, do tell it—to me, or to someone else!

13 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, John Proctor: The List and Story of My Life

  • September 26, 2013 at 3:21 pm
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    I am notorious for making lists about all sorts of different things. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t made a list about the lists that I have made. And I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who likes to look at all the different listicles. Just this morning someone posted a listicle on Facebook called “Ten Books To Read Before Growing Up” and after I finished with that one I spent another hour looking at other lists!

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  • September 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm
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    I also love making lists, in fact, I have an entire journal that I use solely to make lists. And yes, I did google “listicles.”

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    • September 28, 2013 at 6:40 pm
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      Lists, I think, work better than my system… post-it notes! I’m forever misplacing them. A journal of lists might be a much better idea. Thanks!

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    • October 1, 2013 at 10:03 am
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      You ought to read the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, Kaitlin. It’ll give you some idea of how ancient your urge to list in journal form is.

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      • October 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm
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        Thanks for the recommendation, John! I’ll have to check that out.

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  • September 30, 2013 at 8:41 am
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    It’s funny, my mom tries to get my dad to use their shared Notes account on their smartphones for grocery lists! I can see her frustration when he doesn’t use it and proceeds later to complain she didn’t get what he asked for. Making lists makes my mothers job easier and our families! Hopefully my dad will start to realize that!

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    • October 1, 2013 at 10:01 am
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      As a father of two girls, I’ve come around slowly to my wife’s idea of shared list apps, Stephanie. Maybe it’s a dad thing. And then, just as I’ve gotten used to it, the developer of our shared list app decided to discontinue it! Ah, well. Time to find a new one, I guess.

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  • October 2, 2013 at 11:32 am
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    It’s amazing how we as a society enjoy compartmentalizing everything — list, genre, genus, species, whatever. Everything needs to be in its right place, all of the time, ranked accordingly from least important to most important. This is why Cracked articles are so popular — take popular culture, compile it into a list, and — presto! — you have a viral hit.

    It’s important to remember when the best time to use a list is — and perhaps, to avoid using them too much. An article about several important works might not get as many hits if it’s not in a list format, but it might be a more compelling read.

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    • October 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm
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      Well said, David. I tend to like listicles a little less that feel the need to not just list but also rank, but ranking is a surefire way to generate hits, especially when ranking completely subjective material. The “story” then becomes the argument, which isn’t terribly interesting to me but tends to incite the masses, especially in this wonderfully anonymous internet of ours.

      When thinking about the relationship between list and story, I’m more concerned, as it sounds like you are, with the relationship between the two. When employed as part of a narrative, especially in the process of writing, I think they reveal things to us that we just wouldn’t see while making our way through the time and space of the story; when used as as the structure for the story itself, like Brainard’s I Remember and much of A.J. Jacobs’ work, they give the writer a chance to frame the story in a non-linear way.

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  • October 2, 2013 at 9:46 pm
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    I’m more of a Timeline writer myself. I like to write down a quick one to two sentence explanation of the big parts of my book going from beginning to end. It helps me see the big picture and know there is an ending I am trying to work towards. It keeps me going and even though some of them may change, or even the order, I like to be able to see it almost mapped out on paper. I’m a visual learner too so it all helps. 🙂 Great article!

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