creative list-making

I love lists. I have lists for shopping, to-do lists for home and work, books I want to read, what to take on holiday lists; to list just a few! Add a timeline and finances and possibilities explode: I’ll produce budgets, monthly goals, an annual plan and so much more.

I’m happy to be teased about my prolific list-making because secretly I’m thinking I’ve got it sussed. I mean, how do people who don’t make lists function? What do they do with all those ideas, wishes, tasks? Do they keep them in their heads? Or, perhaps – a suspicion I suspect most list-makers try to hold back from allowing to fully form – the ‘others’ are people without enough ideas, wishes or tasks to warrant a list. But surely that’s not possible? You can make a list out of anything.

Maybe non list-makers don’t realize what they’re missing out on. They don’t know that there’s a whole world of pleasure in notebooks, coloured pens and sharp pencils. They haven’t yet been seduced by the soft suspense as you ponder what form your list should take.

I find setting words down attaches purpose and value and makes what they represent harder to ignore. And there is pure satisfaction when you can tick something off as ‘done’. I love the meditative moments that come with the ordering of thoughts, and the rush of releasing a mess of words onto paper where I can contemplate them at leisure – making connections and meanings for future use.

Each novel demands a slightly different approach but lists, naturally, form part of my creative process and will feature at some point in the novel’s evolution. A word-doodling list might help me find a way forward when I’m stuck; lists of objects or observations pushes me deeper into a character or setting; specialist phrases and words gives me access into unknown worlds and the authentic ‘mot juste’. Sometimes the juxtaposition of words or lists can bring out new connections and provide texture and fibre.

My third novel, Never Stop Looking, is set in a fictionalized London. I took a research trip there back in 2008 to stay with a friend who happens to work in the area where my character lives (Vauxhall). I spent the day slowly making my way from Paddington to Vauxhall where I then spent a few nosey hours wandering  the streets. While I waited for my friend to finish work, I sat in the lovely café in Kennington Park and noted down everything I’d experienced that day, without hesitation or censor. When I look at those pages now, I can see it, smell it, feel it all. The taxi drivers relaxing against their cabs is as clear to me now, the tall man with long legs walking along with a full box of kiwi fruits on his shoulder, still makes me smile.

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The night-time plays a strong role in the novel and this also influenced the overall visual impression that I wanted to convey of light within shadows. I sought for words, objects and sounds that would reflect the metallic and monochrome world I imagined Abbie, the main character, living in: the silver cold of the moon, the shocking, stark whites against disorientating shifting shadows.

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The character, Abbie, repairs and makes theatre costumes for a living. I needed to access sewing terms and vocabulary, so I started a classic word-doodle list. Words were slow to come at first. I thought about sewing classes at school, about outfits my mother made me and my sister when we were younger; I remembered my grandma who crocheted. Memories of sensations and emotions returned alongside words and phrases like threading the bobbin, hook and eye fastening, tacking stitch.

I visited backstage at a local theatre and snooped in the wardrobe departments of other theatres on the internet.  I drew on the experience of plays I’d seen and the few I’d had first-hand involvement in.  The list grew not only with sewing terms, but equipment and fabrics and the damage the costumes could suffer that Abbie might have to repair.

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In the creative process, lists allow me to explore, to reach deeper and find new directions. Lists encourage those serendipitous moments: I discovered pearl on my sewing list and pearl(y) on my metallic list. This word shines at the core of the novel and plays an important role in Abbie’s healing.

Leaves, Geese and Ideas

One of the most common questions asked of any writer must be where do you get your ideas from?  My instinctive response is anywhere and everywhere but I’m aware this evasiveness is awkward and sounds oddly self-important although it is by no means meant to be.

My less opaque reply (see FAQ!) is an attempt to touch on the infinite sources and routes that an idea can come through. As a writer of social realism within a contemporary context, day-to-day exposure to all this potential raw material could be overwhelming.

A more rigorous but trickier question might be – what makes a particular idea stick? What is it about this idea amongst all the others which urges me to experience, feel, understand it more? My answer is not necessarily more concrete but it feels real: there are issues and themes that I might repeatedly return to and there are some which catch my eye and then gather strength, burrowing deeper once I’ve allowed them houseroom.

For every piece of writing, the experience is different and the underlying  concept can swerve and contort, almost beyond recognition sometimes, as the process of writing happens; yet that initial idea remains, even when fragmentary, its essence.

When Honno contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a story for their love-themed collection, My Heart on my Sleeve, I happened to be reading Couples – the truth by Kate Figes as research for a novel. 

In her chapter, September Days Figes explores relationships in older age. “We need that gentle kindness of intimacy most in our later years when we are fragile and vulnerable …” Figes says, and yet this is a period of our lives which brings great challenges.

Ageing in our society is an issue that fascinates me and I was particularly interested in how Figes talked about the way ageing can blur the boundaries of gender. Women can become more “independent, feisty, assertive, outspoken and less constrained by conventional notions of femininity, while the machismo of men tends to soften.”  

For my short story I wanted to explore how a woman’s growing strength might show in her adaptability to a changing society and, how the man’s ‘softening’ might lead to a distrust or rejection of such changes. I wanted to explore how a couple’s marriage provides a foundation of continuity and security but how the individual and their role within the marriage can be tested by the aging process.

This initial idea remained steady throughout the writing of Leaves and Geese and is the core of the story. The husband observes his wife going on an everyday errand from a window in their house.  “Each day the world seems to me a little more complicated, a notion more unfathomable,” he thinks. His fears manifest themselves in an over-protectiveness towards his wife. It is her willingness to engage with the ‘outside’, together with her understanding of what lies behind his anxieties that give her the strength to provide the tender comfort he needs.

 *Cancian, Love in America: Study quoted in Kate Figes compassionate and fascinating study, ‘Couples, the truth.’
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