Creativity—The List of Lists

by | Jun 5, 2010

Lists—who can live without them? Lists are everywhere: the one I clutch in one hand while shopping; the list of System Requirements on the outside of the box; the choice of candidates on a ballot; bullet points in a blog article.

Lists are everywhere because they are a reflection of our mental organization. Lists imply something. It might be importance, it might be relative rankings: a list of countries ranked by per capita income. Standings in the National League. Stops to make on the way home. Each sorts items into rankings of importance, or sequence, or some other logical arrangement.

This is how we think, how we deal with all the information buffeting us every single day of our lives. Because lists reflect how we think, they also show us how we construct the world we live in.

Deena Metzger

In Writing for Your Life, Deena Metzger talks about lists:

Recently I added a category: lists of lists to be made. . . . Needless to say, the lists overlap. But when the same story . . . appears on several lists, the story itself is altered by the different perspective of each list.

Metzger is pointing to the intelligence behind the way each list is sorted, because the list itself—the order that’s revealed by slicing through reality in one specific direction—influences how we see the listed items individually, and how they appear as a whole.

When I was working through Metzger’s book each morning, I responded to the idea of creating a List of Lists. Instead of a list of ordinary items the lists could be much more abstract. After all, they were only possibilities. Lists of lists to be made someday. Maybe when more information comes in. Or when we develop new ways to know things.

You’lll see what I mean.

List of Lists to be Made

  1. Childhood memories—A detailed and exhaustive list of the ten most elusive memories from my childhood, the one’s I’ve never been able to recover. What happened that day in Levittown, anyway?
  2. Trips taken with others—Over a lifetime this is a big subject, but it might reveal something interesting. Remember that trip to Lake Ashoken?
  3. Mentors and their influence—From my father to Felix Morrow and beyond, I could populate this list with quite a cast of characters
  4. Occupations—The only list I’ve actualized, in “But Before That.” Making this list brought home to me the power of listmaking, the relentless search for the end of the list, and how it can be a force for self-examination.
  5. Cars I’ve owned—Every era of adulthood can be accessed through the transportation of the era. The 15-speed bike, the little Morris that blew up on the Thruway, the Volvos, always the Volvos. What might I learn from that list? Would the list include that cherry Mercedes coupe, the one we put $1,000 down on before the seller turned off his phone?
  6. Stories I’ve heard more than once—Of course many of the items on this list will be family stories, like the one Roy often told from the War. Trapped in a foxhole with two other soldiers under artillery bombardment. How after the smoke cleared, he realized both the soldiers had been killed in the attack. His feelings about this, etc. etc. But there might be others, and that could be surprising.
  7. Great bike rides—Over the years bike rides tend to blend into one another. A list like this might be a way to recover individual rides, the way the sun looks in summer, grinding up Old Railroad Grade, and being passed by that fellow briskly walking his lab. Or when I was learning to use the clipless pedals, gliding up to the junction where bikers stopped for a drink and a chat, and slowly toppling over sideways while everyone watched. Stuff like that.
  8. Things I hate to do—Don’t you think we’re defined just as much by the things we hate, as by the things we love? I find it much easier to say which things I hate. If you ask me which things I love I become a babbling idiot. But hate? Don’t get me started.
  9. My life in water—Odd that this is on the list of lists. It was the very first freewrite I ever did in Suzanne Murray’s writing workshop. She had brought Deena Metzger’s book with her other writing books, and seeing it reminded me I had a copy at home, unread. That’s why you’re reading this now. See how great lists are?
  10. Parallel lines—Okay, I admit this seems a little odd. But from where I sit, the orderly rows of boxwood hedges, the sidewalk running next to the curb, the trail that winds through the thicket of oaks above Point San Pedro, each of these has something to teach me, something it wants to say. And a list is the way to get to that.
  11. Things I don’t understand about my body—Actually, I’m still working on this list, started in 6th grade. I’m just working with a little more urgency now.
  12. Superpowers that have never been thought of—This list got started during a run of “comic book” movies. Where’s the super hero with super taste buds?
  13. People whose names match their occupations—These are sometimes called Aptronyms. Remember Margaret Spellings, Bush’s Secretary of Education? Wouldn’t that be a great list? A kind of tail wagging the dog. Richard Seed, a pioneer of reproductive technology. The American cognitive psychologist Prof. Martin Braine.
  14. Things to say if I bump into B—In fact I ran into B a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that seemed appropriate, and then the moment was gone. That’s how life is. Wouldn’t it be better to have a list, prepared in advance?

    1. There’s a power just in the implications of some of these lists. They allow you to detach the mind from the trivia of most list-making, and unleash it’s organizing power on a whole host of other issues, any issues you want, in fact. There are lists to be made, I think I better get started.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Elizabeth Rogers Underwood

    Joel, number 14 has me stumped. I guess as a former math teacher B is a variable in my mind. What does B stand for in this list so I can use it?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Elizabeth,

      The “B” in number 14 stands for a person whose name begins with “B.” Think of someone from your past with whom you have unfinished business, and how you might like to know what you would say to the person if you happened to run into them.

  2. Linda Jay Geldens

    Wonderful topic, Joel! I’m an inveterate listmaker, so can relate. May I add a couple of aptronyms (that’s a new word to me!) to #13 on your List of Lists to be Made? I met a moving company estimator whose name was Mr. Box — this is true — and a physician named Peter Payne.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Nice, Linda Jay, thanks for those. I have a list somewhere I have to dig up because I used to write these down when I ran across them. For some reason, I find it fascinating. I’ll post them if I find it.



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