Monday, August 25, 2008

The List

Sometimes people ask me about how I write, and sometimes... sometimes... I think to answer them. below is a small recounting of an incident that happened to me just today at lunch that I offer in the hopes that it may help a fellow writer.


I turned to page 26 of Anne Lamott’s novel, Joe Jones, and the card fell out. It fluttered to the ground and wedged itself beneath my sneaker. A magazine seed for Oprah’s Magazine, which, I assume, the previous reader had been using as a bookmark. Scrawled on it was a list.

Some of the items were domestic and mundane:


Clean Downstairs

Lunch 12:30

Call Handyman

All of these entries were crossed off with a single, definitive line drawn through them. Others were more personal:

Call Dad


V-Day Gift

Return Library Books

Most of these were crossed out, including, ironically, Return Library Books. Hmmm. Did the list maker check that item off early? Did they cross it out in the library before they returned the card to the book and dropped it in the return slot, or what?

Dad, it seems, went un-called.

By now, I was imagining the person that had written the list. A women almost certainly, given the Oprah magazine seed… plus the handwriting was more curvaceous and elegant than the average male scrawl. But was she young or older? Married or single? Writers think about these things. Not doing so is simply not an option. Call it obsession if you must, but that's just how it works.

I kept reading. The last few items were simply enigmatic:

Walk Chet


Needles/5 Yr.

Contractor 5:30


It was the last entry, with its plaintive question mark that really made me notice the list, partly for the impossible to understand reference but also because of the question it posed. It made me wonder what the list maker needed exactly at DSW? Shoes in general, or something special? High heels for a night on the town or something more practical – silent-soled rubber nurse flats, for instance? What did they require a contractor for? A new roof? No, they would have said “Roofer 5:30” in that case, I’d think. Perhaps a new kitchen. New kitchens are nice. Needles for a 5-year-old? And who exactly is Chet? A dog? A cat? A ferret? A tortoise?

It was the last entry, way at the bottom, that drew my full attention:

Pregnancy Test

This item was crossed off, with multiple lines, as if being exorcised.

I mulled this for about five minutes, wondering of the result had been positive. If so, had it been a relief? A harbinger of joy? A disappointment? A moment of stark, sheet terror? Perhaps all of the above?

Then I remembered that I’d just completed a manuscript for a short story set in a library, which I’d just given to Amy to read. In it, the protagonist falls in love with a women he’s never met but who he learns about via her reserved books at the library. She has a similar last name to his, you see, and he can’t help but begin to notice the books she checks out when he runs into a copy of… Well, you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out more.

The point is that this list, discovered completely via the serendipity of meeting Amy (who, ironically, gave me a copy of Lamott’s book on writing last month and precipitated my checking out Joe Jones in the first place) has now suggested a completely new scene in the story, one that I believe will shore up some of the story’s weak spots.

I’m not going to say that I know what will happen, because my characters have this frustrating way of running off in odd and unexpected directions when faced with the troublesome jams I put them in, but I’m definitely going to have my protagonist check out a book that his love-from-afar has read, and find a falling, fluttering magazine seed landing at his feet. On it will be a list, containing items personal and mundane, enigmatic and alarming. I’m pretty sure that Pregnancy Test will be on that list, likely circled several times. Maybe it will be all in caps or in bold ink. Perhaps I’ll employ an exclamation mark. Several, even.

What will he do in response? Ah, that would be telling.


Anonymous said...

Matt, this is BEAUTIFUL. I love the way your mind works. It actually reminds me of the way my mind USED to work before it got distracted by grad school and then by being an adult who has to deal with staff and clients and funders and other stuff. I belive as you do that this scene in will really add something needed to the Library story, and I can't wait to see how it changes things for Rob, Juliette, Amber, and April.

Matt Cook said...

"Anonymous" is Amy, folks, and any compliments she gives don't count (no matter how much I love receiving them). She's biased after all... =)