The List and the Story: Introduction
The List and the Story is my own collage of memoir, anecdote, aphorism, cultural critique, literary/music criticism, and meta-writing, in list form by decade. It evolved out of about three years of gathering shards while writing other things, and also from my growing concerns that 1) while my own life is deeply influenced by the music I listen to, the books I read, and the movies and TV I watch, I don't consider myself a critic, 2) while I write frequently from memory, I'm not terribly interested in writing a standard memoir, and 3) while I'm obsessed with the passage of time and consider one of the primary functions of writing to be documenting and notating our collective timeline, to call myself a historian would be a great disrespect to true historians.
Two years ago, I published an essay in Numero Cinq Magazine called "The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie: Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction." It's a longish essay which you're welcome to read, but I cite three things in it that are important here:
- A radio interview in which David Shields quotes Kafka: "A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us."
- David Blakesley's summary and quotation from John O'Banion's book Reinventing Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story : "List is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought… In their application, '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.'”
- A fortune cookie I had at the Hunan Delight one day that read: "Digital circuits are made from analog parts."
Being both an emphatic storyteller and a compulsive lister, the balance of list and narrative isn't just a critical concern for me. I've been experimenting with this balance in my own nonfiction writing for some time now, but hadn't allowed myself to fully embrace the List-as-Story/Story-as-List model until I saw it at work in pieces like Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a book-length memoir composed entirely of paragraphs starting with the words "I remember...," and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My 80s” and Leonard Michaels’ “In the Fifties,” which gave me the idea for the by-the-decade formal structure.
I admit, from there the list-essay became something of an obsession with me: I began scanning all my anthologies and googling for anything that might resemble what I was envisioning as a list-essay, writing a piece for Numero Cinq called "7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 List Essays," and culling my journals, letters, finished pieces, unfinished pieces, memories, photos, music collection, book notes, daily conversations and emails, and anything else that might be a signpost that I could codify into brief "analog parts," then decided to spend three months arranging and writing one "list-essay" a month using the three decades I remember - the Eighties, the Nineties, and the Aughts - as "digital circuits" for the shards of narrative I'd been collecting.
A strange and wonderful thing happened during and after those three months: I'd stumbled upon a way of arranging and narrating my memories in a big-picture way that allowed me not to lose myself into the intricacies of an individual story (which I tend to do), while also not feeling the pressure of telling, for lack of a less cliched term, the story of my life.
It's probably important to mention here that my coined term "digital nonfiction" is not an entirely false cognate. I consider the digital medium to be uniquely suited to this type of writing (though Douglas Glover, my editor at Numero Cinq whose opinion I respect at least as much as anyone's, disagreed with me vehemently when I suggested it). For one, the list form just, well, reads better online, for reasons I can't adequately explain. Maybe it's an attention span thing. For another, probably the greatest thing about the digital medium is that it's imminently updateable. Now that I have the form, I'm still always adding to it.
Dear Reader, you now have the list and the story of my life, subject of course to infinite revision. I'm also developing a Further Reading section, with all the related work I can think of in (of course) list form.