The Power of the “To Write” List: List-Making as a Writing Prompt Tool

Nita Sweeney, author of Depression Hates A Moving Target, wrote an essay on list making as a writing tool and the essay was published by Woman’s National Book Association- San Francisco!

The Power of the “To Write” List: List-Making as a Writing Prompt Tool

You’ve heard of the “To Do” list, but what about the “To Write” list? It can be a powerful tool in your writing kit.

• The Back of the Writing Journal

I learned about “To Write” lists from best-selling author Natalie Goldberg, of Writing Down the Bones fame. As I sat in the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, I watched her pick up her writing journal, flip to the back, and show us a list of scrawled topics she’d penned on the final page. She carried a notebook everywhere and jotted ideas on the back page as they occurred to her. “If I’m stuck, I look at these,” she said.

While I’d read about these lists in Natalie’s books, to see the real thing left quite an impression.

I began to do as she did and still carry a notebook at all times. When I’m at a loss for a writing topic, I flip to the back, pick one, and go!

• List-Making Exercises

But what really stuck with me were the list-making exercises Natalie led. 

In her strong Brooklyn accent, Nat might say, “Tell me every lunch you’ve ever eaten. Ten minutes. Go!” Off we would jump, deep into the pages of our writing journals, pens flying as we wrote about chicken cordon bleu, pasta primavera, and French fries with ketchup.

To the fiction writers, she suggested writing these lists from the point of view of a character. “Tell me everything Hester Prynne ever ate.”

The topics Natalie offered varied, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • The things I carry (a spin-off from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien).
  • Write the name of every place you’ve ever been
  • List every member of your family
  • Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met
  • Write the names of all your pets
  • Describe every car you’ve ever owned and tell what happened to it
  • Write a list of every home in which you have lived
  • List all your loves
  • Tell me everything you know about the color blue (or the sky or a rock)

• Now Dive!

In the next writing session, Natalie would ask us to choose one thing from our list and drop into that. 

“Go as deep as you can,” she would say, reminding us that specificity and sensory detail is key to painting a picture in the reader’s mind.

• Be Flexible

When you begin, you might fill your allotted writing time with the list itself. But as you grow more comfortable with the list-making process, you might allow your mind to naturally land on one thing, perhaps related to your current project, and delve into that. Either method works.

• Priming the Pump

The point of these exercises is to bypass the anxiety many writers face. Call it writer’s block or procrastination or sheer terror. Regardless of the name, the solution is the same—get the pen moving.

Making a list tricks that part of the mind that fears writing is too complicated or exhausting into just starting. It primes the pump. You begin by jotting down “Fido, Rover, and Spot,” and before your brain has time to panic, you’re writing about how your mother carried three black and white rat terrier puppies in a wicker basket around your family farm.

• Other Benefits

Even if you don’t face the dreaded writing paralysis, list-making can help you access new material or provide insight on subjects you thought you had already covered in detail. Any new angle to enter the mind will prove useful.

Do you use “To Write” lists? I’d love to hear how they work for you!

An earlier version of this post appeared on Nita’s blog, Bum Glue.


Depression Hates a Moving Target by Nita Sweeney

Depression Hates a Moving Target

How Running With My Dog Brought Me Back From the Brink (Running Depression and Anxiety Therapy, Bipolar)

It’s never too late to chase your dreams. Before she discovered running, Nita Sweeney was 49-years-old, chronically depressed, occasionally manic, and unable to jog for more than 60 seconds at a time. Using exercise, Nita discovered an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed, and with the help of her canine companion, she found herself on the way to completing her first marathon. In her memoir, Sweeney shares how she overcame emotional and physical challenges to finish the race and come back from the brink.

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