Using Lists for Writing Inspiration

listographyDo you ever just stare at the screen, the cursor blinking accusingly and your brain is just blank? You want to write. You’ve set aside time to write. Your coffee is hot, the room is comfortable, your teeth are clean and yet inspiration escapes you.

How about abandoning your book for a moment and start making a list?

Lists are wonderful things. Whether you use paper and pencil, a handheld voice recorder or the latest iApp, making a list and then crossing tasks off provides this wonderful sense of accomplishment.

It is also a great way to make a decision. If you are a fan of the USA Network drama Suits, you may remember the “Stay” episode in season three in which Rachel has to decide between Stanford or Columbia for her law degree.

For days she carries around a piece of paper on which she has meticulously recorded the pros and cons of each university only to finally tear up the list in favor of love. Well, that’s television for you.

Lists can also help get you out of a writing slump; a momentary lapse in inspiration.

Lisa Nola has created a clever book called Listography that is really just an illustrated (by Nathaniel Russell) notebook upon which each page starts with a prompt to help you create a list. However, once completed, you have the raw material for your autobiography.

Here are a few examples; we’ll start off easy and then get a little more challenging:

  • List the websites you visit most
  • List professions you’d like to try
  • List things you love and despise
  • List the best things about you
  • List the ways you’ve changed since your teens
  • List your lovers
  • List your guilty pleasures
  • List your best purchases
  • List your biggest fears
  • List your favorite songs
  • List the people you love the most
  • List the people you wish loved you most (I just added that one)
  • List your most drunken moments
  • List your firsts
  • List your lasts

The books contains many, many more pages that help you “list your life” as Lisa Nola says. In fact, you can find out more about Lisa and her lists at

As I said, it is the ground work for your autobiography, but step back for a moment and see how it could lead to your next short story or novel. Just take the list of things you love and despise. Ask yourself “why.” Why do you love or hate something. Is it from experience or preconceived ideas or because of something you were told at a young age. Could this love or hate be a trait for your main character that causes them to do something?

How about the list of professions you’d like to try. Pick the most interesting one to you and find someone in that industry and invite them to lunch. You’ll gain insights that may lead to a story but at the very least you’ll make a new connection and learn about an interesting career.

What about your guilty pleasures? What if one of those pleasures got out of hand and prompted your character to do something illegal? I’m reading a Sandra Brown mystery entitled Smash Cut in which one of the suspects has an obsession with movies on DVD. His guilty pleasure has altered the way he views life; he sees it through movie quotes and movie scenes. He’s being considered a primary suspect by some…don’t tell me if he is the killer…I haven’t finished the book. The point is that something that is a guilty pleasure, taken out of proportion, could lead to a great story.

There will come a time, or multiple times, when your muse takes a vacation and you just don’t know what to write. You could walk away and hope that you’ll be inspired tomorrow – that would be the Scarlett O’Hara approach to writing. (Ooh fiddle dee dee, I’ll think about that tomorrow.)

However, most successful writers will tell you that you must write every day. So when you are faced with a word drought, consider making a list. Start with a grocery list. Then move on to something with a little more substance.

By the way, if you had to choose between Stanford and Columbia what would the criteria for your decision?  See where that list takes you.

Bottom line: the brain is a muscle – well, no it isn’t, but hang in there with me – that needs to be exercised every day. If making lists helps to keep your creative juices flowing, why not give it a try?