The Literary Value of a Good List
Lily Chu on a Personal Productivity Hack
If we are what we do, then to-do-lists are itemized descriptions of our true selves. Although I like to think of myself as a tropical bird, impulsive and free, my daily lists describe a much more boring and prosaic woman. Fold socks. Call dentist. Buy cat food. My soul wants to dance on rainbows, but life demands that I pay the gas bill on time.
Occasionally the lists offer an intriguing mystery, thanks to my chicken-scratch writing. Kitten garage? Knitting grasp? I’ll move that to tomorrow.
I have some standard tasks that appear repeatedly. Do laundry is one that pops up with depressing regularity. But there’s only one task that shows every day, and always on the first line. It says, “Write.”
I’m not sure why I continue to add this. I’ve written almost daily for over twenty-five years, so at this point it’s a habit as strong as breathing. Yet every day I add it in and every day I cross it out: write. Perhaps having it there is a reminder that regardless of whether I feel inspired to write or edit that day or not, most of writing a book is simply showing up to do the work. It’s a task, the same as weeding the garden, and like weeding the garden, doesn’t require inspiration or a muse. It just needs to get done.
I write every day if I’m working on a book. I’ve written in airports and in bars, while on vacations (I brought a notebook and wrote in a tent every evening while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro), on holidays, and weekends. It’s necessary because I don’t do much plotting and prefer to work from a synopsis that’s usually only a few pages long. If I take a break, I lose my momentum and train of thought and am forced to go back and re-read the manuscript to get back in the minds of my characters. It’s a waste of time I don’t have while on deadline.
When I add “Write” each morning, it never appears on its own—there’s always a target. I calculate everything back from the deadline, which includes drafting, editing, beta reads, and final edits. I have a good idea of how long each stage takes and I write down these mini-deadlines when I begin any project (in list format, of course), to make sure I stay accountable.
In the drafting stage, the Write task is associated with a number. While I was working full-time and writing at night, before I got my current book deal, I was happy with 750 to 1,000 words a day. Now I do at least 2,000 words per day. There’s a whole word count routine—possibly ritual—that I conduct every morning before I start work. First, I check the previous day’s total word count. I add 2,000, then round it up to the closest hundred. So, if I already have 52,012 words, the little counter in the lower left has to read at least 54,100 before I call it quits, which usually takes two to three hours. Only when that target has been hit do I get to cross Write
If the task is Writing – Edits, I aim for a page number in the manuscript to reach, and it’s always a nice round number, like 50 or 100, which can take anywhere from two to twelve hours depending on the amount of revision. And if, for some reason, I don’t finish those pages? I’d like to say that I’m gentle with myself and understand that one’s capacity shifts, as my therapist always reminds me. In actual fact I hate myself and add the unedited pages to the usual amount the next day to ensure the next 24 hours are miserable. (As an aside, this is the result of a capitalist mindset that I am actively working to disassemble but have not yet, and probably will never, fully achieve.)
Since I have the attention span of a hummingbird in these Covid days, I recently started adding “Reading” to my list. Two years ago, I’d have been more likely to add “brush teeth” to a to-do-list over reading. Reading was something I did every day on my commute or relaxing before bed. I picked up a book without thinking because I like to read. It’s an escape and it’s important for a writer to read widely.
Now, though, social media and the lure of mindless scrolling is so seductive that I had to remind myself to prioritize what I truly value and enjoy. Thus, reading goes on the list, and for a minimum of thirty minutes. I even set a timer and hide my phone so I’m not tempted to look away from the page. While leaving “Reading” unchecked at the end of the day is getting more rare as I get back in the habit, unfortunately, it does get bumped if there’s some online drama going on. I’m not made of steel.
Daily lists do more than give structure to my day and provide feedback as to whether or not I was productive enough to feel like a good person who has value. It acts as a daily journal, a summary of what’s going on in my life and what’s coming up. Moreover, it tells me how well I’m handling it. If a day goes by with few lines or checks, it’s safe to say that I’m not handling it well. Or I went rogue and had a fun adventure. Either way, those groceries did not get bought. For a to-do-list, intent is meaningless. Only the outcome matters.
This is reflected in my book, The Stand-In. One of the fun things about writing is the chance to weave your personal interests into the story and connect with people who are equally obsessed with them. My main character Gracie is fascinated with finding the perfect planner that will help her entire life fall into place. Slight spoiler—she ends up creating the ultimate to-do-list list planner, called Eppy.
Lists play a literary role in the story as well. Gracie’s task lists are included at chapter beginnings and are a device used to demonstrate her mindset and attitude at various points in the book. Her journey creating Eppy mimics Gracie’s own attempts to both control her life and experience it fully, and represents her final understanding that she needs to do the work (creating the planner/changing her life) herself.
Like Gracie’s lists, sometimes—often—my own are aspirational. They show me the person I wish I was. A good to-do-list is not constrained to bullets of mundane tasks to be accomplished. They are missives of hope for a new, enhanced, more prolific and accomplished you. Reflected in my tasks is a woman who wants to learn to play the harp and exercise regularly and do a weekly meal prep and finish crocheting that damn sweater and consistently stick with her physio exercises. These are also the tasks that remain most unchecked, a nagging reminder of the gap between who I am and who I think I should, or would like to, be.
But writing? That one, at least, always gets done.
Lit Hub essay on lists
The Stand-In by Lily Chu is available via Sourcebooks.