At October’s Writers Festival, writer Meghan Lamb will be teaching a session in the Open-Genre cohort titled “Narrative Lists.” We love this idea for a session and recently caught up with Meghan to ask her about why writers should definitely sign up for the Open-Cohort to get in on this session.
StoryStudio: Lists as their own form of story or narrative is such an interesting idea! Why is it important for writers to study and understand this form of narrative?
Meghan: In many ways, I feel that lists are the most simple, condensed, and accessible means of building narrative tension. It might sound odd to connect “tension” with lists, because I think we tend to associate lists with the mundane, the everyday: trips to the grocery store, various to-dos, “Top 10 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds in Just 2 Weeks!”, etc. But I think that’s part of their power: they’re so recognizable, so much a part of our day-to-day and liminal existences, that we immediately recognize them while also disappearing within them. Or, perhaps more to the point: language is both more visible and invisible in a list of repeated gestures (in the sense that you notice it and ignore it at the same time).
Lists are also a wonderful vehicle for illustrating how we build a continuous theme or idea just beneath the surface of language. Lists do not pause to observe the connections between their various articles, or to point out what each article has in common, but we intuit these connections by merit of seeing the same gesture repeated, over and over again.
Furthermore, I think lists build tension in a way we can all relate to (whether or not we’re even conscious of relating). Lists move forward — line by line — toward an objective, while also circling back in on themselves with each line, each repetition. I just think that tension — between the sensation of “moving forward” and being on a kind of repetitive loop — is so fascinating and so lifelike (and isn’t that what most writing tries to achieve: an elegantly compressed experience of life?).
StoryStudio: Can you give a few examples of successful narrative lists? Why are these particular lists good illustrations of what you hope writers will learn in this session?
Meghan: Without giving away too much of what writers will encounter in this session, here are a few interesting examples:
- “Anniversary Disease” – Diane Seuss: This piece uses the list form to show surprising connections between different “dates” (and the mental/emotional process of building significance in dates/anniversaries), which illustrates my point about building a continuous theme or idea just beneath the surface of language (without pausing to explain).
- “The Soils I Have Eaten” – Aimee Nezhukumatathil: This piece does something similar, but instead of “dates,” Nezhukumatathil uses different “soils” to characterize her relationship with spaces (and her movement through space, her — both figurative and literal — processing of space).
- “Why” – Bob Flanagan: This is one of the pieces I’m going to share in my session, but I’d love it if people could view and ingest this piece in advance. It’s kind of the ultimate list, in my mind: a deconstruction of “why” a human being does what they do, desires what they desire.
StoryStudio: What are the most important lessons you hope writers will take away from this session?
Meghan: I don’t want to be too cagey about what I hope writers will come away with, because I want them to come away with so many different things! But in summary: I hope everyone who attends this session will emerge with a stronger sense of how they can shape tensions and themes in a narrative. After seeing several examples of these simplified structures for building tension and theme, I hope writers will feel empowered to use lists as a structuring principle or narrative strategy in pieces they’re writing: a means of moving closer and closer and closer, line by line by line, toward the heart of their story.
Sign up for the Open-Genre Cohort to attend this terrific class, as well as the keynote with Luis Alberto Urrea, and so much more. Please note: The fiction cohort for the Writers Festival is officially sold out. But spots remain in the Open-Genre and Nonfiction Cohorts. But hurry, these are going quickly, too!
Writers Festival takes place October 1-2 at the Center on Halstead. Here is the complete schedule.