A Life in Lists:
Anne Panning’s “On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities,
Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”
Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”
Just after graduating from college, I shared an apartment with my friend in Greenwich Village. Some months after I had moved out, she sent me a list she had found, probably stuck in a book, a list I had written during that memorable summer. She didn’t throw it out, which many would do. It’s safe to say most people would have heaved the ragged sheet in the trash believing that’s where it belonged, after all, it was a list and most lists are disposable, without meaning, for they are written for a specific purpose like enumerating groceries to buy for the week and once the items are purchased and checked off the list, the list has no further purpose, no further life. But even the most practical of lists serves as a document of our lives: Joan Didion included her packing list in The White Album because it illuminated her life as a traveling writer sent on assignment. Lists tell stories, but usually after the lists have been consumed—there’s nothing in the lists that slow us down and make them something else, something more. Their value has been exhausted.
But Marian, a graduate student in film studies with a keen eye, saw something else in my list which made her save it, something beyond giving a glimpse into what I ate. Here is the list:
- Throw out papers. (Speaks to how I accumulate “papers.” My impulse is to hold onto things I should be letting go of.)
- Quit. (Again, it doesn’t specify what I should quit—my job, smoking, biting my nails? It could be any of the above because I’m frequently harassing myself to quit something forthwith.)
- STRAIGHTEN OUT BANK ACCOUNTS—all words capitalized to dramatize the importance and dire need for my attention. (Speaks to my ineptitude handling my financial affairs.)
- Put screens in windows. Laugh more. (Written on the same line. Was there a connection between these two-- should I laugh more while putting in screens? Or is this a mini-essay, combining the mundane that needs to be done with the larger life long goal that will never be done?)
- Organize poems. (An item that appears on all lists and is related to throw out papers.)
- Buy donuts. (A one-time thing. Or maybe not. Wanting to buy donuts was one of the activities I thought I should quit and documents my deep love for donuts.)
- Be successful. (Sure, just tell me how, please.)
- Buy toothpaste and have a more positive attitude. (Another mini-essay?)
- Lose 10 pounds. (On every list ever written. In response to anxiety about an upcoming event, say a job interview or a reading, drastic measures are required, and 20 pounds must be lost. The list never says, “You’re fine as you are.” If it did say that, it would be the end of list-making.)
- Change your life. (This imperative comes straight from the final lines of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—for here there is no place/ that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.)
This received list of my own composing and torn from my life, was my first realization of the possibilities of the list as a literary form. My list operates a little like a found poem. I wrote it, but I didn’t know what I had written. It’s shape and order were accidental, the way a found poem can accidentally be revealing and artistically repurposed and reframed like Marcel Duchamp’s titling a toilet "Fountain." A ready-made. Or William Carlos Williams’ famous poem, "This is Just to Say," repurposing a note of apology to his wife as a poem.
The list essay has all kinds of connections to the found poem, the catalogue, the ready-made in the history of art and its success depends upon finding the right balance between the accidental and the conscious, between the spontaneous springing from life and the artistic ordering, and between the mundane elements of life—the toilet, the grapes, the donuts—and the profound—fountains, apologies, desire, control.
The list essay is a form of self-portraiture, a way to come at the self through the back door rather than straight on. Revisiting my own list, I see how much it revealed about me without that being its intention.
When I began teaching writing classes in the genre of creative nonfiction, students didn’t know what they had signed up for. They thought they’d be writing five-paragraph essays anchored in topic sentences and with a point. Strenuously schooled against writing in their own voice, when introduced to the importance of the self in creative nonfiction, they worried about self-absorption and narcissism. In the opening week, we read familiar introductions to the genre by Phillip Lopate, Bret Lott, and Scott Russell Sanders, among others, all of whom stressed the importance of the writer’s perspective, nature, personality, experience and eccentricities in writing creative nonfiction. The effect of the readings did not reassure my students but magnified their anxiety over the all essential I—they didn’t think they were interesting enough to engage a reader.
Rather than plunging directly into writing a personal essay, I introduced the list as a cultural artifact to break the ice. We discussed the differences between writing a list as a to do list, and writing a list as a self-portrait, as a form of communication and expression. I developed list exercises —one of the most successful was based on Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me, published by Les Figures Press. The assemblage is composed of lists of 25 random things about him written daily for 100 days on Facebook. We wrote our own list of 25 random things about ourselves and then shared them. Of course, the lists the students wrote were funny and surprising and quirky and revealing, just what you’d hope a self-portrait would be. We had snuck up on self-portraiture, finding enlargement in the small, and creating character without really trying.
After sufficient warm-up exercises, I introduced Anne Panning’s “On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities, Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind,” a much more complicated list essay that I had read in Fugue 40, the “play” issue. Panning’s list essay departs in at least two dramatic ways from the lists we had been looking at: first she frames her list with a highly wrought, literary title, referencing the father of the essay Montaigne and signaling a post-modernist love of fragments, and second she introduces categories into the mix. Instead of a single columned list, Panning creates categories and then “answers” them. Like a call and response. It’s a brilliant complication on the list essay form akin to adding a second hand to the piano all the while keeping the effortless effects of an improvisation. And here it is:
“On Personal Frictions & Discontinuities, Or, How Reading Montaigne Temporarily Messed with My Mind”
Postnasal drip: chronic
Frequent shortage: optimism
Chewing style: rapid, right leaning
Gamble: PhD English, Creative Writing
Number of false teeth: 1
Vitriolic proclivity: “motherfucker"
Annual waste: eggnog
Danger: Volunteers of America thrift store
Prayer: please may I never be paralyzed
Sob level: 8
Deodorant: Lady Speed Stick, powder fresh
Drudgery: coffeemaker duty
What’s overboard: bacon-wrapped scallops
Collectibles: miniature Japanese food erasers
Inevitable spiel: I hate when you invite someone to an event and they say they will ‘try’ to come. Have the balls to say, I won’t be there. Sorry. Jesus Christ!
Reservations: for 2 at The Madison hotel, Washington D.C.
Frequency of eyebrow plucking: approximately every 3 weeks
Good luck: frequent (though seldom monetary)
Dubious ambition: to live in the apartment above Rexall Drug in my hometown
Head circumference: 22 inches
Abomination: flavored coffees
Emotional terrorism: Salvation Army bell ringers
Cottage industry: haircuts in the kitchen
A steal: nude racer back bra from JCPenney (pre security cameras)
Perpetual revenge: running on treadmill
Number of Levis worn so far in this lifetime: 24
Lament: mechanical pencil, empty
Heartache: Shriner’s circus
Vanishing act: The Philippines, circa 1989, Caba Beach
Dying wish: Mom
Before embarking on our list essay using Panning’s essay as a model, I wrote Anne to ask her a few questions about the essay’s composition. Panning was solicited by Fugue for their “play” issue while at a retreat. One of the books there was Montaigne’s essays with titles beginning “On . . . . such and such” and this gave her the idea to “play” with things that were “both serious and completely trivial.” Her mother and father had both died recently and she said she felt this “incredible grief even as (she) was writing this supposedly playful piece.” She pointed to the last line— “Dying wish: Mom” -- as an example of how her grief had unexpectedly bled into the list. Panning writes: “In the weirdest most indirect way, this piece was about grief . . . . and how trivial what we all worry about really is. I mean, eyebrow plucking? Who the hell cares when your mom has just died? I also think of this as a capsule autobiography. A life in lists. Pieces of who we are that make up the whole. I also think it tells a lot about what we hide and what we won’t say about ourselves.”
Students have joined me in thinking this is a terrific flash essay. It’s fun to read because its unpredictable movements catch you off guard. She doesn’t censor herself. One moment we’re laughing in agreement—doesn’t everyone think the Salvation Army bell ringers are unsettling but until Panning’s essay we never saw them as emotional terrorism which they surely are. The next moment we’re overcome by the darker currents of the essay—the things that have been lost—Shriner’s circus, past times Panning didn’t want to lose, the death of her mother. This tiny essay is rich with a range of emotions and personality—her irreverent spirit, her small-town sensibility, her love of small things, her fierce loving self and her ability to mourn. It inspires writing, let me tell you. My students have loved being asked to create their own categories. They’ve brought them to class and we’ve shared them on the blackboard, old-fashioned style, written in different colored chalk. Then we’ve looked at all the lists of categories sprawled on the board, identified the keepers, circling them, and then gone home and made our second and final list of categories with permission to use any category the class generated. A real common market of categories. And last, we answered our categories as Panning did and ordered the list. Then once again we brought in our lists, put them up on the board and make the final revisions—what goes and what stays, what order, what title and the list essay as self-portrait was born.
Suffice it to say, Panning’s essay is a miracle of form. And suffice it to say my students have written some of their most gripping and surprising, most flesh and blood, most real work in the form of a list essay emboldened by Anne Panning.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by The University of Georgia Press. [waveformessays.wordpress.com] Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.