Lists are Maps

I like to make lists. When I feel panicky about a lack of productivity, I make a list. They’re brainstorms. Some items are meant to be checked off and others are simply suggestions; they’re reminders of things to mull over and to very slowly act upon. I write lists about creative projects I want to begin and about bits of culture I want to consume: books, articles, musicians, movies, events, plays.  I make productivity lists, creating a visual hierarchy of things to accomplish in a day, and general lists about things I want to remember or learn more about. Most of my lists are varied, a mix of idealism and the mundane. Nagging items are carried over from one list to the next. Some points honestly remain on one list or another for months, never completed but never forgotten.

Janice Lowry's Journal Page To-Do List

Janice Lowry’s Journal Page To-Do List, 2003

My lists are living documents. I usually have multiple going at once on various subjects. Eventually the subject clarity becomes muddled, the lists are combined into one master document, and new infant lists split off from there. The small moleskin calendar perennially tucked in my purse also houses innumerable mini-lists. I write things down even if I know I will remember them. My note taking is a careful documentation of my activities, my experiences, my life. Thus, this impulse is utilitarian, journalistic and personal all at once.

Sometimes a list has only one or two items on it. It’s typed into the memo pads on my phone and iPad, stuck with a virtual post-it note to my desktop, or spelled out on the back of an old envelope on my bedside table. Lying in bed at night, waiting for my body to wind down, I am a prolific list maker. All the things that never occurred to me in my busy day come floating to the surface. Things I wish I had done, things I still want to do, imaginary things I’ll never do. No matter how physically scattered my notes are, they are all tied together by the same intellectual string.

John Lennon To-Do List

John Lennon To-Do List

I’ve heard people say the first item they write on a list is “make a list”. They enjoy the satisfaction of crossing it off, coming one step closer to throwing the whole thing away. I save my lists; I covet them. It’s not purposeful, but I always notice them hanging around. Lists tucked in dusty corners in my room, on my desk, in stacks with bills and letters. I imbue them with importance and am loath to toss them out.

Because of the living quality of my lists they inevitably become larger than my immediate capabilities. What begins as a straightforward to-do list quickly escalates into a monstrous document of life goals: Respond to emails, pick up dry cleaning, write new blog post, back up computer, learn Spanish, join the Foreign Service, learn to code…. So you can see why these lists linger. They’re placeholders, little bread crumbs to keep me on track.

Wendy MacNaughton's Illustrated Da Vinci To-Do List

Wendy MacNaughton’s Illustrated Da Vinci To-Do List

In 1967 Susan Sontag wrote in a journal entry, “Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.”

Here is the crux of the issue. I write lists to mark my connection to subjects, to help form my potential self. And I write them as a reflex against decay. This habit is evidence of my distrust of memory. I’m afraid of forgetting the things I’ve experienced and the things that I still want to do. It’s a compulsion related to my intense urge to maximize my existence, to be a productive and skilled person. The physical and visual writing process makes envisioned, unaccomplished tasks more real. My lists create hierarchies, they summarize realities, they generate imagined landscapes. They are hopeful, thorough, ambitious, random and private.

Woody Guthrie's List of Resolutions

Woody Guthrie’s List of Resolutions, 1942.

Following another of Sontag’s journal entries, this time from 1977, I’ve made a set of lists here:


Rosy cheeks, water, red lipstick, tacos, London, wifi, freckles, novels, getting my hair cut, walking, fresh sheets, Gustav Klimt, cross dressing, writing letters, pen and ink, asking questions, black licorice, the colors red and green, pooping, swimming, live music, conversation, sandwiches, tequila, research, big cities, my iPad, BBQing, the smell of jasmine on the vine, craftsmen architecture, anthropomorphizing animals, TV dramas, glasses, coffee, California, making lists, cafes, cheese, fog, taking my time, pixies, rings, big comfy chairs, sleeping, soft skin, friendship, handy people, beards, coincidences, thinking about the future, pizza by the slice.


Washing my hair, religion, wearing socks, excessive snow, flossing, going to the gym, watching football, hand washing clothes, putting on sunscreen, cleaning the house, waking up because I’m hot, Fifty Shades of Grey, hang nails, injuring my knuckles and knees, fluorescent lights, coleslaw, commercials, gambling, chewable medicine, packaged ice cream, destruction for film making, too much makeup on my face, soda, peas, mass-produced art, the suburbs, smoking, having to drive, fake tans, guns, purposely misspelled brand names, grammar Nazis, dry hands, extreme heat, tradition, running, putting clothes on wet skin, sunburns, relationship statuses.

Birthday List


Outdoor markets, rebels, gaps between front teeth, laughing uncontrollably, eating ice cream when it’s cold outside, lobster rolls, giving blood, newly paved roads, leftovers, drive-in movies, wearing perfume every day, The New Yorker, eloquent speakers, tattoos, pickles, Anthropology, wedge heels, jackets with hoods, birth control, chocolate chip cookies, braided hair, pubs, cyborgs, brushing my teeth, eating spaghetti for breakfast, long eyelashes, skirts with pockets, silence, keeping a calendar, eating outside, salt and vinegar potato chips, hip hop, walking my dog, cilantro, getting to know new cities.


Bureaucracy, sprinklers on in the rain, Walmart, daylight savings, waking up when it’s still dark outside, celebrity activists, painting my nails, littering, Reagan, feeling rushed, beauty pageants, reality TV, chain restaurants, road rage, overly air-conditioned rooms, talking to people on airplanes, dirty bathrooms, debt, timed exams, laziness, popping ears, southern drawls, wedding dresses, writing introductory paragraphs, hot feet, wearing nylons, bologna, heights, cardio, the state fair, traffic, dusting, knickknacks, putting carts back at the grocery store, looking for parking.


Ferries, the countryside, train travel, writing, running into friends on the street, dried fruit, bubble wrap, doing nothing, hand lotion, quotes, poppies, book series about whimsical lands, towns with rivers or canals, drinking beer, travelers, yoga, learning new words, chips and salsa, warm evenings, sleeping with the windows open, remembering dreams, hammocks, lunch, listening to podcasts, bloody mary’s, pho, graffiti, attending lectures, camping, problem solving, resourcefulness, borders, trying new foods, trail blazers, live comedy, finely finished wood, flats, necklaces, being skeptical, gender, Marc Chagall, street food, creative people, the internet.

Evergood's Patched List

Philip Evergood’s 1940s patchwork list of services near his NYC studio.




5 responses to “Lists are Maps

  1. Ahhh yes, I relate to this and love that you wrote about it. I have a book in my back pocket 99% of the time for lists, drawings, words or phrases I use for projects, things that happened, etc all because I have a horrible, almost non-existent memory. Then all that gets ripped up and collaged into a bigger piece book as art pieces that are in a language Im sure only I understand. Compulsion at its best/worst.

  2. Pingback: Lists and Reference | John Michael Gill·

  3. The problem with my lists is I can’t read my own handwriting, which adds an additional challenge to the whole process!! I agree that no scrap of paper is exempt from being used.

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