Writing from Lists


The Heart and Craft of Writing


Lesson Info

Writing from Lists

Lists. I love writing from lists. I didn't make this up, a lot of writers like to write from lists. I know that Linda Barry actually teaches from lists quite a lot in her classes. But when I was writing my first books, I wrote handwritten. 'Cause I was drinking so much beer, you know, I just had to go slow. (audience laughs) In my notebook. Now I don't drink anymore, I go real fast on a computer. But my notebooks, the inside front cover had just a list of anything that I could think of that was maybe a story. I'd be like, oh, that dress. What ever happened to that dress? Write down that dress. Oh, that fight I had with that person. Oh, that time I went to that place. I just would keep it going. And it made me feel so good just to know that I had all this material just waiting for me. Because I think something that can be intimidating as a writer is like, where do you start? There are so many stories that you can tell. Even about your own life, let alone if you're going into fiction tha...

t you can create worlds that don't exist. So I think it works really well if you're writing a memoir. If you're writing fiction, you can still use events of your own life and sink that into your fiction. I mean, a lot of fiction is thinly veiled memoir, as we all know. So let's start thinking about these. Why don't you guys take a second and make some of these lists? Write down some jobs that you've had. Jobs are great, jobs are great because there's drama at jobs, there's uniforms at jobs, there's money at jobs, there's people coming in and out of jobs. It's so great. It's like you're on the spot in a job so emotions come up in jobs. Times you've cried. Obviously there's something going on. There's some drama right there. Trips you have taken, literally and figuratively, are really good. (laughs) Times you've lied, times other people have lied to you also is a good one. These are big moments. Those are obvious. And if you're making a list of things to write about, I think all those big moments will really come up to you immediately. But if you get in the practice of doing this, you'll find that there are those little things too. There's this great Eileen Myles short story in Chelsea Girls, it's called Bread and Water. All she's doing in this story is she's hanging out in her house in New York City in the Village in like the '80s. She's got her period, she's broke, she can't afford tampons. She's hoping that like a check is gonna come in the mail. She's eating bread, drinking water, and she's made that the cat is walking on the counter. It's like the best story. It's such a great story. And nothing that much happens and to me that's like the beauty of writing. That we can take our attention and we can use language to create this moment in a world where it's this beautiful little space, you know? And it elevates all of us, I feel like. All of us as people. To get to read a little peak into somebody's daily life and see that it's beautiful, like our little daily lives are beautiful too, you know? It depends on the light we shine on it. So sometimes what you'll find that you're putting into those lists are little moments that aren't necessarily super cinematic, but you can get something out of it. There's something about it that's attractive, you wanna shine a light there and tell that story. Jobs. My first job was I was a cashier at a big supermarket. And I really feel like it was where I became a writer because I was so bored bagging groceries, and I would start telling stories in my mind. Imagining what would that story, that drama that happened to me, if I told it in a comedic way, what would it sound like? What if I really amped up the tragedy, what would it sound like? And I started just realizing how you can play with words and make yourself look heroic, or make yourself luck abject, or make yourself look like a goon, and it's all the same story. It was a really fun way to leave my body while I was working at a dumb job. Do any of you guys have jobs that you think are good starting off points? I always like to bring up my first job. I rode on a bus during the summers, I think I was like 12 or 13. The bus would pick us up and take us to a raspberry farm and it was just a bunch of teenagers who spent the summer picking raspberries. And we got paid by the flat. So my parents told me that whatever I made that summer, they would double it and that would be my school clothes money. And that's kinda when I got to start becoming just more of an individual. But just listening to you, the different things that went on that summer with boys and girls and teenager angst and drama, just being able to piggyback off of all of those real life stories into maybe more fictional stories. Yeah, exactly. I mean, that's ideally what this is doing. All of these little ideas are just springboards into a larger story where you can talk about things like class and economics and regions and romance and parental relationships. It's so rich, you know? And often we just need that little gateway that allows us to focus, you know? And I would just love to read even the sensory details about picking raspberries, the mess of it. And yeah, it's great. Crying. Times that you've cried. I last cried during Oprah's Golden Globes speech. Or literally I had something in my eye. Even as it was happening I was like, laying down on my wife watching it and my eye was tearing and I'm like, I am having an emotion, but I also think there's something in my eye. I can't tell. I'll just let it be what it is. And then I went to sleep. That's possibly a story. Did any of you guys have a cry story? Yes? So my best friend and I were traveling through Latin America and we were getting on a van to go from one city to another, it was a group van, like a taxi. I started to sit in a particular seat and this lady got onboard and yelled at me for taking her seat and so I just cried and I got out and got to the front seat, which was the only one available. Turned out better, though, 'cause I had the air conditioner on me, so it was all good. (laughs) That's great, there you go. There's a story. How old were you when you were traveling? That was just like, four years ago. So yeah, not too long ago. That's even better. (laughs) There you have travel too, right, which is also so great. I feel like anything that creates conflict. And you know, travel is almost like an inherent conflict where you are a fish out of water. So it doesn't need to be conflict like a big fight, but there's a friction of even not knowing your way around, not knowing how to speak a language, so much can happen and it's so fun to read those stories. I went and lived in Paris for three weeks once. Look at all those kids, they were so nice to me. They bought me cheese, I loved cheese. They were giving me a going away party 'cause I loved cheese so much that they brought all this cheese for me. And they couldn't understand why I wouldn't drink the wine 'cause there's no alcoholics in France, they don't understand I'm sober. They were like, but it's food. It's wine. (audience laughs) All these funny things happened. Does anyone have a good travel story? Liars. (audience laughs) Speaking of, lies! Oh, you have a, who has a travel story? I mean, how many can you count? I've traveled all over. One of my favorite stories, though, was going to Pondoland in South Africa and spending time in ceremonies for the initiation of shaman and watching them actually go through the process of having a tribal ceremony. There is a rarefied experience, right? To make it a little more dramatic, there was someone there who was acting up and so instead of getting cast out, he was taken aside, led behind the entire ceremony and back in the other direction and after the entire weekend was over, there was a tribal council trying to figure out what his punishment would be for acting up. But he wasn't exiled. To see that kind of inclusion in conflict in a different community that I wasn't a part of was really cool. I hope you're writing this. That's really great. God, that has everything in it. That's really, really fascinating. Thank you for sharing it. Lies, always great being lied to, being betrayed, obviously.

Class Description

If you’ve embarked on the process of writing your first book, there’s a good chance that you’re struggling a bit. Books are big, unwieldy creatures, and even the bravest of among us can feel overwhelmed by the thought of filling all those hundreds of blank pages with intelligent, effervescent words.

Award-winning author, editor and teacher Michelle Tea offers this class to help you believe in your abilities as a writer, stick to your goal and push through that first draft. She’ll outline some of the key tricks to writing a great book and inspire you to produce the vibrant, sparkling and unique work that’s inside your head and waiting to come out.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Be specific and avoid vagueness.
  • Bring your five senses to your writing by including sound, light, scent, texture and taste in every scene.
  • Find your pacing: write slow, write strong.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Build your unique voice and create a shelf of voices you wish your voice to be in conversation with.
  • Keep your editing brain away from your creative brain.



What a wonderful class! Michelle is knowledgeable, authentic, generous and open-hearted with her experience and advice. She offers a genuine sense of validation and practical tips for new writers. I especially liked her thoughts on how to carve out a space for your writing.