“On Puddling”: The List Essay as Form
Writing is often an inelegant process of trial and error, which for me tends to manifest in small bursts, paragraphs, vignettes, or in a list-like, free-flowing inventory of ideas. Like some flustered attempt at getting dressed in the morning, I often try on different structures and forms. Sometimes I’ll find a shirt and wear it all the way through making coffee in the morning, before I throw it off, for whatever reason, and change into something else. Depending on the day, I can eliminate entire portions of my closet on first glance due to want of comfort, style, warmth, a desire to stand out or, more likely, blend in.
Like many of my essays, “On Puddling” began with an image. I had wanted to write about the death of a friend in college, but many of the details of that story kept coming out in vague, overwrought expressions of loss that amounted to a series of non-starts. The first few times I pulled over to observe the butterflies puddling on the dirt road, I found myself jotting down other images that came to mind in the same way I obsessively made lists as a girl. There is a lot to be learned from the things we list: What emerges as top priority? What exists in the spaces between items and ideas? What do we parse out in abbreviated form rather than in prose? How does each entry or article relate to the whole? Listing things often allows me to think through them. In this case, the simple act of observing butterflies on the road and listing my associations led me back to the subject of my college friend: the insects she kept in her dorm room, the field class on Nabokov’s butterflies that she took shortly before she died, the butterflies graffitied on a campus path the morning after her death.
While popular among contemporary essayists, the list essay is not without lineage: Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things,” from The Pillow Book, a collection of musings and reflections on court life in tenth-century Japan, may be one of the earliest examples, which essentially offers a list of things that the writer hates (rudeness, gravel caught in an ink stone, men who leave, clumsily, and without saying goodbye); Mary Ruefle’s “I Remember, I Remember,” offers a meditation on childhood, cows, an electric typewriter; and, while not employing the list as a complete form, Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome” uses the cadence—rhythmic and repetitive—that a list provides when relaying accounts of lynching in the American South. And, of course, the list goes on.
I admire essays that carry an awareness of a panoramic view while demonstrating a willingness to peer in close. I also admire essays in which the structure itself speaks in some way to the concept. Listing is as quotidian an action as anything else (making that morning coffee, pulling off the road), yet as a form, it strikes me as a special occasion: not the casual sweater I’ve been wearing all week, but the one I might pull on for a dinner out with friends, which is to say that I take form seriously, as an opportunity to further engage, indulge, mourn, celebrate.
Like many experimental forms, however, a list essay can run the risk of avoiding the connective tissue we, as readers, often crave. While writing “On Puddling,” it was important to me that the structure would further enlighten the piece and that the list form felt warranted rather than contrived or cosmetic. Not only was list-making a common habit of mine as a girl, but the act of list-making was an affinity I might have shared with Nabokov, an avid collector of butterflies, who I imagined, like other bird or insect enthusiasts, kept a “life list” of the species he caught. Similarly, the finite and practical quality of lists provided a framework that helped buttress the content of the essay, which explores nature and youth, uncertainty, wonder, a preoccupation with loss—all things that cannot be quantified, per se, but that can, perhaps, be understood through the act of recording, itemizing, laying bare, in sequence, a collection of ideas and experience, as list or litany, which can open the door to deeper meaning.
Maybe that’s why every few months I rearrange my closet in order to remember the things inside, in order to feel a sense of organization, of order, amid an otherwise chaotic life. What is important? What can I do without? How can all of the contents come together in shape and style? If essaying is an attempt to understand, perhaps an essay’s form is the closet through which we rummage, hoping for the right fit.