Hit Back: List-Making as a Simple Step to a Life Less Stupid

By Adam Gnade

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All Photos: Adam Gnade

This is how morning happens here on the farm. Up when it’s natural to be up. Let the rescue pitbulls out into the field. Bring them back in and feed them. Open the barn and let the sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, and pig out to graze, then feed everyone and fill the ducks’ pool. Open the side-barn where the two pygmy goats (Harriet the Spy and Dixie) sleep and feed them and fill their water. Last step is to let the cats out into the field. We have eight cats so that’s a great ball of white and black and gray through the front door. I wasn’t much of a cat guy before I moved out to the country but a good rural cat is a fine thing to see. Hemingway had his pirate cats. I have my barn cats and they are goddamn good creatures.

After that it’s back into the farmhouse to make coffee or black tea. Open the curtains. Light some nag champa. Turn on the radio. Sometimes I’ll bring my kiddy-size portable ’70s record player to the kitchen while the coffee is brewing and play some old Album Leaf or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain or Blanck Mass, something quiet and rich and melodic to help me slow back down and get my head straight and ready for the work at hand.

Then breakfast. Avocado, refried beans, tortillas fried with a little Earth Balance, garlic, and lime. Diced tomato and grilled poblano from the fields. Maybe a bowl of brown rice with black beans and cilantro. (My current philosophy is “eat for how you’ll feel afterwards” which cuts out anything trashy; I don’t always pull it off but it’s what I shoot for).

If the weather is good I’ll sit outside on an old metal folding chair I bought for a buck nintynine at Goodwill in town and watch the animals graze while I eat. If the weather is great I’ll take a while longer and have some red wine with breakfast. (New Year’s resolution: always keep a jug of good cheap red wine somewhere within arm’s reach). After that, I get to work.

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Now, before any bookwork happens I sit outside at my writing table under the black walnut tree and go through the notebook where I keep all my lists. (Sometimes the wine jug comes along. Most of the time not. My rule these days is don’t drink until the work is done and lately the work is never done).

The notebook is from Eberhardt Press in Portland; it’s college-ruled with a big, proud-looking tiger on the front, and the lists are everything from daily to-do lists to words I want to remember to things I’d like to fit in the book I’m working on right now (March 13th entry: “scorpions swarm around the lighthouse lamp in the front room at the beachhouse in Tamarindo, Italian-made Rossi shotgun, Nicole’s friend Jasmine (the gypsy), knife-sharpening in the dark, Ben Frank at night in the pool at Tyler’s house, Germanic gothy maelstrom, the first line to ‘Georgia Clay,’ the corpse you saw across the street from Pokez at JP’s birthday, Raymond Carver’s bookcase, Country Grind Quarterly, Pioneers Press zine tour, Julia Eff’s goddamn good hair, bats in the dusk in Dallas, Caveworld as 2014 Trainspotting, StenaLine ship to Amsterdam, the graves you dug last spring, trailerparks and ‘bad sneakers’, the fog up from the canyons by the 52, sudden loss”).

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I make lists because I’m a total fucking wreck; I can’t stress this enough. Without the structure of lists I have no direction and I waste time worrying about what to do next and I make a lot of stupid mistakes and forget things. I’ve got one of those worthless selective memories where I can remember a lot of minor shit that works to your advantage when you’re writing fiction but can’t keep the day-to-day in order enough to save my life.

All that adds up to anxiety, regret, and missed opportunities, and I don’t want any of that. So I make lists and when I make lists I’m a lot happier. Here are the seven sections from my list-book. Maybe they’ll give you an idea of where to go with your own:

1) “Five-year plan.” This one’s pretty elaborate and expansive and includes big things like where I want to be living in five years, how I hope to spend my time, and the toxic bullshit I’d like to see cut from my life. I don’t want to be rich or famous but I’m about as ambitious as you get about wanting to write good things and have a better life (not “there” yet of course) and this section is where I keep the shit that keeps me on track. It’s half pep-talk and half blueprint and I refine it every day.

2) “Daily to-do list.” I make these before bed after all the work is done. They vary every day and most of the time I only get a tiny fraction of it done. What’s left over is carried on to the next day’s tasks, or a section I call:

3) “Overdue to-dos.” These run the gamut of farm things I need to buy that I’ll never have money for to broken things that need fixing to all sorts of schemes that only require an hour of free time and the right head-space to be checked off. This is the section that I fail at the most. Sometimes I don’t want to even turn to that page because it makes me feel worthless but I do because what kind of men are we if we don’t look our failures in the eye and acknowledge them for what they are? You have to know your mistakes like close friends if you’re ever going to move beyond them.

4) “Life goals.” Like the five year plan, I rewrite this section all the time. This is all big stuff. Long-term plans. A lot of guess-work here but anyone who says planning for the future isn’t mostly guess-work is pulling your leg and probably has something to hide. Fuck those people. Transparency above all, always.

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5) “Publishing goals for the year.” These are the books I want either written or in-print by the end of the year. Includes ideas on how to surprise everyone with each new thing you release and plans for making whatever you’re working on be your “one great work.” I don’t really pull that off (not yet at least) but that’s what I’m trying to do. Why not try to make each new thing you release better than the last? Why not shoot for the magnum opus every time? You’ll almost certainly fail but your work will be better for it. (“If the poet is caught up in things, the reader will be caught up too.” –Roberto Bolano.) Nothing cleans out your mind better and makes you grow more than an honest-to-god all-guns-blazing struggle. I’ll take that any day over half-tries and mediocre but “respectable” results. The critics may like you but will you like yourself?

6) “Money and finances.” I have a checking account and two $750-limit Mastercards I use in an attempt at building credit enough to buy a big chunk of land some day. This section has vertical columns down the middle of the page for each account and I update their balance every day. There’s also a column for bills I have to pay that month, a column for money owed by me and to me, and one for expenses in the foreseeable future (propane, tour costs, plane tickets, train-fare, etc). Life is pretty spare out here on the farm and I have to run a tight ship with my expenses or shit gets overwhelming fast. I hate money, and being stressed or upset because of financial stuff makes me feel like I’m failing so I work damn hard to stay away from that.

7) “Secret section.” These are lists too embarrassing to talk about here. Personal stuff; angry stuff; life goals in the sense of chipping away at the things about myself that I don’t like. These are the ones you really need if you want to overhaul your life and live better. This is where the true struggle happens, where the bad guys come out and take pot-shots at you and where the basic matters of life and death play out on a serious, real-life scale. Because sometimes shit gets Shakespearian and by that I don’t mean poetic. When that happens you need to put your back into it and be smart and ethical and honest about your choices. It’s a chess game and it would be great if we didn’t have to play it but sometimes the shittiness of life makes it a requirement. Of all the lists in the book this section is the most important.

The combination of that part and the more utilitarian and task-oriented stuff keeps me moving forward. It also allows the unstructured part of me (which is a big part) to get loose and do what it needs to do. Some people are very regimented and some flow a little more free. Half the time I wish I could be one or the other but I’ve tried that before and it’s against my nature and things get totally derailed. For me, one side cannot function without the other and that’s why list-making is a big part of my simple steps to a life less stupid.

I’m as clueless as anybody in the whole path-towards-better-life thing but this works for me right now and I’m going to stick with it until it doesn’t anymore. In the end, you’ve got to be flexible and if something doesn’t work for you or if it stops working you need to know when to jump ship and try something else. That kind of perspective and judgment is important. If you’ve got that you’ve probably got a good head on your shoulders. I’m there maybe half the time but I’m working toward it every day.

Written by Adam Gnade, Author

Adam Gnade, Author

Adam Gnade’s (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described “talking songs” in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life.


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  • http://kittycatstevens.com/ Jenna | KittyCatStevens.com

    Hi Adam! This is my first time here and I really loved your post! As a bookbinder and chronic list-maker, I absolutely love to see how people use their notebooks. I like to categorize my lists, too, and I finally realized that i can’t really use a traditional planner— I need a book with tons of sections for each brainwave so that I can find structure in the madness without putting things into a grid.

    I also think breaking things down into categories/sections makes it easier to create actionable steps to reaching those goals. and having a daily and a life section is awesome for maintaining balance!

    In regards to #4, I thought you might like this podcast episode called, “The Pressure to Outdo Your Last Successful Thing” which discusses how the value is not always in outdoing your last successful thing, the value is in the consistent output of content that is of a high caliber. Quality over quantity, yes, but once you attain quality, quantity is important. It’s not about perfection— it’s about standards + regularity. http://goo.gl/D2YYN6

    Anyway, this comment got way longer than I expected but I just really enjoyed your post and wanted to pass that info along because it really helped me see the value in putting out as much (high quality) work as possible without censoring myself in order to grow. Cheers! -Jenna