Life Itemized

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

As a teacher of writing for 25 years, I have learned some lessons.

One is this: You can speak wisely and eloquently about the qualities of a written work, examining the author’s craft, hoping to show young aspiring writers the way, the words and the triumph, hoping the coals of artistry will enflame their hearts . . . and they will sit and watch you and appear to be listening — without taking a note, writing anything down, recording any of the fine, inspiring points you think you are making, inviting you to wonder if your words scatter uncollected like leaves carried away on the wind.

But say this — “There are really 10 things you need to know about writing” — and pens come out, notebooks are opened, heads tilt forward and the young stenographers are at the ready, hands poised in anticipation of bequeathed truth.

We like it when things come in numbers. Definite, concise, nailed down. There is a clarity, a certainty, a sense that all the deliberations are done, the work is over, the excess carved away and the essential bones delivered in a tidy package. Reader friendly.

And that indeed is the process. Study, ponder, read and know. Filter, reduce, identify, enumerate — seeking precision, making decisions, saying lots in a sound bite of words.

We don’t typically do lists or advice columns or how-to articles in this magazine (despite the popularity and ubiquity of such ploys). So why now?

I was thinking aloud with David Shribman about a story he might do for us. David is the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and extremely knowledgeable about this country’s history and culture. So how about this, I offered a few months ago (trying to balance some heavy objects on our story list): If you were to teach a semester of American history based only on 12 films, which movies would you select to teach that course?

David thought it would be more fun — and reveal more about our national character — to not only do movies but also books, songs, foods, places, paintings and more. And as the staff perused the lists he was composing, that list-making bug was contagious. We started thinking in lists here, too: lists that would explore all kinds of terrain.

So we decided to fill an entire issue with lists (despite the echoing voices of those who didn’t like the fashion issue we did a few years ago). If you’d like to know our reasons why, see the list on page 23.

We encourage you to spend some time with these lists. We also encourage you to respond, react, amend, annotate and argue. Or send us your own list. Life can hardly be fit into enumerated categories, but we hope speaking in lists can be part of the process of better understanding life in its various parts.

Kerry Temple ’74