Writing Prompt: The Pillow Book and the Art of the List


A thousand years ago in the Imperial Court of Japan, a lady-in-waiting wrote one of the world's great works of literature, a book that illustrated her world so vividly that it feels present and alive to her readers a millennium later. Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book is a hodgepodge of observations, adhering to no strict form or narrative--but what observations they are! The ladies of the Imperial court in the Heian period led a life that was physically and spatially circumscribed, but acutely felt and minutely noticed. It is this quality of noticing, of specific, up-close observation, that has endeared The Pillow Book to generations of readers. The book reads like a diary, with fragments of daily happenings and bits of narrative mixed in with a huge number of lists: Sei Shōnagon's list-making impulse is profoundly creative. We get the sense, reading her, that lists were incredibly generative for her: the act of making a list inspired the writer to take a closer look at the world, and to discover very surprising associations. 

Consider her list of "things people despise--A crumbling earth wall. People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured." 

Or her list of "refined and elegant things--A girl's over-robe of white on white over pale violet-grey. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries."

Or "things that are near yet far--The Miyanobe Festival. Relationships between siblings or relatives who don't like each other. The winding path up to Kurama Temple. The first day of the new year, seen from the last day of the old." 

Sei Shōnagon's lists are notable for their sensory detail: as we read them, we get the sense that the author is right next to the thing she is describing, sniffing the air, feeling the cloth between her fingers, and taking note of the pattern of the embroidery. By doing this, she imbues the objects in her lists with symbolic and emotional importance: stop and look, she tells us, this is worth your time. 

For these reasons, Sei Shōnagon's work (particularly her list-writing) make for excellent writing prompts. Try making lists of "infuriating things," "things that make your heart beat fast," "situations you have a feeling will turn out badly," "things that are truly splendid," "occasions when the time drags by." Whenever I try my hand at a Pillow Book-style list, I find myself noticing more, being more present, and moving more intentionally. What do you notice that no one else might?