Keeping a Pillow Book
or Things We Gain by Observation
Is there any form of writing more overlooked and disposable than the list? Perhaps cereal box copy or graffiti. Fleetingly relevant, the list is written to be scrapped. Yet, astonishingly, the lists of one Japanese noblewoman have endured for a thousand years. While serving as a lady-in-waiting, Sei Shōnagon famously compiled a loose collection of musings and narratives in list form known as The Pillow Book.
We associate lists with utility, though under Sei Shōnagon’s brush, the form is expansive and suggestible. She touches on aesthetic delights as well as moments of pathos or longing. But in this eclectic chronicle, Sei Shōnagon never inhabits an emotional frequency overlong. She also takes acerbic pleasure in tallying Things Without Merit and People Who Look Pleased with Themselves, while Things That Lose by Being Painted includes men or women who are praised in romances as being beautiful.
Though Sei Shōnagon was likely writing for an audience—she artfully reworked her observations—a pillow book is, in essence, confessional. These notes might literally be stashed beneath a pillow, but don’t miss their metaphorical import. The pillow comes into nightly contact with our sensing organs and breath, pressed closer than a sleeping partner, as we drift, as we dream. What else do you keep close? A pillow book urges us to intimately examine our surroundings, and, through this act of noticing, inclinations and biases.
Try writing a list under one of these headings from The Pillow Book:
- Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
- Things That Are Distant Though Near
- Things That Are Near Though Distant
- Times When One Should Be on One’s Guard
- Surprising and Distressing Things
- Things That Give a Clean Feeling
- Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past
- Things That Have Lost Their Power
- Things That Cannot Be Compared
Soon your own headings will occur to you. You might list Things Left in the Employee Refrigerator, The Types of People I Forever Seem to Be Meeting, Things I Never Should Have Done Twice, or Things My Children Consider Possible and Impossible. A list does not have to be about you to be revealing. A list of Enviable People might prompt examination of why the people selected are enviable and what made you take this perspective. Significant omissions can be just as telling. Who would you leave off a list entitled People Who Will Always Tell Me the Truth?
The point is to slow down and engage in mindful observation. You may find your writing coalescing around sense impressions or images. Avoid being proscriptive. A list can be brisk and focused or unsystemic and rambling. Subjectivity is encouraged, but remain honest. As Sei Shōnagon wrote, “I never thought that these notes would be read by anyone else, and so I included everything that came into my head, however strange or unpleasant.”
The list is a form to be filled.
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