Sasha Cagen took the everyday to-do list and used it to peer into our souls. In an email interview, she tells the story of the genesis of her magazine, To-Do List, and describes the challenges of the publishing world.
By Francis Raven / Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
Most of us write to-do lists, but most of us do not found magazine’s based on them as Sasha Cagen did. Her magazine, To-Do List, wais “committed to exploring the details of modern lives” that “make us click, roar, think, develop, and sometimes break down.” It useds the to-do list as a window into the complex shape of our lives and communities. To-Do List was the winner of the Utne Reader's Alternate Press Award for Best New Magazine 2000, Reader's Choice. Since then, Cagen has been forced to put the magazine on permanent hiatus. But as I found from interviewing Cagen, who lives in San Francisco, is much more than just a thousand lists. Her essays have appeared in various publications including The Village Voice, Utne Reader, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics, which investigates people the person who “enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than dating for the sake of being in a couple.” As an avid list-maker myself, Cagen’s magazine intrigued me enough to contact her for the following interview, which illuminates how lists often offer a window into our culture and how projects such as To-Do List might succeed.
Francis Raven: How did you start collecting lists?
Sasha Cagen: I wasn’t really a listmaker when I first started To-Do List magazine. Sure, I made the occasional pros and cons list, a Christmas list as well as a list of all the presents I bought for family, but listmaking didn’t structure my days the way they do now. I made them sometimes at work to help me organize my day and my tasks, but I called them “work plans,” because I saw someone else use that title, and I figured that it would look good to my boss if I had a “work plan.”
I started collecting to-do lists when I decided to start a magazine of the same name.
Before we launched our first issue, I placed an ad asking for people to send us their to-do lists. Once the actual, handwritten lists started coming in the mail, I became addicted to getting them, and my ideas about the name changed. At first, the name To-Do List was more conceptual — about the to-do lists of young adulthood rather than real to-do lists themselves. But I started to realize the name To-Do List conveyed a lot more than the tasks and hopes and dreams one would have as an adult. There’s something completely universal about the to-do list written at any age, and something both voyeuristic and comforting in reading another person’s list. You see that you are not the only person struggling with daily tasks like buying stamps to mail a bill on time — things that are supposed to be easy. And you also see how people think about larger issues too — because people write to-do lists about everything. Not just what they hope to accomplish in a day, but also what they hope to accomplish over their whole lives.
The to-do list concept became a jumping-off point for examining the details of daily life, and to convey the breadth of topics we would cover in the magazine, from the mundane to the meaningful, just like the random jumble of items on any one’s to do list (from flossing to finding your soul mate).
FR: What's the quality you are looking for in a good to-do list?
SC: To-Do List published essays and interviews, and actual handwritten lists accompanied those pieces as artwork. When we were choosing lists, we were just as selective as when we were choosing essays. We were looking for lists with unexpected, human, mysterious, funny items: lists that told a story, but not in an over-the-top, calculated way. It’s very obvious when someone constructs a list and sends it in to the magazine to be reprinted. The handwriting is too perfect and well aligned. The items are too precious. A good list raises questions and tells a story, but it’s elliptical. The items should be slightly mysterious, so that you start to imagine your own story about the person’s life.
FR: What's the most difficult thing about running a magazine?
SC: When you run a magazine, the more successful you become, the more difficult your life gets. Your to-do list becomes endlessly long, which is fine if you are getting paid a salary and know how to set limits on your workday, but a lot of independent publishers don’t know how to set limits very well, and the labor of love starts to take over your life, and you go crazy! The same can be true of writing a book, which is what I turned my attention to in the last few years. Since my first book Quirkyalone came out in 2004, I’ve been consciously working on writing shorter to-do lists so that more of my time is devoted to leisure, meditation, yoga, and pure hanging out. And I have to say, I like my shorter to-do lists.
FR: How did you start the magazine?
SC: With a lot of passion, energy, and ideas but very little money. I started To-Do List in 1999 (our first issue was released in summer 2000) with paychecks saved from my proofreading job; at the time, I was 26. The staff was super-talented and all-volunteer. Annie Decker was the senior editor, Burns Maxey was the art director, and I was editor and publisher. Our efforts were bolstered by a gang of other volunteers in the San Francisco Bay Area. (This is a great place to start a magazine — there are so many talented designers, writers, editors, and proofreaders who are willing to work for reasons other than money.) Burns left after two years and she was replaced by another great designer, Sara Cambridge.
Among other major recognition, To-Do List won Utne’s Alternative Press Award for Best New Magazine, 2000, Reader’s Choice. We got press coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, Real Simple, [National Public Radio’s] “All Things Considered,” and the Chicago Tribune. A fiction piece by Jenny Bitner was reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers. To-Do List was an unusual, special, great magazine, but no matter how good a magazine ist, it still needs money, and that part of the equation wasn’t figured out from the beginning. We didn’t have capital, which now I realize you really need in order to launch and make a magazine a sustainable operation. After three years, I put the magazine on permanent hiatus. There’s no job I would rather have than publishing To-Do List, but now that I’m in my thirties30s, I have to focus on making money and I can’t work for free any more. In the future I’ll find a way to bring to-do list back to life as an operation that pays the people who work on it.
Meanwhile, I am thinking about a book that reprints actual to-do lists, and I invite people to send me their actual, authentic lists (not made up for the purposes of contributing) to To-Do List, PO Box 40128, San Francisco, CA 94140. Please include a note describing yourself and the circumstances in which you wrote the list.
FR: What does a person's to do lists tell you about them?
SC: Reading other people’s lists almost always makes me feel better. It helps to curb my own workaholism. I see either how insane other people are with their lists, and recognize the trait in myself, or, by comparison, realize how much I accomplish. Either way it is a lift. . In their improbable mix of the mundane and the meaningful, to-do lists are a window into another human being’s private world, into her (and more often than not, to-do list writers seem to be women) ambitions, desires, failings, poor memory (the need to remind herself of the smallest task), and our imperfect humanity. Everyone writes to-do lists. These scratched-off catalogs are like diaries, except there’s no artifice, no arranging, no clear narrative or storytelling: they’re the most spare kind of a diary, private little scratched out versions of our lives.
Once the magazine started to gain attention, I realized that To-Do List was tapping into a community of readers who had never really been named or identified: the listmaker personality. People can become pretty identified with their lists. Husbands make fun of wives for listmaking. People store boxes full of them. An older man sent in a story about finding lists in his deceased father’s pockets, and what the lists told him about his dad. A gay man wrote about the coded lists he wrote as a teenager.
NPR’s “All Things Considered” asked me to be on their show on New Year’s Day 2002 to talk about making lists of New Year’s Resolutions. Noah Adams and I talked about some of the craziest lists we had ever received and the kinds of things I put on my to-do lists. The response from that one radio interview blew me away. Suddenly donations were streaming in — enough to help us pay our printer bill for the third issue. . All of these people were so incredibly excited that a private part of themselves — a facet of their personality sometimes mocked by significant others and family members — was a shared experience, and that someone had actually made a magazine that printed to-do lists. About a dozen people sent in checks for $100 without even having seen the magazine. They were just so happy someone had started a magazine about lists and wanted to support it!
FR: Do you have a favorite to do list?
SC: Yes, the very first person who sent us lists, Rebecca, who lived in Berkeley, continued to send in the most beautiful lists for years. She once even sent in a whole mini-notebook. Her lists are really aesthetic and have the most unexpected items on them. They’re a work of art.
FR: Does running To-Do List make you intimidated to write your own to do lists?
SC: No, it’s just made me more conscious of my own to-do-list-writing style, and that I have become progressively more reliant on them — especially when I’m tackling a big creative project.
FR: What was the last to-do list you wrote?
SC: I’m starting to do more freelance writing now, and trying to figure out what next to do with my life. Here’s the latest mega-list of various projects that I may take on. This was written on a computer. I write lists in Microsoft Word when I’m really trying to organize my to-do items in various categories.
PITCHES I CAN MAKE AND STORIES I CAN WRITE
Rhode Island magazine expatriate story
Mr. Best Ever for Men’s Health (talk to Doug next time I see him)
Writer’s breakdowns after their books come out (Poets and Writers) — ask Dr. Gray for stories
Insomnia essay for SELF — write Paula Derrow and make sure she would be interested …. . . also look at the stuff that I have already written
Meditation and insomnia for Natural Health or Breathe — write that editor and ask for copy—and send her clips
PRACTICAL THINGS TO DO
Make photocopies of SF Chronicle Magazine piece, Men’s Health, and 7 x 7
Publicize RI and NY Events — write up listings and send them to the bookstores and media in NY and RI
TO-DO LIST BOOK PROJECT
To-Do List book project — email self what I have written and put together a brief proposal to send to Jill in advance of our meeting, also scan in some of the best lists. Find a place to do this scanning! (Can I scan in a whole bunch at Jenny’s house and it won’t be a problem?)
FINISH TO-DO LIST INTERVIEW
FR: Is a person who makes lists a different type of person from a person who does not?
SC: There are different kinds of listmakers. There are people who make lists just to help them get through the day; there are also list-makers who just love making lists. It’s a fun activity for them to go to a café and make lists about the magazines they want to subscribe to or the places they want to visit. I recently interviewed a woman about things she loves to do alone, and she answered, “I really value time alone so I can sit in my room and make to-do lists.”
Men make lists, but on the whole, more women make them. I think that’s a reflection of how much women multitask — they’re mothers and workers and friends and so many other things. Men multitask too, but most don’t to the extent that women do.
FR: What makes you laugh?
SC: A good corny joke that is just goofy enough.
FR: What is a good charity to give money to?
SC: There are so many right now. Obviously there are a lot of organizations that are doing great work and we need their work so much in the Bush era. If I have to choose one, I would say organizations that are helping women and men who are in welfare reform get better training and child care to support them as time limits on their benefits run out. And of course you can always donate to an independent magazine! They need every penny!
Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics