On tidying up and clearing out

messy studySomebody once said that a writer’s best friend is her wastepaper basket, and I’ve always found a strange satisfaction in throwing stuff away – you feel , that like getting poison out of your system, your writing will be better for the destruction. But recently, the controlled chaos in which I’ve always worked  has turned into chaos pure and simple – I could always lay my hands on things, now they seem to vanish forever. So clearly a great turn-out and chuck-out is called for,  and I’ve just embarked on this, pulling out drawers and opening folders and seeing stuff which I haven’t looked at for years, in old-fashioned wobbly typewriter print, on thin copy paper, now yellowing away. I can remember the intensity and devotion  with which I wrote these things, and now I look at them and just see dull words and storylines I don’t care about. So out they go, and good riddance to them. Then there are novels which never saw the light of day and probably now never will, but I can’t quite bear to chuck these – not yet at least.  Short stories which took so much effort and attention, now sitting limply on the page. Who’d ever want them? Out with them. At least I can convince myself that these dull pages were helping me to hone my craft, so there was some point to them.

But some day there’ll be people looking through all this stuff – probably my daughters, who’ll turn to each other and say with bewilderment, ‘Now what the hell are we supposed to do with all this? Why on earth did she keep it all?’  Well, you, whoever you will be, you can chuck them if you want; it’s just that I don’t quite feel like doing it myself, not quite yet.

I suppose I’m about one-third of the way through the process ( you can see how dedicated I am by the fact that I’ve taken time off to write this)  My husband came in and looked around  and said ‘You call this tidy?‘ Which of course it wasn’t, nothing like, but tidying up is one of those things that gets worse before it gets better.

Of course many writers destroy their own work, and not always for the right reasons. Fanny Burney, aged 15, made a bonfire of her writings, probably because someone had told her that writing was unladylike, though fortunately whe changed her mind and went on to write one of the most popular novels of her day. Some writers, like Larkin and Hardy, leave the dirty work up to others, asking that the stuff be burned after their deaths – an unkind burden on a friend, I think. And sometimes, the post-mortem destruction is just vandalism, as when John Murray destroyed Byron’s memoirs, or Charlotte Bronte probably destroyed Emily Bronte’s second novel.

Still, no masterpieces are being destroyed in my study. The process is entirely cathartic. And maybe one day, when the room is clean and neat as a new pin, I’ll post a picture of it for you all to admire.

8 thoughts on “On tidying up and clearing out”

  1. This roused a memory….when I moved from a house in 2000 I came across a box on a high shelf on which I had written when leaving the previous house in 1972,
    No novels or short stories but ‘urgent’ letters,bills,subs to be renewed etc etc. The world hadn’t stopped,the bailiffs hadn’t called and the magazines kept coming;in fact nobody seemed to have noticed or cared. I’m not sure what the lesson,if any,is.

  2. I’ve just come across a file marked ‘old or unfinished stories’ Well, whatever they were, they never got finished, and as you say, the world hasn’t stopped without them. Ah well.

  3. Good on ya girl! But beware, one day sooner or later, you’re going to want something you’ve chucked. As I throw out regularly, and have a very tidy office, I reckon it’s worth the loss of odd bits and pieces to be able to find stuff immediately. Mal on the other hand never throws anything away, but then he can never find anything! You takes your choice…….

  4. Scan them! Keep them on the pc, or on a separate external drive. You don’t have to agonise about whether to keep each item, just scan them, preferably chronologically. They will take up no space at all, and they are still there, so no mental grief/ loss/ bereavement/decision-making…..



    1. I’m with Alex on this … In the visual arts particularly, it is the corrections of ‘mistakes’, the second-thoughts – marks which tell us something of the process – which are the hidden treasures of creativity. Leave your crumb trail, please, dear Frances.

  5. I’m not so sure that ruthless destruction is a wholly good idea. What do the daughters think? I certainly wish I had more material relating to my parents’ lives; they left virtually nothing personal, for example no letters dating from the time when my father was in Dar-es-Salaam and my mother was still back in England – or possibly she was in America with her sister Angela. That was 1929/1930. My dad had a clear-out, I know, when we finally left Dar in 1941. I’d love to know more about their lives in those days, but… no documentation.

    So, into the wpb with some of the stuff, but a little discrimination is important, too.

  6. Well, the tidying up process is as finished as it’ll ever be – cupboards and drawers sorted out, and everything more or less in its place. Several plastic bags full of stuff have gone to the dump – in the words of the song, they’ll none of them be missed. Trouble is , my study doesn’t actually look any tidier. though I know it is.

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