Purge the Plastic, Not the Paper

You’d think I was pregnant, the way I’ve been rummaging through drawers, sifting through papers, and filling garbage bags full of “unnecessary plastic objects” (to quote one of my favorite singers, Nanci Griffith).

The need to purge came on strong just before the holidays. We moved furniture to open up a room downstairs and uncovered a host of lost toys (not missed once), and I found myself dreaming of a dumpster. I even considered tossing some of the writing magazines and literary journals I’ve accumulated in the last year.

But, I knew the garbage bin wouldn’t see draft, nor final, of any of my earlier writings: old essays, true stories, and short shorts.

When I got serious about writing and heard that old adage – a writer should never throw out anything, even if she think it stinks – I wondered, how can you possibly keep everything?.

Still, I saved each story and every quick write in more than one place. I printed a few cherished essays and placed them in a big binder that’s secured between my nightstand and my bed.


The first few pieces I wrote were all memoir, too risky to publish, that pried their way out of my mind’s dark corners. When I shared them with other writers and got great feedback on one or two, I thought, what if I publish them? But the purpose of those pieces was not to show up in glossy print on the white pages of a literary magazine. My earlier writings de-cluttered my brain and cleared the way for new narratives to take shape.

And, as writers who came before me predicted, bits and pieces of those earlier essays have bled into other stories. An old familiar figure became the face of a new character. The real-life moment I walked into a nursing home wove its way into a fictional short story where my emotions as memory gave way to imagined conversations.

Isn’t that how fiction works? We write what we know. Our experiences and memories interact with our imagination. We give new life to an old character, reshape the insides of an old house.

We write a new ending.


18 responses to “Purge the Plastic, Not the Paper

  1. !! You are brave. I’ve gotten rid of so much, lost so much too in the death of a hard drive.

    • At first, my pieces were saved on a fragile teeny-tiny jump drive. I’ve often wondered how more seasoned writers save their work: online servers or external hard drives? What do you do with yours now?

  2. I save my writing on three computers, in an online storage file, and on an external hard drive and a flash drive. 🙂 Better safe than sorry, huh?

    I’ve not written much that could be called memoir yet. I’m not ready. But like you, bits and pieces of my real life are woven into my fiction. And like in our dreams, I think some aspect of ourselves show up in each of our fictional characters.

    • That’s funny. I imagine we probably save more copies of our work now, in the digital age, than writers did in the past. But, you’re right, better to be safe! I think it might be time to invest in an external hard drive.

      I thought, I’d always stick to writing memoir, but now I lean more towards writing fiction. And, they are both difficult in their own ways.

  3. I keep my back-up writing on one of my blogs, a locked one so no one can see but me. Now if their servers go down, that’s one source gone. The other is an external hard drive that holds about a hundred gig. Then, there are some on discs. Uh, oh. Are discs plastic? Recyclable? My grown kids have paper copies of my Memoirs. I’ve been end of year cleaning like my mother did before New Years.

    • It’s funny, after writing this post and reading the comments so far, I finally picked up Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It seems she suggests in the first few pages that writers should purge:

      “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away. A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them.”

      Throw away my old drafts? Ouch…but I suppose it’s something to consider!

      • Literally throw it out? But aren’t you throwing it away when you edit and revise? Aren’t those edits like the layers of paint over the preliminary sketch?

        • I have to read more. But the first few pages seem to suggest that writers should let go of the old. Have you read Annie Dillard’s book?

          • No, I haven’t, but I will.

            Yes, I’ve heard the advice to write your novel, then throw it out and write it again. I’ll confess that I don’t think I could do that. I don’t think my first attempt is so bad it warrants total destruction. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m less experienced, and some day I’ll champion that idea.

            But for now, I like to look back at previous versions to see how much has changed … and how much has improved. That encourages me to keep writing.

          • I just wanted to add that I think this is a great topic. I’ve now ordered the book from my library and I also read the first few pages at Amazon. Having only written two novels, with neither published, I probably should just keep my mouth shut.

          • I say we read it together and keep the topic open online. It’s always good to hear how another person reads into the same work.

  4. Like Linda says, when you revise and edit you are erasing the old. But the earlier drafts that I had printed out and brought to critique groups are what is haunting me. I want to throw them out. I don’t want to see those yucky first drafts in print. But they have other’s opinions written on them and I just can’t seem to part with it. Oh, what to do? What to do?

    • I agree, Linda, that looking back at some of my old writing and seeing how I’ve grown is encouraging.

      And, Tricia, I think that “haunting” is what Annie Dillard is talking about. Sometimes the grasp we have on the old keeps us from foraging into the new.

      I thought about cutting out paragraphs or chunks of old works and pasting them somewhere in a file, then tossing the rest. But, still, it would be hard. It’s like forcing myself to throw out that favorite pair of pants that just don’t fit. I liked them once. I even loved them. They looked good on me. But, now, I’ve outgrown them and to wear them is not only stifling but a little obscene.

  5. I love how you express this idea of developing your writing: “My earlier writings de-cluttered my brain and cleared the way for new narratives to take shape.”

    • Thanks, Cathryn. Like I mentioned in an earlier comment, I never imagined I’d write fiction. Those story ideas didn’t come until after the memoirs flowed.

      It’s amazing how the writing process works.

  6. I’ve got some copies of earlier writings I haven’t yet parted with. In a way, they are like my children. I birthed them. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” they say. Maybe, when my children grow up, become more refined, their old faults and weaknesses gone, I will feel free to let them go. For right now, I will keep them around to remind me of how far I’ve come and encourage more creativity.

  7. Pingback: A packrat in writer’s clothes « out of my mind

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