Throw It Away! A Writer’s Guide To Decluttering
May 8, 2018 § 25 Comments
We’ve all been there.
Friend of Friend: What do you do?
Writer: I’m a writer.
Friend of Friend: Hey, I have a great idea for a book! Why don’t you write it and when it gets published we split the money?
Writer: [weak smile]
Ideas are the easy part. Sure, “high-concept” pitching is a thing—It’s Speed, but on a boat! It’s the Wizard of Oz, but in space!—but it’s a thing for writers with a few airport-ready books under their belt and a relationship with a major publisher. Everyone else has to actually, y’know, WRITE THE BOOK.
That’s the hard part.
Ideas ignite passion and inspiration. But getting 60,000+ words on the page takes time and craft. That guy at the party doesn’t understand that most writers have plenty of unwritten ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and dictated into our phones at 3AM, sparked by articles we’ve read, lectures we’ve heard, people we’ve met. We are drowning in ideas.
Most of our ideas will never take flight enough to spend years of our lives writing them down. We stockpile them, stacking up paper and browser links against the day we’ll be out of ideas. The pile itself becomes an obligation, a list of ignored tasks weighing on us.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Full closets have no room for new clothes. Stuffed files shut out new ideas. (This also—sacrilege!—applies to bookshelves.)
I spent two days emptying basement boxes from a house I no longer live in. It was mostly stuff I hadn’t used in five years, stuff I’d never even unpacked after moving to that house in 2003. I thought files would be the hardest part. Banker boxes and milk crates full of past teaching syllabi and class assignments and yes, idea after idea. Folders marked Plays to Write, Articles to Read, Possible Blog Posts. But about six folders into the first box, I noticed, These ideas aren’t that good. Or they didn’t resonate with me enough to be worth my time. Or they’re something I think about a lot and don’t need twenty pieces of paper to remind me.
I started with 30 storage boxes, 7 of them documents and files. I started with fear. What if I couldn’t get rid of any of it? Was I a failure if I threw away an idea I’d never tackled? What if I got sad, or angry at my past self? What if something I really valued had been destroyed by that water leak three years ago? After two days and the (paid) help of a friend, I’m still not done with the basement, but the dread is gone. So is most of the stuff. Seven boxes and 6 garbage bags to charity; 3 boxes and 2 bags to the community theatre; 6 bags of documents to the shredder; 6 bags of trash to the curb; a stack of empty boxes.
I’m keeping one box. One. Plus half a box of “letters and photos I don’t want to go through right this minute.”
I feel amazing.
In my one box, I have two files of ideas to be written. They aren’t fat files. They, plus my notebook, plus my brain that still works, are plenty of ideas for the rest of my writing life.
Ideas aren’t precious and they aren’t hard. Execution is hard, and keeping a paper fort of ideas doesn’t do anything for our work ethic.
Contemplating your own files with terror? Here’s how to get started:
Don’t sort in the storage space. Take everything into a clean room where it must earn its place.
- Multiple manuscripts with workshop notes. In the future, copy feedback into one document, which pinpoints problem locations even if everyone sees a different problem. Throw away notes from writers you dislike—they aren’t inspiring to use.
- Articles that sparked ideas. They’re all online.
- Old syllabi. You know how to write a syllabus.
- Old student evaluations. You’re never going to quote them.
- Anything on your computer and backed up. Double-check your backup process.
- Multiple copies of magazines you’re in. That’s why God invented PDFs. If your Mom wanted a copy, you already gave it to her.
- Other people’s work you never got around to commenting on. I hereby absolve you of writer’s karma. Cultivate one reader friend (or two) you regularly exchange with and don’t keep track, or a “muse” who reads everything you write and asks nothing in return.
- Box up books you thought would make you a better person if you read them and books you didn’t like but feel like you should. Get rid of unread classmates’ books inscribed with meaningful notes. Photograph the inscription if you feel really bad. You can delete the photo next year.
- Minimal notes/research for no more than six projects.
- One copy of things you wrote that lived on floppy disk/zip drive/your previous computer. You probably won’t ever type it up/scan it. Review next year and toss half.
- Your sense of humor
Keeping paper doesn’t lead to more/better writing. Trust that your brain is a pipeline. Flush out the reservoir and make space for new ideas.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Loved the article. I just recently went through old boxes looking for a notebook where I thought I had started a special story. I was o upset when I couldnt find it. To my surprise, I ha already put it on a thumb drive…its still sitting there. 🙃
THIS: “Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for.” Bam.
Oh, I do love this! When I retired from full time teaching, I thought I’d carved back my keepings. Then last summer I found all cartons I had kept and thought—Why? There followed a ruthless purging. Another is scheduled.
Most of my important keepings are on computer, but I have stories so old saved on my laptop that I can’t even open the file. The physical storage I am about finished with, but the electronic files still want my attention. You remind me that I have work to do.
Yeah! It’s as much about the mental space as the physical!
Ahhhh, but it’s all our precious darlings, boxes and bins of them. How will the universe go on? How will I go on? How about 250 pages of Notes on my I-phone? Brilliant nuggets of my heretofore undiscovered genius?
This weekend, but I’ll need a recovery program.
I love, love, love this! I feel as if you entered my house, my office, my mind, and found your way out again (miraculously). Just last week I made arrangements for a trusted friend to come over regularly to clean my house while I relieve my home and my mind of all the written baggage I have carried around for more than 30 years. As an example of how you hit the target, I have an accordion file on the floor of my bedroom with comments on my novel manuscript from a workshop I was in 15 years ago — comments I long ago either incorporated or have been ignoring ever since the person made them.
You have shared the journey and helped me see the light!
Happy tidying—and happy new writing!
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Go you! It’s so hard to throw away things that *feel* like they’d have potential…if only you could give them the time and focus they deserve.
I often toss my snippets into draft emails and let them sit. Every so often, I notice my drafts has gotten WAY too big and I cull.
I might keep my first printed draft ever, but you’re right. I don’t need the marked up paper copies of draft 3 and 5. They’re digital already.
Thank you I needed that, really needed that.
Well, I did it, in desperation I set a fire in the fireplace and burned my thesis, two manuscripts – one a novel and one a memoir. Painful? That act took several years to heal, but gifted me the deep teaching of non-attachment. I think that is a fair trade.
Now that’s bravery!
I missed three heartbeats. Then remembered I don’t have a fireplace.
Whew … 😉
So … in my defense (and the brain-washing power of my current file piles…), I reframe obligation as inspirational potential … 😉 But … yeah, I know and I agree. Taking back one’s space clears space. It probably REALLY helps that I live in a very small apartment (NYC, need I say more?) and therefore it is self-deleting — you bring stuff in, you HAVE to take stuff out (or scan it up into the clouds, or something) or you’d end up sleeping in the curb yourself, with your stuff in your bed. … Can only imagine how much I’d keep if I had a house with actual closets and basements and attics and a garage.
Also, yay to rapid scanners. I’ve scanned archives of courses, syllabi, notes, print outs, articles, client files, and more. I pay for good backup (one physical, one etheric and relatively secure, which also backs up anything typed I’m working on), and found that the more I do this, the better my trust-the-universe muscles learn to flex. I still hold on to books, but not as many. Old manuscript drafts with notes? I keep the special ones. The rest? I let them rest on clouds and hope for the best …
And, yeah, this summer will be time for another once-over purge …
Your article got me motivated to go through my clutter as I plan a move to a smaller place.
I love this. This has helped me so much as I am a student and I am too scared to throw anything away incase i need it in the future when in reality I really don’t need it all.
Definitely something I struggle with. Good motivator.
Love this. I don’t know how or when I’ll do this but I have more than 20 boxes waiting for it to happen. Allison, thanks for the inspiration! And now I need your help.
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I’m a bit of a hoarder as well! I once read that one of the best ways to encourage oneself to get rid of the physical “junk” is to take photos and upload them into an album. It’s much easier to let go of piles of clutter you’re convinced will “one day come in handy” if you take a photo
I did something similar for the rest of the house—took photos, then looked at the pics and made lists of what to keep and what to do with the other stuff!
Ahhh…breathing space. Such a novel idea. Thank you for inspiring a major overhaul in my writing studio, which includes a useless file cabinet of “stuff” that hasn’t been read in years, plastic bins containing drafts 1,2,3,4, and 5 of my first book, stacks of correspondence and “keeper articles” that have been read, reread, and now sit turning a horrid shade of yellow.
I happened on your article this morning while searching for help to make a decision to toss out two manuscripts that I have worked on for YEARS. It seems they have been holding me back. I had an epiphany yesterday when I realized I had written two memoirs about (mainly, I see now) men who did not love me back. I want to be done with that history and that means tossing out the ms. It feels like I am throwing out myself, all these thousands of pages and hours. But they are not serving me, they haunt me, keeping me from doing better work. Peggy (in previous comments) gave me courage this morning. I wish I had a fireplace right now! But I have a firepit outside and I will have a ceremony and burn them up, then delete the computer files. Make room for healthier words. Thank you for your fine article.
Gratifying to see I’m not alone in my sea of papers; 30 years of words written and typed! Words are our prisoners until we free them to tell the stories that are within to tell. I have learned so much in 2019 about myself and in this research – hopefully, can now write the Memoir/Trilogy that is bubbling away deep inside. Thanks and here’s to a fruitful 2020.