My wife and I have decluttered a lot over the years, most expansively during moves from one state to another—after 21 years in our Michigan house to Colorado, after four years in our Colorado apartment to Wisconsin —and we've done it often during our condo years here. It's been relatively painless, donating unused items to various libraries or charities, deciding which recently accumulated items should replace which items acquired long ago, letting the household slowly clutter again. But once you've pared down easily dispensable belongings, you face items that hold special significance, stuff harder to simply discard, such as, for writers, their writing. Lately I've noticed other writers wrestling with this dilemma.
In "How to Practice," Ann Patchett describes disposing what accumulated in her house, emptying "closets and drawers [. . .] filled with things we never touched and [. . .] had completely forgotten we owned." She provides a vivid picture of the superfluous contents of their home (like the "thirty-five dish towels crammed" in a kitchen drawer). Her details, likely familiar to most homeowners, certainly resonated with me. Eventually she encounters things more difficult to discard.
Because they had "sensed a vacuum in my house and rushed in to fill it," Patchett's mother "gave me a large box of letters and stories I'd written in school. She'd been quietly saving them" and her sister "dropped off a strikingly similar stack of my early work." Patchett "didn't want to see those stories again" but she keeps what they gave her. She also keeps a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter she hasn't used since she was twenty-three, partly because: "The stories my mother and my sister had returned to me: they were all typed on the Hermes. My mother and my stepfather, my darling Lucy, college, graduate school, all those stories—they made up the history of that typewriter." For her, the typewriter "represented both the person I had wanted to be and the person I am." Not letting go of something isn't a question of continued relevance or utility—it's something more intimate and essential to our definition of ourselves.
Online, Rebecca McClanahan similarly details efforts "to slough off another layer of the past," and seems more determined than Patchett to let physical relics of her writing go. Each spring she discards notebooks "containing, among other things, descriptions, responses to readings, quotes, unsent letters, drafts of poems and stories and essays, maps, sketches, song lyrics, lists of joys and fears, scraps of dreams and nightmares, and occasional waves of the emotional tsunamis of life." Having already discarded forty notebooks, she's now letting go of twenty more. Responding to a reader's comments, she mentions that, though she once possessed "thousands of ancestral letters and documents" useful in creating what she hopes is "an artful book"—probably The Tribal Knot, her family memoir—she "was ready to let them pass into other hands," just as she is willing to let her journals go. Perhaps those other hands will preserve them a little longer.
I remembered McClanahan's remarks while reading John McPhee's recent article "Tabula Rasa, Vol. 2", commenting about pieces he didn't write. "Tabula Rasa, Volume One," his previous clearing of old files, partly triggered my writing this blog. I've recently noted a trend among some writers of a certain age. Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Vivian Gornick's Taking a Long Look and Unfinished Business, Gretel Ehrlich's Unsolaced, Patricia Hampl's The Art of a Wasted Day, and McPhee's own Draft #4 and The Patch all share a valedictory air by gathering previously uncollected or unpublished material. I appreciate the urge to somehow send things out into the world rather than keep them stored in a file cabinet, computer, or digital cloud.
Having just watched Hemingway on PBS, I'm aware that some writers have much of their drafting and composing preserved. My book on E. B. White depended on the archives he donated to Cornell University. But not all writers are asked or are willing to do that. Responding to comments on her Facebook post, McClanahan mentions tearing out pages to give to people who might value them, a compromise with preserving them herself. She argues that "just because we needed to write something doesn't mean we have to save it. If it is/was essential and necessary to write, it now lives inside us." That's an optimistic way to look at it, something I'll think about as I leaf through all the writing I've held on to, before, one way or another, finally, inevitably, letting it go.
Notes: McClanahan, Rebecca. Facebook Post, April 16, 2021
McPhee, John. "Tabula Rasa: Volume Two," The New Yorker, April 19, 2021
Patchett, Ann. "How to Practice," The New Yorker, March 1, 2021 (March 8, 2021 Issue)