Hemmed In: a Note from Cancer Bitch

The Fifty Foot Blogger, you may have noticed, has been guest-blogging and has graciously assented to continue for a while. I will be poking my nose in during her guesting. Right now I am oppressed by my own lack of discrimination. We moved yesterday and I have an Office One and Office Two in our new place. Office One will be my quiet, non-machine office, with bookshelves (and a laptop, at times). Office Two will have printers and fax machine and phone, and right now has six four-drawer file cabinets and about 25 boxes of books, literary magazines, office supplies (including about 200 used file folders), old work (such as fiction written at grad school, 1981-83) and old notes and books from articles written (a box on sleep and sleep deprivation, from a piece I wrote a number of years ago). I cannot move around in this office because it is so full of boxes on top of boxes on top of file cabinets. I am hemmed in by my past and my inability to throw away, though I swear I have thrown out and given away many boxes and bags of stuff. I threw away my typed-up dreams from the 1980s, assuming they're too boring for even me to re-read. But do I throw away my first rejection letter from the New Yorker (with a hand-written note by Daniel Menaker)? I have my letters in files according to year. I received about 10 from Roger Angell before I received an acceptance, and then after that he sent me about 15 more rejections. Cancer Bitch is seeking permission from you, dear blog-reader, to throw out such letters. I asked a writer friend of mine for advice and she told me she and her husband keep all their letters, because they have a storage space. I refuse to get a storage space. I want to winnow and cut. I'm too old-fashioned to get a scanner and scan everything and put on disk. I want to be austere. But it is so difficult. When I got my port removed last year, I got to keep it and it's in a little plastic bottle. Do I throw that out? Much of my writing depends on the past, some of it on my personal past. I've written essays that quoted from notes I took while traveling, while listening to lectures and watching documentaries, so I'm loath to throw out my many notebooks. But at what point does keeping these notebooks become counter-productive because of their sheer number?

I will keep my copy of my bat mitzvah speech, of notes that I received from friends in junior high, of letters my father sent me. But my early drafts of stories that never turned out? Who needs them? Chapters that never worked from an unfinished novel that never worked? Who needs them? I just went to the old apartment to clear away some last detritus and found in the closet a birthday card I gave to L several years ago. I threw it out without much trouble. There will be other birthdays and other cards.

In a figure drawing class years ago our teacher had us sketch, then change seats. We each worked on someone else's drawing. How easy it was to erase and change someone else's work. It would have been easy to crumple up and throw away, too.

In the old days poets lamented that their names were "writ in water" (see Keats). Is our cyber-writing the equivalent, or does cyberspace make us immortal--but immortal among more cyberwords and cyber-writers than Keats ever dreamed of?

3 comments:

The Fifty Foot Blogger said...

CB, I can't even think about how I would tackle the 13 years of stuff I've accumulated in my place. Prob. a large bonfire...

mamawhelming said...

You have my enthusiastic permission to purge. Check out "It's All Too Much" by Peter Walsh, the "Clean Sweep" guy, who delves into the psychology in a very personalized, encouraging, lay reader-friendly way.

Maybe for every old scrap of paper you toss, you'll make room and energy for a brilliant essay or novel. Sounds like you're on your way.

Phil said...

I know this may seem horrifically techno-philic and unforgivably 21st century, but have you considered scanning all the papers you want to keep and storing them electronically? Then you could still "have" them but they wouldn't take up any real physical "room."

Knowing you, this is probably not very appealing, but it's a thought.