The wordsmith's dilemma

On throwing stuff out

6 minute read
I'm not a hoarder or collector. I have a lot of music— old albums, CDs, cassettes, weird stuff on the computer— but I don't buy all of anybody. I have favorites by a particular musician, and I seldom listen to anything else this person has recorded.

So why did I keep five three-foot-long shelves in my workshop, each a foot high, packed solid with old manuscripts, mag articles I'd written and cheap reproductions of artworks from 30 or 40 years ago?

I don't know. Why does anyone gather anything? But the fact is, though I only occasionally looked at any of it, and never looked at most of it, it sat in the back of my mind like a dustbunny under the couch. Yeah, I should get rid of it, but... it's my dustbunny.

Workshop destroyed

Two days ago we had a bizarre, unexplained fire. I went out to put some cardboard (salvaged for starting woodstove fires) in the workshop and noticed a little cloud right above the workshop door. Aw, how cute, such a nice little cloud.... where no cloud should be!

I poked my head inside the workshop and all seemed well. Then I hell-for-leathered around back to the upper level, Linda's potshop. I opened the door but it was already too late.

The first fire truck was there in a little over 15 minutes and almost had it under control when it ran out of water. One of the few drawbacks to living in our cabin on the wooded hillside is water pressure determined by a friendly but half-assed pump drawing from 100 feet underground.

Gone to grey mush

It took another half hour for a second truck to run a massive hose 400 feet uphill from our neighbor's and blast away with protester-defying nozzle strength. They finished the job quickly, but by then, no roof, no guest bedroom"“ and no potshop. None at all.

Every single piece of equipment, every pot-in-progress, every ceramics book, hundreds of specialty brushes, dozens of glaze chemicals, hundreds of pounds of raw clay. Gone to grey mush, all of it.

I can't begin to comprehend what Linda has lost. Some of those things go back 40 years. It must be almost like losing a child. As a writer, all I can lose really is words, and most of these exist elsewhere in the same or slightly different form.

Unfinished novel

Since my workshop is located under Linda's potshop, it experienced a deluge. Even without the weather turning nasty tonight, it had been raining in there for two days. When our demolition dumpster arrived, I decided to do a ceremonial first heave. What should it be? I tossed in a couple floppy slops of cardboard and old tax returns, but that hardly seemed worthy.

Then I saw those shelves packed solid with yellowy-pink newsprint, rough drafts typed on the back of college notes, ringbooks of squinchy handwritten plot outlines, etc., etc. Wasn't it, at last, Time?

Some had damp edges, others ballooned with triple their weight in water. Yesss... parts of that first novel that no longer make sense even to me. It weighed a good ten pounds as I heaved it into the dumpster.

More notable were the scrambled-and-Scotch-taped drafts of my succinctly titled Evolution Unfolding in a Small Town in Western Pennsylvania. I honestly think it's the best thing I've ever written, even though, after 30 years, it remains unfinished.

Old Welcomat columns

But why should I treasure ancient hunks of faded typing shuffled like playing cards? Did I think they would resurrect themselves into the Ultimate Draft? Twenty pounds into the dumpster.

And so on. Nearly all the columns I had written for the Welcomat and the Forum, ramblings that I suppose no longer exist elsewhere, and so, by definition, unique"“ but I never, ever looked at them. Heave away, Santiano.

Yet, other things of equally borderline value lie drying by the woodstove, mounds of words I just can't release despite age and dissociation.

From another galaxy

Once in the '60s I wrote glowingly about Paul Krassner's The Realist, then and still the finest satirical rag ever produced in America. A kind reader passed on to me a ream box packed with Krassner's skinny, ratty volumettes of wonder. I will never voluntarily part with these ribald beauties, even though any attempt to read them would lead to disintegration (they've turned a mortuary gray that I've never seen in any other publication).

Then there are the issues of Schuylkill Scallywag, invented by the incomparable Syd Bradford. Syd used to write letters to the Welcomat signed Syd Endeavor that... well, it wasn't that they didn't make sense, but that the sense they made came from a different galaxy.

In the mid '90s I joined Syd and a couple other more or less earthlings to put out the quarterly Scallywag. After a time we became too tame for Syd and he "retired" from the mag.

(Syd and I later had a falling out triggered by a communally drunken e-mail exchange in the middle of the night. Don't ever do that. Syd, to my misfortune, decided I despised him. Quite the contrary, I found him rare, gifted and uncategorizable, a minor genius of the invigorated bizarre.)

Mob killer's memoirs

There's also, roasting on the mantel, a Xeroxed copy of the handwritten confession of a mob killer serving time in a New England prison. A friend and I started a non-profit dedicated to unspecified social good and had hoped to publish it. Fortunately, we never got that far, or we and everyone we had ever encountered would have had our asses sued as flat as Sigourney Weaver's.

And though I've finally tossed that mixed salad of Evolution drafts, I couldn't give up the ringbook of its plot outline, the map of its mythical town, Deffenburg (named for Heinrich Deffen, a misplaced Hessian officer in the Revolutionary War), or the clutch of five-by-eight character cards typed on "“ what?— my old Royal or Olympia?

All my power tools are a rusted mess, and the cardboard cartons holding hardware and electrical doohickeys have soaked up water like a sponge. I had no place in our tiny being-renovated house to spread them out. They'll just have to wait their turn.

But the decades-old words, baked and re-energized, will make a tidy, manageable pile for later inspection, should I be tempted so to inspect. More likely, they will simply age into a powder to puzzle my executors.♦

To read responses, click here.
For another take on this subject by Susan Washburn, click here.

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