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Notes to Self: On Making Room to Move Ahead


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Recently, in his writer’s newsletter, Story Club, George Saunders wrote about packing for a move and completing what he called a “death cleaning”, which is not his concept, but a Swedish one, he explained, where a person edits their belongings before death, in order to simplify things for their survivors.

I’ve been doing some of my own death cleaning lately (I’m just fine, BTW, nothing dire to see here), and I admit that just maybe, there is a little teensy smidge of avoidance behavior going on. I tell myself it’s a good time to set my novel-in progress aside for a bit and then go back to it with fresh eyes after the holidays. Anyway, I started the Big Clean in my studio (see above), which was originally built in the 1920s as a bunkhouse on our farmhouse property. It might have held two sets of bunk beds in its prime, and originally had a wood stove. It has no central heat, air conditioning, or plumbing, but it is MINE—my she-shed, or whatever. Honestly, I hate that term. But I digress. For the twenty-two years I’ve lived here, it has been my place. I began by sorting a bin of tangled needlepoint yarn in a mélange of harshly bright 1970s shades. There were four unfinished needlework projects—two by me and two I inherited from a friend of my mother’s when she died, comprising one knotty, half-finished, floral pillow cover and a just-started monogrammed tennis racket cover. I’ve no idea whose monogram it is (was?), and the cover is small enough to fit a 1970s-era wooden racquet. Toss!

Next, I found the accoutrement required to make a smocked infant garment, given to me by a friend who taught me this craft twenty-some years ago, before the birth of my daughter. Back then, I completed one dress and thought I’d rather go through first-stage labor again than start another smocking project.

And so it went.

Bin by bin, I had to decide which things I might use again someday. I still knit obsessively, so my yarn stash and pattern books remain. My newest hobby, originated during lockdown, is knitting little 7” forest animals with clothes, and making rooms for them and telling their stories @tinyfoxstory on Instagram. So there are myriad minuscule fiddly bits to misplace and step on. My three sewing machines stay in use these days mainly for repairing chewed dog beds. I’ll also save craft supplies I hope to use with my toddler granddaughter someday. Pneumatic upholstery stapler? Nah.

From a post on Instagram by the brilliant cartoonist Roz Chast @rozchast, I found an organization in New York called Materials for the Arts, a government-sponsored “creative reuse center.” They are happy to accept donations of beads, buttons, fabrics, art supplies, etc. So boxing up things to mail off kept me busy for a good few days and produced a flattering glow of accomplishment. I tossed! I culled! I donated!

My Marie-Kondo-inspired self (have not read, BTW) was feeling pretty pumped by now—warmed up and ruthless. It was time to double down and tackle the alternate function of my bunkhouse: writing. In addition to cabinets of sewing and craft supplies, I have file boxes and a shelf unit of materials acquired while researching my first two novels. I have books on everything from candy making to multiple biographies of Josephine Baker, to a depressing coffee-table photo book about children in the Great Depression. In full-on death-cleaning mode, I packed up about a third of these to take to my local library’s annual book sale. Each volume had served me, and now, I wondered, would anyone else want them? I have a stack of advance reader copies of my first novel. What to do with them? I gave some away a while back, and then stopped when a reader who had one complained in an Amazon review that the book had typos. Argh. That’s why we have ARCs.

I gave away a lot of “how to write a novel” books I bought before I started my MFA, when I was just beginning this journey nine years ago. It’s not that I don’t still have a lot to learn, I do. Oh, I do. But there are only a few craft books I find myself returning to, or keeping for sentimental reasons. One favorite I still use is Janet Burroway with Elizabeth and Ned Stuckey French’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, now in its tenth edition. Other old friends are One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Another resource that deserves space on any aspiring writer’s shelf, IMHO, is Courtney Maum’s very real and practical Before and After the Book Deal.

By the way, some of these would make great holiday gifts.

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From the bookcases, I moved on to files, including boxes filled with pads of notes of research and drafts of my first two novels, both published now. The first notepads I had specifically for creative writing came from the Levenger Catalog. For Christmas 2015, right before I started my MFA program, my sweet husband gave me a stack of these deluxe, gold-bound pads with thick, high-quality, gold-edged paper, which I ultimately found intimidating. They were Toni Morrison-Donna Tartt-quality note pads. My scribbles didn’t seem worthy. For the long term, I settled instead on a more modest model, of recycled paper, which I buy in bulk, also from Levenger. The paper is great to write on. So I had maybe fifteen of these babies, numbered and organized by date and novel. I flipped through each one.

Since my lockdown transition from Word to Scrivener, I keep a lot of research in the project file on my laptop. For my current novel-in-progress, I’ve filled about six notepads. The last time I sorted and culled the notes to use going forward, I unearthed these pithy take-away notes-to-self:

1. Dead air—cat fight?                          otss.jpeg?resize=525%2C394&ssl=1

2. They do the dirty deed.

3. This is important shit here!

4. No Dukes, FFS!

5. This is all so juvenile.

Somehow, I can’t envision the archive of Liza Nash Taylor’s author’s notes being presented to the Library of Congress. After viewing notepads from novels one and two, I ended up tossing most of them. Toss, toss, toss, whee!

This cleaning-editing-choosing-what-has-future-value requires subjective judgment. If I keep something, it has either ongoing value as inspirational material, or sentimental value. And I’m not a particularly sentimental person. I’ve already tossed the birthday cards you sent me in October. The harder judgment of what to keep or toss involves the definition of what serves me NOW, and that raises the tricky question: Where AM I, at present, as a writer? And then comes the sneaky, impostor-syndrome-voice I’ve named Icky, who asks: Yeah, where ARE you? Does your present work have value? I think not.

My two traditionally published historical novels came out in August 2020 and August 2021. My pandemic babies. Hope springs eternal, and I’m working hard on a third. As with my first two, this WIP has its own shelf filled with research including contemporaneous early 1950s novels, memoirs of fashion models, technical guides for couture beadwork and sewing, issues of Life and Look and fashion magazines from the 1950s. I have a wall-sized bulletin board filled with inspirational fashion photos, pinned alongside a copy of the check I received for my first payment for my writing ($75, for second place in a contest). It’s there with my daughter’s childhood tempera paintings and postcards from Paris museums. So maybe I’m not completely lacking in sentimentality.

As writers, when we reorganize our space, or records, or research, we are choosing what to carry forward. What I’ve found with this death cleaning project is that I felt a need to redefine the use of my space to best serve me now. In doing so, I’ve found myself confronting what I will do in the future. In making room for the background materials for my novel-in-progress, I’m creating space for it as an entity as valuable to me as my two published books.

That feeling, in itself, makes the effort worthwhile.

So, where am I right now, as a writer?  I’m a published novelist hard at work on a new manuscript.

Will I ever reupholster an armchair? Almost certainly not.

Will I finish this novel draft? Hell, yes, and shut the heck up, Icky. I’m not making room for you here.

How do you decide what to carry forward to support your writing?

Which craft books do you treasure?

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