Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Never throw anything away”: the writer as hoarder

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Recently, hoarders have become something of a national obsession, with at least two reality shows and a number of books, including a novel by E.L. Doctorow, devoted to hoarding and its consequences. I’m always fascinated by these stories, because like a lot of writers, I often feel that I’m on the verge of becoming a hoarder myself. Much to my wife’s dismay, our bookshelves are always overflowing and threatening to colonize new parts of the floor, and every flat surface in my work area is covered with notebooks, index cards, printouts of rough drafts, and scraps of paper, some of it relevant to my current project, others cheerfully grandfathered in. And though I’m far from a true hoarder, I’m periodically forced to confront the question—usually while moving—of how much of my old work I should keep, and what, if anything, I should throw away.

Because the raw numbers aren’t encouraging. For my most recent novel, I’ve generated something like three thousand index cards with fragments of scenes or ideas, not to mention a substantial stack of notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous research. Multiply this by a novel a year, which is the pace I hope to maintain, and we’re looking at a volume of material that probably isn’t sustainable. Even if I manage to cut down on my notes—and there are, in fact, signs that I’m gradually becoming a more efficient outliner and notetaker—I’m always going to be surrounded by paper. And while I’d like to think that one day I can donate the whole lot to, say, the University of Texas at Austin, that won’t happen for decades, if at all. And the meantime, I’m still left with the problem of what to do with all this stuff.

It’s especially tricky because this isn’t just about sentimental value. Buried in my notes are loose ends, unused research, or discarded ideas that could potentially become the basis for future projects. The history of literature is full of examples of writers drawing on their archives for inspiration. Hunter S. Thompson famously kept everything he wrote, going all the way back to high school, and often plundered this material for his later work (including The Rum Diary, written in his twenties, which he apparently found in a drawer once day). In my own case, while still at my first job, I spent six months researching a novel about the art world, only to put it aside when I didn’t have the inclination to finish it. More than two years later, I dug up those old notes again and used them as the foundation for The Icon Thief. I probably would have been able to recreate this work eventually, but the fact that I’d held on to these notes saved me at least a month of research, and probably more.

It’s clear, then, that you should never throw research away, and that you should always keep copies of your old drafts and partial manuscripts, ideally in electronic form. What about the rest? Last summer, I was confronted with the ultimate test: the year before, I’d moved from New York to Chicago, but left many of my books and papers in my old apartment. When my subletter moved out, I had to fly back for a week and purge with a vengeance. In the end, I got rid of something like eighteen boxes of books, as well as a lot of old drafts from my first, unpublished novel, which I culled according to a simple rule: if a piece of paper had my handwriting on it, it might be worth saving. If not, it probably wasn’t. So all those old printouts were consigned to the recycling bin, leaving me with a tidy box of materials—which I’m almost certainly going to use someday.

Because it isn’t paper I’m really hoarding. It’s ideas. And I’m pretty sure that they’re going to come in handy one of these days. I swear.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2011 at 10:08 am

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