Story Hoarder

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I grew up in a household of mild to moderate hoarding. My mom has multiple scents of liquid hand soap for every season (and I’m not just talking the four main ones; I mean like tulip season and Advent). My dad’s hoarding reached its peak—I hope—during the pandemic, when supply chain issues prompted him to buy twenty cases of canned tuna fish. As he’s the only one who will eat the stuff, we’ll end up burying the leftovers with him. For me, books have always been the hardest to let go. The ones I read and love, yes, but also the ones I write. Not only do I have thousands of pages of unpublished material on the laptop I’m using right now, I’ve kept hard drives, CD-ROM’s, and even floppy disks with stories I’ve written. And don’t get me started on old journals, notebooks and letters. I keep documents like I’m preparing for my own presidential library. In the annual spring cleaning fervor, I always consider purging, but never manage to shed more than a few greeting cards from 1991.

Now a mother of three girls who sob every time I discard a broken Happy Meal toy, I’d like to set a better example. While I don’t think anyone in my family suffers from compulsive hoarding, we all struggle with limits around materialism, and the entitlement, impatience and paranoia that stems from living in an age of instant gratification. Every time I dispose of something, a small voice tries to insist I’ll regret it, that by getting rid of an object, no matter how seemingly insignificant, I’m somehow goading the universe into creating a scenario in which I will suddenly and desperately need that exact item.

In my writing, too, embracing a “less is more” mentality requires discipline. As a beginner, I tended to overwrite, and heard the advice “kill your darlings” often. Over time, I learned to tighten and clean my sentences, paragraphs and chapters more efficiently, but once in a while still resist chopping a “pretty” passage that does little to serve the reader’s understanding or experience of my story. In those cases, I find it helpful to cut and paste the language into a separate document of additional material. Sometimes, I do revisit the extraneous pages and pull a piece back into my work in progress. More often, the words languish, gathering cyber dust. Then there are the manuscripts I’ve abandoned entirely, like once-beloved toys I’ve outgrown. What good could come of holding on to those, I used to wonder. Sure, I’d learned from the process, but that didn’t mean I needed to keep the humbling evidence, did it?

In the last several months, I’ve decided this particular type of hoarding is healthy and even potentially lucrative. For starters, glancing back over past writing serves me in the same way watching film helps an athlete. I can study my mistakes from a more objective distance. I can marvel at my growth, and practice greater empathy for other novice writers who’s work I critique. I can catalogue habits and patterns—undesirable ones, to improve upon in the future, as well as positive themes that might inform my author voice and brand.

The most unexpected benefit of hoarding stories occurred recently when I found a submission call for a short story with a very specific theme. I didn’t have time to create a quality piece from scratch but remembered a character I’d loved from one of the manuscripts I’d abandoned. Could I resurrect him, with some slight modifications? Looking back at the source material, I found it sufficiently polished (thanks to several rounds of critique) and in need of minimal changes to meet the submission requirements. At worst, if the editor rejected my story, I’d wasted about an hour. As you might have guessed, the editor accepted. Since then, I’ve revisited several other characters from different half-finished novels and at least two will be published in anthologies soon.

So, before you hit delete on that highlighted passage—or page, chapter, novel—consider keeping it a little longer. If in a few months you read it again and find it truly offensive, by all means, trash it. Pruning, even slashing and burning, has cathartic value. If, on the other hand, you find aspects worthy of salvage, try reimagining the character, setting or premise in a new form. Maybe that arc fits better in a piece of flash fiction (stories of powerlessness seem less aggravating to readers of short fiction, for example). Perhaps the random creepy scene that didn’t fit in your rom-com really wants to be a horror novella. Who knows until you try? Play Dr. Frankenstein with your ideas once a while. If nothing else, you’ll have flexed different creative muscles while cleaning out your writer’s junk drawer.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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