Monday, 20 April 2009

Pack-Rat

I'm a pack-rat. From earliest childhood, I've hoarded junk. I suspect it's in my genes: in my family there are many stories of relatives who have amassed great collections of books, seashells, stamps, and buttons. One of my uncles spent his lifetime collecting books about Robin Hood. By the time of his death, he had the largest collection in the world outside of Nottingham. His library included hundreds of volumes, old and new: first editions, books in Swahili, Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese. All about Robin Hood. The older he got, the more anxious he became. After he died, who would keep them all? Who would oil their bindings, make sure they were kept at the right humidity and temperature? And who would make sure that no one with grimy fingers got their cotton-picking fingers on his treasures?

Although I can smile at my uncle and his fastidious ways, deep down inside, I have his acquisitive ways. I am convinced that only my peripatetic lifestyle -- ten years here, five years there -- has kept my collections at bay. But I've struggled with this condition all my life.

When I was seventeen, I spent a year in Florida, living with a cousin and working. I can still remember packing to go back to California. My cousin, from the non-pack-rat side of my family, tried to help me. "You're not taking that?" she gasped as I filled my boxes with all sorts of junk. But I was. Dresses I could no longer wear, shoes with broken straps, brochures from places we'd visited, books I'd already read two or three times.

When I opened the boxes back in California, it all looked different. Did I really need brochures for Parrot Jungle and Flamingo Park? What could I do with them? Hadn't I read Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters enough? Would I ever manage to get the straps of my black high heels fixed? I thought about the money I'd spent mailing my boxes. That would come in a lot handier than clothes that no longer fit, books I'd already read, and broken shoes. And nobody ever bought lunch with a collection of used brochures.

That was my first wake-up call. During my next major move, I was a lot more careful about what I took with me. Still, after a year in Japan, I came back to the States with eight boxes of things I couldn't bear to part with. I stashed them in my long-suffering sister's garage, where they stayed for years. On trips back to Southern California, I would agonize over precious items. Old clothes I was emotionally attached to. Books I'd traveled all over Mexico and Guatemala with. Miscellaneous nonsense I would never use, but could hardly bear to throw away.

And I still collected things. Stealthily -- a bit here, a little there. Things built up, but not everything was in one place so I couldn't really grasp the full horror of what I had done.

My husband tried in vain to make me throw things away, but it was finally this last move that shook me enough to do a serious cull. On one of our last days in Scotland, my friend Dina showed up at our flat and took one open-mouthed look around. She didn't even say anything, she just opened a roll of black garbage bags and started heaving things in. My dried flower arrangements, old Easter baskets, stacks of faded dishtowels depicting English castles, used packs of cards, puzzles, cracked pottery -- all the things that had already survived dozens of ruthless trips to Oxfam. We had one spat (over a torn Japanese fan; I know I can fix it), and I cried a little, but suddenly I saw the gift she was offering me -- liberation from possesions -- and I started discarding junk with reckless abandon. I was grateful that Dina hadn't seen the place before I'd started culling. And that she hadn't been with me when those first boxes came back from Miami.

And once I got started culling, I found I could not stop. So what if I'd had those dried flowers since our first year in Scotland? Who really needed a whole stack of torn, faded dishtowels? And the relief this gave me was nothing short of cathartic.

Here, in our new flat, I have managed to accumulate almost nothing. This is a huge breakthrough. I can go to potteries and look around, but buy nothing; I can visit bookstores and browse, but leave empty-handed (it does help that 99.9% of the books are in Turkish); I can go clothes shopping with my daughters and end up with zip-all for myself. Somehow, I have managed to cure (almost) a lifetime affliction, and that is wonderful.

This breakthrough may have something to do with getting older: at some point, you realize you can't take it with you. In the end, everything goes: possessions, wealth, beauty, friendship, memory -- even dignity. All you can do is hope to leave behind the best possible record of your achievements, whatever they happen to be.

I'm thrilled with my new-found ability, but the best thing of all is that what I've managed to do with things, I have also learned to do with words.

For years now, I've struggled with a certain overwritten manuscript. The premise of my novel is good, but it has been weighed down by a meandering plot, extraneous characters, and far too many words. And yet every time I went back to my manuscript with the intention to edit, I found myself bogged down. How could I possibly get rid of the passage where Beatrice confers with her tortoise over the two bullies? Or the one where Herleva manages to cure one of her classmates? Rereading my novel, my heart would almost break as I imagined pressing that 'delete' button and getting rid of my precious words.

But a few months back, after we'd gotten settled, I opened up the manuscript and started reading. And I saw it all: the places where I'd gone overboard and put in too many details; the characters I didn't really need; the meanderings that did nothing to advance the narrative. It helped that I won a free critique of a different manuscript and was given this advice, and it helped that my writing group gave me a kick in the butt. But the thing that really pushed me was the desire to get the thing finished at all costs -- to leave it as good as it could be, whether it is ever published or not.

Besides, I've got all my deleted passages saved in a special file. Like that torn fan, you never know: someday I might be able to fix them.

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23 comments:

Carolie said...

What a wonderful essay, Mary! Now, can you please tell me how to come to grips with getting rid of the extraneous crap in my own life? I, too, drag stuff around that "means" something, or that "someday might be fixed." And so often, I don't get to the things I want to do each day, because I've got so many niggling little distractions.

Maybe you'll be the wakeup call my life needs, in the way Dina sparked your wakeup call.

Christy said...

Hurrah for ridding yourself of some dead weight! You must feel so light and airy now. And double hurrah for the edit. Besides, who knows - maybe some of those extra bits will find their ways into other stories.

Bish Denham said...

I think all of us collect stuff to one degree or another. I seem to hold on to every tiny thing I write...some of it I know I could get rid of, but I just can't seem to do it. SOMEday I might use it.

Hubby can't seem to get rid of magazines. There are stacks of them in various and sundry places.

Freeing ourselves of the non-essentials should be a life's goal. It's just stuff and, like you said, we can't take it with us. No matter what we leave behind, if we try to remember that even the sun and the earth will one day cease to exist, then that bird nest I've hung on to isn't all that important.

planetnomad said...

I think we were separated at birth ;) I, too, used to keep the most ridiculous junk and move it all over (esp brochures of places I'd visited! Because someday, I'm going to want those statistics!). But global nomads can't afford the shipping on all our accumulated junk. I, too, have relished the freedom of paring my life down to 10 suitcases for 5 people. I'm not quite where you're at though. I still have things in storage ;)

Jacqui said...

I am the opposite of a pack rat. But I don't toss as I go. I save it and then toss it all at once. It's so liberating. And yes, I feel the same way about killing my darlings in writing these days.

I also grow my hair until I can't stand it and then chop it all off. Freedom!

Charles Gramlich said...

The only thing I've collected in adulthood has been books, although I've kept old manuals and stuff like that around far longer than I needed to. I keep that file of cut outs from stories as well. I think it's very important to do so. Someday that stuff might come in handy. Someday.

kara said...

i've been going through the purge thing as well. it's very painful. i opened a storage room this weekend that held boxes of VHS tapes that i shipped home when i moved from new orleans in 2002. VHS tapes.

guess where they are now? yes, that is correct...goodwill.

hindsight and all that.

adrienne said...

That delete file is like a treasure box. Every now and then you have to open it and see if there are any gems in there.

I'm kind of a clutter-phobe, really. I've got closets I've been itching to get at...

Kim Ayres said...

Every time we move house, we find boxes of stuff we've never got round to unpacking from the last time. And if the house had burned down in the meantime, we would never have remembered the boxes or their contents. But the moment we open them, we are all OOoooohs and Aaaaaahs and oh-my-goodness, then tape the boxes back up, determined to sort them out after the move...

Linda said...

I knew a funny lady who said that she spent the first half of her life collecting things and the second part getting rid of things. I've never been much of a horder but it's still amazing how much junk I have.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- If I'm ever in your neck of the woods, I will happily give you a hand! One thing is for sure: someone else's treasures are a lot easier to cull than your own. Even Dina admitted that. I've had a great time telling my sister what to get rid of in her kitchen, but it was tough work having someone in mine telling me what I didn't need. Still, I'm glad I went along with it. I got rid of a lot of clutter I'll probably never miss.

Christy -- I do feel lighter and airier, but the truth is that I still have a lot of boxes with junk in them. Still, I tell myself that it will be a lot easier the next time I cull.

As for the bits finding their way into stories, I suspect that they're just security blankets. But I'm still glad I have them.

Bish -- One good way to deal with this is to get rid of it but tell yourself that it's still there, in the world of imagination...

As for magazines, we've got half a zillion National Geographics. How in the world can anyone get rid of National Geographics? And I'm embarrassed to admit this, but just hearing about your bird nest makes me want one of my very own. What kind is it?

PN -- Yay -- another expatriate pack-rat!

We've still got plenty in storage too, but now that I've seen what little we can all live on (we're also at 2 suitcases per person), I'm going to cull a lot further the next time.

It's awful having to get rid of old brochures and pamphlets, isn't it? I keep them until I can hardly bear to part with them, then grit my teeth and stuff them into the trash.

Jacqui -- Have you always been this way or did you evolve into a natural discarder? I'm so envious.

I do that hair thing too. I'm getting pretty sick of the lot I've got now -- ready to whack it all off.

Charles -- Believe me, we could almost build a house out of the boxes of books we have. In the thick of moving hell, if someone had offered me a Kindle for all of our boxes, I might have cracked -- it was that bad.

Sometimes things DO come in useful -- that's what makes the whole discarding thing so awful. You just know that the minute you get rid of half a bolt of Naugehyde, someone will come along who's just dying for it, and then how will you feel?

Kara -- VHS tapes? Who's going to buy them? I got rid of two dozen terry cloth diapers with Velcro fasteners. Bet Oxfam will have a hard time finding homes for them...

Adrienne -- Actually, the novel I've just finished came from that delete file. My finger was a hair's breadth away from hitting the button and I decided to have a look. Glad I did, too. I'll be even gladder if I ever find a home for it.

Kim -- The exact same thing happens to us, especially with kids' art projects, old clothes, musical scores, and notebooks. Someone once told me that the biggest mistake you can make when you're trying to cull is looking. And I make this mistake every single time. Maybe next time I just won't look...

Linda -- I AM a hoarder, so I thank God that I've lived the sort of life I've lived. It's bad enough now, but if I'd never moved around, I could well have ended up as one of those pathetic characters you see in documentaries, virtually swallowed up by piles their own detritus.

a. fortis said...

Great, Mary, on your successes with both types of culling. I have a fear of becoming a pack rat myself--both my maternal grandparents were, and my mother is to some extent. It's very hard because artists tend to have a lot of stuff in terms of supplies and equipment (and now we have a studio full!) and it's all too easy to justify buying more books. But the library has really helped with that...

It's so hard to summon the energy to do the needed purging, though...and I always have this fear that years later I will have an unforeseen need for some random item.

Julia said...

Great essay, Mary! I have a bit of the same problem - but, I'm getting over it! Currently I'm going room by room in my little house & getting rid of everything that I don't love, don't look at, don't need and don't want (as in, anything that is weighing me down!)

Anne Spollen said...

"Besides, I've got all my deleted passages saved in a special file. Like that torn fan, you never know: someday I might be able to fix them."

Lol --

I did exactly this with a novel I've had since my 17 year old turned 2. They are neatly organized and filed in a box -- and probably dreadfully written.

But congrats on what my kids call "decrapping" your space. I really do believe it will show (for the better) in your writing.

AnneB said...

I've been telling myself for two weeks that I need to do some serious de-accessing of articles and writer guidelines I've collected over the years. Since the writing seems to have bogged down, maybe that's what I need to do tomorrow. Thanks, Mary, for the nudge.

Mary Witzl said...

Sarah -- I once visited an artist friend who lived in one of those sprawling Victorians in San Francisco. She and her artist parents had kept just about everything you could imagine, including art supplies. Every room of that house was filled with stuff, including a giant chest filled with costumes. I was envious beyond belief back then, but now the thought of them ever having to pack gives me nightmares.

The thing about culling is that you WILL want one of the culled items at some point. I just tell myself it's easier to live with that irritation than all the junk.

Julia -- Good luck with this! I know from experience that it's easier said that done and a long painful process -- but maybe because I had this problem a lot worse than you do.

AnneS -- Boy, I hope it shows in my writing! The good thing about keeping the deleted stuff is that you can revisit what you thought was great prose and see it for what it is. For the past week, I've been tackling an ms I wrote last year and I'm gobsmacked at all the dead words and filler passages.

AnneB -- Do it! I'm positive there's a correlation! And getting rid of stuff can be both mindless exercise and a cathartic experience, like swimming laps or mowing the lawn. Plus, you may just find interesting artifacts while you're sorting through everything -- and inspiration!

Charlie said...

This is quite possibly the best essay you've done, Mary. I've read it three times already, pausing at the nuggets of wisdom...

Anne Spollen said...

Gobsmacked. Love that one -- THINK I get what it means. Great word if I'm right.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Thank you! How I'd love to think I was wise. But now I'm starting to feel guilty about that hidden box of baby clothes I couldn't part with, and the bunch of old-fashioned letters squirreled away in a tea chest...

AnneS -- "Gob-smacked" is one British expression I couldn't live without. It either means someone who's just been whacked in the face or had someone cough on them. Either way, it's just so evocative. Glad you think so too!

Robin said...

I'm just about to go to bed, so I must purge the following line from my brain:

In the end, everything goes: possessions, wealth, beauty, friendship, memory -- even dignity.

It's nightmare time. You hate me, Mary. Don't you?

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- Awful, isn't it? I'm betting they let me keep some of the stuff I've learned, though, somewhere inside me. And my phobias -- I figure we take them with us too. Though I don't suppose that's much of a comfort...

Susie said...

This is exactly what I needed to read, Mary! We're moving in a few months and I've started my big purge pile in the basement.

I'm wondering how many folks will think my pile of junk is a great treasure when I have a big garage sale in a few weeks.

Mary Witzl said...

Susie -- Good for you, for having a garage sale. We meant to do this, but finally ran out of time. Our local Oxfam got seriously lucky when we decided to move. I hope you make tons of money on all your stuff!