Sorting Those Writings From the Past
If you’ve been writing for years, you’ve made a success of it or haven’t given up as yet. Let’s begin with that premise. The question posed is: How much of your early writing do you still possess in a physical form and where is it?
I know. Dual questions, but they do go together; rely on each other, in fact. I’ve been writing in one way or another most of my long life. I still have writings from my middle school days.
Are you like me with file boxes filled with manuscripts short and long, story ideas written on napkins from restaurants you don’t remember, micro cassettes littering boxes, which carry brilliance on tape? Now is your chance to find a way to organize these gems from the past, to create a useful purpose for them long after their original purpose ended.
Gather all of those storage containers into one place. I suggest using a large, large folding or dining table. Send small children and pets out for play and relaxation at their friends’ houses. This is going to be an exercise in rolled-up sleeves and grimacing of the highest order. Futures will be made or broken during the next five or so hours. The futures of ideas, that is.
Now, quickly decide how you are going to arrange your sorting piles on the aforementioned table. Pile 1. Story ideas, Pile 2. Story beginnings, Pile 3. First drafts – short stories, etc., etc., etc. You get the drift. Place a 3X5 card with each pile’s number and category along the table edge farthest from you. Take the first box and begin removing those neglected gems of yesteryear. Before you begin in earnest, grab a box of empty file folders and new labels.
Look at a piece only long enough to categorize it and put it in the proper pile. Repeat this procedure with each box, bin, etc. that holds hardcopy of any kind; longhand versions, typewritten, computer printout, everything. You may have to add new categories that you hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps dimly remembered non-fiction pieces that had intrigued years ago now deserve a review. They’re fair game, too. Stick them in a pile.
When you finish, you’ll have sorted piles that still aren’t equipped to assist you in the future. What you’ve done up to now is the precursor for the main event.
1. Begin with Pile 1. Pull up a chair and relax. Draw that pile to you. Now, carefully look at the first paragraph of a page. What category does this page represent? Is it a story idea for girls, boys, either, adults, YA, who? Is it NF/F? Could you use this idea now or in the foreseeable future? If the answer to this last question is no, chuck the page in the nearest trash can.
2. You may end up minus only a few pages that did not make the cut. That’s alright. Next, ask yourself if you want to write for whatever category the page represents. If the answer is no, then ask yourself if you could use the character’s persona, background etc. in a future piece as a minor character. Can you use the setting or event in a future piece? If you can answer yes, then put it in a separate pile for characters or settings or events or whatever. You will end up with several new piles, but don’t despair. There is method to the madness.
Each new pile created will need an appropriately labeled folder. At least now you know where those characters are and the settings and whatnot.
3. Go to the next stack of unordered writings. Repeat the previous process. Toss those things that will never spark an interest in you again. Continue with the process until you have gone through everything on the table. You will, hopefully, notice that the trash can will need emptying.
Recycling has many definitions. With this exercise you’re using two of those definitions. Take pride in this clutter control. These old odeas and writings have cluttered your office and your writing history long enough. Take back your space, both physical and mental. Now, take a deep cleansing breath. Good. You’ve conquered a strangling villain.
That villain embodies you previous writing and thoughts and ideas. The babies of your past writing endeavors. If your written babies are anything like mine, you’d rather cut off your arm than lose one.
Unfortunately, that response is neither productive nor realistic. I’ve carried manuscripts around the country with me for fifty years because I just couldn’t let them go. There was a big piece of myself within each one. They carried memories of people and places that had nothing, really, to do with the story or my writing of it. It took until this year for me to ask the question – If I can remember without the manuscript, why did I keep it?
My answer was simple. This was my first completed story. I was twelve and I’d written something that an adult could read and enjoy. At least I hoped so. I have finally rid myself of it. The funny part is that I still remember the entire mental movie it engendered when read. I didn’t need to carry it around after all. I have a copy of someone else’s manuscript that I certainly can do nothing with. It, too, will go. Much I will keep because I know that I can use it later. And will. But much will go the way of File 13. Sad to say, I know, but necessary. I refuse to carry all of that with me forever for the unlikely reason that I might again read it some day.
I’ve found a breath of freedom in this exercise. I think that you might also. Unless, of course, you’ve already done your writing clutter control process. If that’s the case, kudos to you. I’m glad to see I’m not alone.
Take heart with the knowledge that you’ve done yourself a great favor. Begin your next piece with a clear conscience and a view to the future. Your new files can now work for and with you rather than drag along behind.
Take care and good writing.