One of my roommates moved out of our apartment this weekend, and a former roommate came by to pick up a few things she’d left behind during her own move. In their wake of open cupboards and swaths of dust, I decided to do some early summer purging. I cleaned out the fridge, the bookshelves, the wardrobe in my bedroom closet.
The experience was not entirely different from when I edit early drafts of my writing. The hoarder impulses kick in, and there’s a similar desire to hold on to certain pithy sentences and clever metaphors, literary equivalents of the hundred-forty-dollar shirt you bought three years ago and never wear or the ugly oversized sentimental sweater you got from your aunt last Christmas. When you attempt to triage, the Voice tells you: “this isn’t a bad shirt, I should wear it more” or “this is a really clever sentence, I should find a place to put it.” There’s a perfectly good reason not to keep that shirt, as there’s a perfectly good reason not to use that sentence: it doesn’t go along with the rest of your wardrobe.
A few years ago, a friend shared with me his strategy for decluttering his home. He and his wife lived in a duplex and decided to gather every single thing they had and put it in the bottom level of the duplex. They moved upstairs, lived in just the top level, and as they needed something, they would go downstairs, find it, and bring it up. Little by little, they repopulated their life with only what was necessary.
I was thinking about this strategy today, and I realized it works because if you have something at hand to begin with, you can come up with a bunch of reasons to keep it, whereas if you start without it and have to go out of your way to get it, you have to ask a different question. Instead of asking, “Why should I keep this thing?” You ask, “What thing do I need here?”
I also realized today that I use this same strategy when I write.
Think of the rough draft as the initial hoarding: you have just moved into your house and you’ve gathered all this junk and written down everything in your head and the whole place is messy and cluttered. You start there, and then you move upstairs. You create a separate document or version and begin anew, with a blank page, a basic outline, the essential furniture. You leave all the clever sentences and paragraphs downstairs, and you won’t miss them, and the ones that you do bring back are the ones that fill a need; the ones that fit.