Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I used to think my mom was a packrat. She never threw anything away. As my parents aged and became ill, every once in a while I'd look around their house and think: Someday my brothers and I will have to clear the 60 years of junk out of this place. Now that we've actually begun clearing, the enormity of task is overwhelming, all the more so because we're not finding 60 years of stuff. We're finding 70 or 80 years of stuff. And I'm not talking valuable antiques. I'm talking things like newspaper clippings about indelicate medical conditions.

What's this got to do with writing? Tons, and on all sorts of different levels. Clutter is the enemy of all creativity. And lately, I've become an expert on house clutter, desk clutter, brain clutter and life clutter. I could write a book on it, you might say. Just not a creative book. Because of the clutter.

I said I USED to think Mom was a packrat. I'll be living in my parents house now, and can picture the back bedroom as a great office. My brothers are all supportive of this dream, so we got together and started pulling things out of bureau drawers and cabinets. My brothers, bless them, took away boxes of things for themselves, or to donate to various charities, but still left me piles under the heading Stuff Elena Has to Go Through.

Last week I finally stopped procrastinating and started sorting. I made piles of my own: Definitely Throw Out (like a pair of latex gloves that looked unused but who knew?), Recycle (mounds of yellowed Dear Abby columns, old greeting cards and religious junk mail), Give Away (a hardly-used pocketbook), Keep (my dad's Army Good Conduct Medal), and THINK ABOUT LATER. Onto this last pile went Stuff Too Good To Ditch, Stuff Too Sentimental To Ditch, Stuff Too Interesting to Ditch, Stuff Either Brother Might Want That They Missed The First Go-Round, and, my favorite, Stuff I Might be Able to Use Someday (my dad's influence there--we're big jury-riggers). The THINK ABOUT LATER pile was everything that I thought deserved more than a quick decision, but I didn't have the energy or time to invest at that moment. This was also my biggest pile.

That's when I had the epiphany about my mom. She wasn't a packrat. The whole house was simply her THINK ABOUT LATER pile. She'd had better things to do with her life than spend it thinking about what to keep and what to toss. So she kept. Easier that way. And here was I, just like her.

Clutter is a waste product of the extreme ends of brain function. Your right brain wants to keep everything with heart value--photos, letters, greeting cards, worthless plastic knickknacks, now brittle with age, that bring back memories of a vacation, birthday, first date, etc. Your left brain wants to keep anything that appears useful--a gift sweater you never wore because it doesn't quite fit but you keep telling yourself you'll lose the weight, or books you might want to reread someday, or an unopened package of blank Styrofoam balls, or cameras, TVs and software that all work perfectly but technology has made them obsolete. My vice is empty containers. Some part of my brain is certain it can find SOMEthing to put inside, thereby organizing myself more, so I keep them.

Back to writing. Clutter comes with the process. You collect research materials, you jot down ideas. Your brain gets crammed with characters, details, plot lines, clues and potential loopholes. You fall in love with your gorgeous prose. When it comes time to tie up all those loose ends, eliminate the loopholes, tighten prose, or fix that explanation that seemed to be pure logic but that half your proofreaders didn't get, well, lately I've been handling this like my back room project. I toss it all onto a THINK ABOUT LATER pile in my brain and go find a bowl of ice cream instead.

The lesson here is, I've got to stop thinking that I need to think. The clutter has got to go, both mentally and physically. Or else my THINK ABOUT LATER piles will continue to grow until I can't write at all and can't get out of the house.

If you're thinking of giving me anything, make it perishable.
Ice cream would be good.

Peace, Elena

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