“Lie down/in the word-hoard…”

Good advice from Seamus Heaney. Sometimes I feel such a yearning to burrow in language, to immerse myself in all the words that have collected in my imagination, in my hands, in the hollows at the base of my neck. I hoard words like summer grain, like apples, for their utility and their solace.

But unfortunately I hoard papers as well. (Books, too: the subject of another day.) For weeks now, I’ve wanted to tidy my desk. I’d make a desultory attempt to do that and I’d find that there wasn’t an inch of storage space to put the letters, the notes scribbled onto file cards or old receipts (and nowhere for receipts either which is why they end up on my desk). Today I decided to simply begin. To bring in some bags for the papers that could be recycled and a laundry basket for the stuff I’m going to burn. Every year I have a bonfire of the vanities and it makes me feel so clear afterwards, though my clothes are dense with woodsmoke — and the more esoteric smoke of old manuscripts and Christmas cards and recipes I’ll never try. So now I’ve begun the process and I won’t be able to do anything much in here until I’m finished. It should be incentive. I hope it is.

sunday work.jpg

There’s a filing cabinet to the left of the small table in this photograph. (Beneath the table? The laptop I replaced in February. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have the hard-drive removed to store. But to store for what? Old emails? Four years of drafts of essays and novellas which have already been published? On top of the table, hidden under stuff — the printer I bought to print quilt blocks on treated fabric for a particular project, a quilt to accompany my  essay “Euclid’s Orchard”. There are no available drivers to allow me to use that printer with my current laptop. Still I keep the printer. You never know…)

So far this morning I’ve filled the laundry basket with old journals  — I’m keeping a couple of travel journals but the ones where I am 18 and trying to write poetry are kind of embarrassing now. The ones where I am 32, with three small children under five, and wondering if I’ll ever write again are too sad to re-read. I know. I dipped into them this morning. Ideas for writing workshops from the days I used to teach them? Out. My academic papers from the 1970s, written in such pretentious language? Out.

All four file drawers are empty now and I’m going to organize the folders you see on the floor (and the ones you can’t see to the right of the chair) pretty carefully. There’s an entire folder of letters from literary agents who’ve turned me down. I might burn those. (It would feel liberating, I think.)

On the other hand, there are gems. A forgotten sheaf of wood-engravings by John DePol, sent as a gift when my novella Inishbream was published by the Barbarian Press. (John did the illustrations.) An autobiography written by one son, which condenses his life to the age of 7 with such clarity (I’m leaving out the birth year and the first year):

when I was two I ate a bug. when I was three I was normal. when I was four I got a bike. when I was give I lost my first tooth. when I was six I got stitches. now Im seven.

And there’s a generous letter from Seamus Heaney, written not long after North was published, giving me permission to use from a few lines (attributed, of course) from that book as an epigraph for my second book of poems. No request for a fee. No need to ask his publisher. Just a fulsome note wishing me luck.

I thought I might finish this job today but I can see it’s more of a process than I imagined. Although there’s a very pretty Turkish carpet under all those file folders, I won’t be lying down on it, luxuriating in the word-hoard, for at least a week.

4 thoughts on ““Lie down/in the word-hoard…””

  1. O, the horror, the horror! But remember Lawrence Hill’s advice: don’t throw out absolutely everything (old Chatelaine recipes can go maybe) as someday, when our ship comes in, a university’s special collections dept may be keen for that Seamus Heaney note, in particular, and your son’s marvelous ‘autobiography of a boy’s life so far’. In the meanwhile, it feels wonderful to get rid of stuff, clutter, crap, call it what you will. A hoard of words is exalted — and worth saving in the Kishkan Archives!

  2. Caroline, such a great comment! Thank you. Yes, keeping the Autobiography for sure and a lot of letters from all and sundry. But the journals and old notes and so forth — it’s a lovely day for a fire….

  3. I was recently searching for my scattered book journals, a haphazard record of (most) of the books I have read since 1983. In the search I came across a small volume that contained to my complete surprise, a diary recording my struggle to accommodate myself to a shifting identity in the year or so prior to my decision to transition from female to male. I was so surprised that (a) I had kept a diary, and (b) the effort I made to find a way to exist and preserve my marriage. Finding something like that is an incredible experience. I am glad to have things like this now that I am far enough out and finally in a place to reflect upon and even write about this aspect of my life.

  4. That sounds like an important document to have, Joe — for historical and personal reasons. I’ve written a fair bit about my early years, in fiction (which is not exactly autobiographical but it uses material from my life) and in personal essays (which explore my own experiences in a cultural and historical context). I feel as though I shaped what I wanted to save, even though I guess it could be argued that I might have groomed it all a little too neatly. When I reread these old journals this morning (and as I was burning other stuff, sitting on a rough cedar bench, poking at the fire with a long stick), I thought they contained reflections, accounts, complaints (and there were lots of those), yearnings, etc. that were mine but not necessarily material I wanted others to read. It took me six years to sort out my parents’ papers and so often I wished it had been a little more organized, filtered, thinned. I’m glad to have some of it but a lot of it made me sad, impatient…Anyway, maybe you can smell the woodsmoke from where you are…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s