July 12th, 2011 / 6:13 pm
Craft Notes

Stuff Left Behind

Paper Towel, June 3, 2011, Jeffrey Simmons

I have a small file cabinet under my desk that has in it scraps of paper with notes—on notebook paper, printer paper, index cards, Post-It notes, and even (yeesh) napkins. Early drafts of stories—from a time when I wrote everything long hand first, and then typed them up—are in there. Little bits of research that I printed out, glanced at, and then decided to ignore. Pictures I took out of magazines.

There’s another pile on my bookshelf that’s twice the size of my mid-sized cat.

Why am I keeping it all? I thought about throwing it away, recently, but then my brother started putting images of paper towels up on his blog. I believe they are the towels on which he sets his brushes when he switches to another. (See here, here, here.) And then I started to wonder about the value of the constituent components of the writing that I do. (Or, say, the value of the components of the writing that a less obscure writer might do.)

And not that obvious value. Not like the way the Raymond Carver archives are interesting in that they show the Carver/Lish/Carver editing. Or the way David Foster Wallace’s pages show the way his mind worked. What about the value of drafts as tangible things? Or pretty things? What about the value of my notes on drafts in my lousy, ever-changing penmanship? Or yours?

Or even the stray pen marks on your desks? The divot in the carpeting where your chair sits and you sit and your weight makes a divot in the carpeting?

At the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, I have on more than one occasion scoffed at the fact that someone there has put behind glass a giant box filled with the ink cartridges Neal Stephenson used when composing one of his novels. (Stephenson writes his first drafts with a fountain pen.) The giant piles of drafts I mostly understood. But the cartridges? “What a weird fetish,” I thought. “If these weren’t behind glass, they might be mistaken for evidence of hoarding behavior on Paul Allen’s part.”

I might be coming around a little, though.

What are you leaving behind? Can I see?

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  1. Don

      I do this too, but I’m in despair because I can’t find a draft of something I never typed but swear I have on paper.  It’s not in the cabinet…

      The opening to Kertész’ FIASCO has an amazing sequence with a writer and his box of papers.

  2. Mark William Jackson

      I keep all my hand written drafts in boxes. Once the box is full I seal and date it, then start a new box. I don’t have to refer back to earlier drafts as I maintain digital copies of all my notes. I like being able to look back – I have notebooks from 20 years ago, and typewriter typed poems as old.
      You’re right, the handwriting tells a story in itself.
      I have not kept any empty pens or cartridges though.

  3. biearie

      i keep paper towels just like that

  4. Marian May Kaufman

      I keep it all. post-its with ideas for a scene that have been through the wash in a pocket a few times, postcards, movie stubs, receipts! most of my poems were once written on the back of a receipt and I often use them for bookmarks just in case.. I keep it all because I never know what could turn out to be accidentally brilliant. But maybe I’m just a hoarder too.