Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Editing Your Life

As I may have mentioned, we moved. Moving is a strange process. It starts out all nice and polite, but, in the end, it always gets ugly. Sometimes violent. It starts out as the army recruiter, all smiles and handshakes, and turns into the drill sergeant, all push-ups in the rain and mud.
And it did rain, too. I spent the last day unloading the truck in a nice drizzle.

In the beginning, the most important items are carefully boxed and moved in an orderly fashion from one dwelling to the other. The big things, not in size necessarily, but the things you can't live without. And I'm not talking toiletries here (because you can go out and buy a new toothbrush); I'm talking about the things that give your life meaning. The things where the value isn't always obvious to an outsider. During this process, you actively choose to cut some things loose. Things that, at one time, held meaning for you but no longer do. You pick it up, examine it, remember what it was to you, and decide to let it go. At first, this process is kind of enjoyable. Looking back over your life and making decisions about where to take it.

And there are, also, just the big things. The furniture. Beds. Which things go. Which things get tossed because "I always hated that table." Which things get replaced. And you move on down from there.

We have so many books. Some of them were still boxed up from the last move, and that was 8 years ago. Sorting through the books is a somewhat arduous process, but we just can't keep them all (as much as I would probably like to). We ended up with something like four big bags of books to trade in at the used book store and who knows how many that we donated (because they were either hardback (so the used book store wouldn't take them) or of a type that the used book store wouldn't be interested in), but it was more than what we're going to trade. And, still, we have sooo many books (and nowhere to put them (I imagine we're going to have even more boxes of books sitting around until our next move)). [Don't even ask me how many copies of the various Harry Potter books we had laying around. It was obscene. I -think- we have it cut down to one set of hardbacks, now.]

And don't get me started on the toys. Only the girls in the family are any good at letting go of those things. Even things that haven't been played with in years. But, to quote Tom from The House on the Corner, "Just because I haven't played with a toy in a few months doesn't mean I don't want it." And that's how my boys feel about their stuff, even if it has been years and even if it's trash. Yes, the older one, the one that's in high school, collects pieces of trash. As he puts it, "It's cool trash, Dad." We just won't tell him how much I threw away during this move, okay.

But the hardest things are the things we don't really want to get rid of but feel it's for the best. I have, well, had, this jacket. My best friend in college gave it to me. While we were in college. Yes, that makes the coat more than 15 years old. I loved it. Not because it was a great coat but because my friend gave it to me. He gave it to me because all I ever wore was this flimsy, red windbreaker. At the time (which is not the case, now), I was not often inclined to being cold, and, generally, the windbreaker was enough. But he felt like I should be more prepared for cold weather (and rightly so), so he bought me a coat for Christmas one year. After 15 years, it was falling apart. Literally. I couldn't risk washing it anymore, because it couldn't take it. And, being much more inclined to being cold these last few years, it no longer did the job of keeping me warm which was compounded by the fact that it had become much too large for me. No, not because it got bigger but because I've shrunk. Not gotten shorter, either. So I held it up, and my wife, who has been telling me for years that I should move on to a new coat, said, "You can keep it if you want it." And I wanted to. I told her I wanted to. But it wasn't useful anymore. In fact, it was just taking up space, even if it wasn't a whole lot of space. I realized it was time for it to go even though I did love it, and I made a final walk with it out to the dumpster, just me and the coat, and tossed it in. Yes, I'll miss that old coat, but, really, it no longer did the job for which it was intended and only had any meaning to me.

At the very end comes the "panic packing."* You know, when you're running out of time to get out of  the old place and the remaining things, although sometimes necessary items, are unimportant items. They could be replaced, but you just don't want to have to replace everything. At some point in there, my wife said to me, "We're at the point where anything that's not obviously trash is a keep," meaning just throw it into the closest box and it can be sorted later, and I said, "No, we're at the point where anything that isn't obviously a keep is trash." She laughed, but it was true.

Somewhere in between throwing out my jacket and the panic packing, I realized that the whole moving thing is like editing your manuscript. You start out by identifying the really important aspects and mark them as "keep." You go on to the pieces that support or make sense out of your overall work and mark them as "keep." Sometimes, you find some bit that you love or, even, really love, and realize that it actually doesn't serve any purpose and gets in the way of the story for other people. Because, really, when I wore my old, beloved coat, I looked somewhat homeless, and that's not the look you want when you're hanging out in the school playground waiting for your kids or, even, at the grocery store. Likewise, you don't want things in your writing that are distracting from your story just because you love it. In the end, you're slashing words left and right. You're doing searches for "really" and taking them all out, and, when you get really desperate, you're doing searches for "ly" and blasting every adverb you find.

Of course, when you get over to the new place, you realize you threw away some things you hadn't intended to. Or, for some, you threw them away on purpose because you needed a new and better one. So you start filling in the gaps. Some of those gaps will be adverbs. Because, you know, they're really not as evil as everyone says they are.

At any rate, what you hope for is a cleaner manuscript with a clearer purpose. Just like with moving. A cleaner, less cluttered home with a clearer purpose for the future. I can't even begin to convey to you how much trash we threw out. It starts with a full dumpster of stuff from our apartment and goes on from there.

Of course, going through everything, I realized that I live as a plotter. My wife is more of a pantser. I evaluate things as I go, so the things I have at the end are mostly things I want to keep. I do want to keep a lot, though, unfortunately. It makes decisions about what to get rid of much more difficult. My wife stores things up to go through later, so the tossing out becomes relatively easy for her. I could probably go into this in more detail, but it's really only a side thought, and I don't want to get punched by my wife.

So... here we are with a newly edited life. Not that we're through with the process. It's just the first pass, so to speak. There are still toys to deal with. They just don't all fit. It's like having too many words. Somehow, we have to get those toys down to the designated word count despite the protests of our boys. Not that I'm really one to have much respect for word count limitations. I believe in telling the story the way it needs to be told and to heck with the word count. That's sort of how we should live our lives, too. Not that we should clutter it up, but to heck with the limitations that others want to impose on us. Only you can live your life, and you should live it the way you want to do it (you know, as long as you're not infringing on someone else). And, if you're a writer, it's your book. Write your story the way you want it to be. Make it the story you want to read, because, in the end, that's all you can do with any certainty.

* Panic packing is a term my wife says she coined. I can't dispute this as the only other people I've heard use it are friends of hers whom she says got it from her.


  1. Up until nine years ago, I'd moved a lot - and I mean 25+ times. I always lived in furnished rented places so I could do my move in one trip in a friend's car. I knew I was 'growing up' the first time I had to hire a van.

    I love the way you compare moving to writing, pretty neat :-)

  2. You always have the best analogies, Andrew! I'm more of the plotter in my relationship fiance is 100% pantser. :) Great post, and good luck with all the unpacking!

  3. Great analogies here in this packing post. I have done some of the things that you talk about here but on a much smaller scale as I don't own all that much stuff. I find it easier to move that way. I especially enjoyed you talking about the sentimental value of the jacket your friend gave to you. But in the end...I think you may have some "packrat" type tendencies. If I ever see you on an episode of hoarders, I'll be able to say, "Hey...I know that guy."

  4. Sarah P: Thanks :) It was one of those inspirational moments.

    J: Well, I try. Okay, actually, I really don't try all that hard. Analogies are just one of the things I'm sort naturally good at. Maybe it's all the practice I had back when I worked with teenagers, because, really, you have to have an analogy for them to get anything.

    Michael: Hey, I'm not -that- bad. Mainly, though, it's because I'm aware of my tendencies (which I think must be hereditary) and really do try to make sure I'm not storing valueless crap. Or cool trash. I'm sure I do still keep too much stuff, but I'm much better than I used to be. I did, after all, throw out the jacket.

  5. Great feature and I learned something new.. Can you believe I've never heard the term 'pantser' before? I googled it, and guess what - I am one!

  6. That's okay, my wife had never heard the term either. Don't you wish you could have been here for -that- conversation!

  7. Moving is the WORST! You're right - it starts out all shiny and hopeful and always descends into hair pulling madness. At least it's behind you now. Enjoy your new house!

  8. ah, panic packing: we called it the 'I don't give a damn' box. whatever was left after we packed the stuff we cared about went in there since we only had 2 hours until the movers arrived and were sleep deprived- and can you believe it everything in that dumb box survived the move? that was 12 years ago and i still wake up in a cold sweat having nightmares about it.

    i. hate. moving.

    great post.


  9. Melodie: Yeah... now is the madness of trying to get everything to fit into a smaller space. And what to get rid of to make that happen.

    bru: I can believe the nightmares. It's never the stuff you don't care about that gets damaged.

  10. During my last move I ended up tossing out just about everything I didn't absolutely need. That meant I moved my books and tossed the clothes, dishes, furniture, and whatever else that wasn't a book. My son even got into it.

    In just a few years I've managed to fill up the new place. Oops.

    All that said, it's really hard throwing away something sentimental, sorry your coat had to go.

  11. Rusty: Mostly, if I could, I would never get rid of books, but, really, they do take over, and, some of them, I will never look at again.
    It's funny, though, because my wife and I both would love to have a house that could have a library in it, and, yet, we frequently have to divest ourselves of books.