Nothing to Fear but Deleting Itself

David calls these horsetail grasses. I don’t know that the name is right, but I won’t argue. I just like how they look when they flutter in the breeze.

The yucca are about to bloom, too. The birds land on the heavy buds now, checking for progress. Or perhaps just for bugs on the buds. Hard to say.

This was one of four photographs I took, trying to get the right angle, so you could see how the grasses catch the light. I pulled the four off of my camera, picked the one I liked best, saved it and permanently deleted the rest.

I’ve gotten much better at deleting, I’ve found.

When I was younger, I saved everything. Albeit, with non-digital photographs, you kind of had to save them, along with the negatives. But I wouldn’t throw away even the blurry ones. Or the ones I accidentally snapped of my foot while loading the film. I saved the box from my Snoopy watch, notes from my friends, love letters from high school. In graduate school, I spent hours Xeroxing articles until I had stacks of them in my office.

Through it all ran a sneaking fear that I’d throw away something important. Something crucial, even.

Young writers do this, too. I certainly did. You just hate to delete the least precious word, much less sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes you’ll be persuaded to remove the prose and you carefully excise it and place it in a safe Outtakes file. After all, those words are singular creation that must be preserved lest it never come again.

Which is nonsense.

There’s an idea that, as we grow older, we’ll discover that the world is not as abundant as we thought. That we’re not immortal, that money really doesn’t grow on trees and that opportunity, having knocked, skeedaddles to someone else, never to be seen again.

Instead you discover that this isn’t true at all. Or rather, not in such a limited way. We’re not immortal, but life goes past your twenties, in a most satisfying way. Money comes and goes and there are many ways to come by it. Opportunities may be lost, but others turn up.

Words and pictures are plentiful. I can delete pages now without a qualm. There will always be more words, ones that don’t need deleting. Photographs that don’t completely satisfy can be discarded in favor of those that do.

I give away books, knowing that if I really want to see one again, I can always find it. I don’t worry so much about covering every little point of research – a general idea is fine and, if I need to know more, I can always find out.

There’s a relaxation to this way of thinking. Perhaps an absence of fear.

Now I really need to go through those old photographs, scrapbook the good ones and destroy the rest.

Except for that one of my foot. I’m kind of sentimental about that one.

It’s Not Easy Deleting

Yesterday I started off my writing day by deleting all but nine of the words I’d written the day before.

Now, this isn’t as bad as it sounds, since I’d only written 339 words the day before. Each one extracted like a bad tooth and laboriously typed. Over something like two hours. It just was not working.

There are two schools of thought on what this kind of wall means: either you’ve taken a wrong turn and the work is telling you by resisting or that you’re up against something really important and you have to punch through to the other side.

There lies the conundrum.

How do you know how long to keep chipping at the wall, looking for that little glimpse of Shangri-La on the other side? At some point you’re no longer making progress, you’re just banging your head against a brick wall and the only thing chipping is your skull.

Eventually I gave up at my pitiful 339 words. After all, I do have a day job. I looked at it the next morning and couldn’t bear to try to make that scene work any more. Made my head hurt just to look at it. So I deleted everything up to the previous scene. Kalayna Price, who’s a supportive friend, as well as a terrific writer, said she hoped that the nine words I saved were at least really good ones. (I, of course, had to tweet my ignominious beginning.) It’s a nice thought, but I don’t know — they must have been incidental edits to the previous scene.

This is a bit of a cheat, to delete before I officially start for the day. I figure my wordcount on a daily and weekly basis. (Have I ever mentioned I love spreadsheets?) At the start of my writing day, I put in the current wordcount of my manuscript. Then, as I write, I can watch the wordcount go up until I reach my target. This is why drafting can be more rewarding than editing — I hate negative wordcounts. So I deleted before I began, so I wouldn’t have to overcome the negative 330 to make my daily goal. It’ll show up in the weekly goal, but there it is.

Marin, who has a knitting blog that’s actually about knitting today, because she made this super-cool alligator sweater, responded that knitters call what I’d done “frogging.” Why? Because you rip-it, rip-it, rip-it.

Those knitters are a wild and crazy crowd, I tell you.

But I love this analogy, the physicality of it. I don’t knit, but I do quilt. I know that moment when you look at the thing in your hands and you realize that it’s gone wrong. You made a mistake a ways back and the only way to get to it is to rip out everything from that point forward. At least in writing, thanks to the blessings of word processing, you can cut the scene and stick it in a little folder, just in case.

(And, every once in a while, you get to raid the outtakes and pop them back into the document, which makes the wordcount zoom up in a tremendously gratifying way. Okay – it’s not an exciting lifestyle.)

When a thing is physical, when you can look at the rows of loops and stitches, you can see where the error is. With a novel that arguably exists only in your head, it’s harder to discern where the mistake lies. Or even that it really is a mistake.

At some point, you just have to go with your gut.

And hit the frogging with as much grace as you can muster.


Sometimes I think saving stuff is just a way to soothe ourselves.

It becomes an intermediary step between the immediate decision and the final decision. Should I get rid of this dress? This dress that I’ve loved, that I wore to Suzie’s wedding and first kissed Harry in? I’ll put it in this trunk, with other old clothes and use it in a quilt someday.

Now what’s happening is, I’m faced with moving bags and boxes and trunks full of old clothes I’ve been saving. Sure, I sometimes use them in quilts, which is nice. But I never have made picnic blankets from all those old jeans. Never touched most of those beautiful fabrics I couldn’t resist buying. If civilization collapses, however, I can make blankets for all of you.

I give David a hard time (part of my job description) about his not-dirty, not-clean clothes. He has several intermediate stations for them. The chest by the bed is for clothes clean enough to be worn again, but too dirty to hang up. The bathroom floor clothes pile is for another level of dirtiness, though not quite to the point of being committed to the laundry room.

That’s part of it — the unwillingness to commit to the final choice. To be without the thing.

When I started the great Ruthless Revision, I also created an outtakes file. Which I hadn’t done in a number of years. As a young writer, I kept an ongoing outtakes file. Any time I cut even the smallest phrase, I attentively pasted it into this document that I saved. Kind of a living morgue. A museum of brilliant prose that could work somewhere, someday. But really it was just to soothe the pain of deletion. Much easier to cut, paste and save, than send it into oblivion. When you’re a young writer, it’s tempting to think that these wonderful words you weave together can somehow be lost forever. That you’ll never recover them.

This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Which is something I learned, when I discovered that I revisited my outtakes file about as often as I dig into my trunks of quilt fabrics. I admit it: often if I make a new quilt, I just go buy exactly the color and pattern I need. And often it’s easier just to compose something new than fidget with some old fragments, to finagle them to fit.

But, I created an outtakes file for the Ruthless Revision, because I was feeling that pained about it. It’s especially redundant because I’m saving the entire original draft. Enshrined, as it were. That first morning, though, it made me feel better to save the HUGE CHUNKS I was cutting out. After a while, I wanted to check for a bit of information from a section I’d cut. I discovered my outtakes document wasn’t even open. Not only that, I’d failed to paste that bit into it. I hadn’t pasted cuts in for pages and pages. It was easy enough to go look it up in the museum draft.

Apparently I didn’t need my little crutch anymore. I’d just been deleting away.

This ruthless mode can be liberating. Cathartic, even. I’m planning to sell my sewing machine and I’m moving no fabric to British Columbia.

Someone else can make the quilts when civilization collapses. I’ll be busy writing. And deleting.