Getting Rid of Clutter in Writing and in Life

Getting rid of clutter….that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month. And it feels so good!  Selling stacks of books to the half-price bookstore, dropping off clothes at the consignment shop, recycling piles of sports trophies my boys accumulated over the you-get-a-trophy-for-breathing years. There was a lot of dust over all that stuff.  Hand holding trash bag

And all that filtering got me to thinking about my writing. And about my life. Where is the clutter?  What can I can rid of without regret?  Some things are easy to let go of—whatever is broken, what no longer fits, what isn’t sustainable. A cracked vase or an awkward sentence?  Gone. That was easy. Ten tweets a day or writing a novel every year? Not going to happen. Even if others can meet those goals, I know I can’t and I need to hush the judgmental voices in my head that sometimes presume that I can and should. Clutter.  All clutter. And it’s gotta go.

A difficult relationship or a writing project that has me spinning in circles?  Not so easy. I have to consider these a little longer. Are they salvageable? Are they worth investing more of my time and energy? As I’ve gotten older, this process of consideration has simplified. I ask myself this question: Is it contributing to the greater good (or goals) of my writing?  Of my life?  Without much angst, I generally know the answer. Even if my head is unsure, my heart is certain. The answer is clear. If I’m always on the frustrated side of the equation while giving it my best effort, then it’s time to let it go. There is inevitable grief for the release of something I wanted but couldn’t bring to fruition for a variety of reasons—poor timing, insurmountable obstacles, the clashing of lofty goals with harsh reality. Sometimes you just have to say, “So long.” Accept the lesson learned.  Sing over what was, rejoice in what is, and sail onward. Lighter. Less burdened.

When all the dust settles and the clutter is whisked away, what remains are the essentials. The absolutes. The true loves. And it feels so good.

Here’s Why We Can’t Lose the Art of Letters

My grandparents still speak to me long after both of them took up residence with the angels.

How do they do it?  Through handwritten letters.

One of my most treasured possessions is a box of letters from my grandmother to my grandfather during the Depression years. They were living in separate states while my grandfather worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for two reasons–because the job paid well (relatively, for that time) and because his ex-wife was after him for back alimony.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to pay the alimony.  He just didn’t have it to give.  My grandmother, six years younger, was twenty years old when she started writing him in 1931, and deeply, madly in love.  She was working as a stenographer in Enid, Oklahoma, where they were both born and raised.  Letter

In her letters, I discover my grandmother in ways I never could have when she was alive.  She lived to be eighty-six and I knew her as well as a granddaughter could have.  She and my grandfather lived down the street from me from the time I was seven until I was fifteen.  Yet, I never knew that fall was her favorite season, as mine is.  I didn’t know how much she loved to dance–as I do, as my sister does.  I knew that she was an early feminist, working as a legal secretary until she was in her sixties. But I would never have known how easily she could see through the “advice” given to women in her day.

“I read a piece in the Photoplay magazine the other day written by some old something or other advising girls not to play much tennis, golf, or swim, or anything else because it would ruin their looks,” she wrote in July 1931.  “The writer of this piece doesn’t allow any of the movie stars to take much exercise.  She says the reason is that they might accidentally develop some muscle and it wouldn’t look pretty.  Isn’t that too bad?  Wouldn’t it be terrible if I played so much golf and tennis that I developed an arm like Jack Dempsey?  My goodness sakes!  Boy, I would sure manhandle you if I did…. I think the old girl is nutty. ”

Don’t you just love her already?

In her letters, my grandmother captures who she was in her early twenties and by her references, who my grandfather was as well.  “Good morning, Jack Frost,” she wrote.  “Ouch, what a letter I got this morning.  I believe you addressed me as “Iceberg.”  Listen, old dear, I always try to write my letters in the same temperature yours are written in.”  She was a prolific letter writer while he was not.  Apparently, he thought her letters were entertaining enough and he was just sentimental enough to keep her letters for their entire fifty-eight year marriage.  He had bound the letters in string, tied in a bow by month from 1931-1935.

You can read the facts about the Depression on Wikipedia.  But I can tell you how difficult it was for my grandparents to get a job, so difficult that they had to be separated for three years.  I can tell you how often my grandmother lost her job when a business went under, how much a pair of shoes or a coat cost, and what she had to sacrifice to buy those shoes.

I know my grandparents, especially my grandmother, in a way I never would have without those precious letters being saved for almost one hundred years now. I feel her presence with me as a living, breathing woman with an ageless, endearing sense of humor, an admirable and rare optimism in the face of extreme hardship, and a strong, healthy sense of who she was as a person.  I see her handwriting, as individualistic as a fingerprint.  I hold her letters in my hand and I think about this woman who wrote about the gritty details of one of the worst periods in U.S. history when she worked nine hours a day for $7.50 per week and was happy to have the job.  She wrote almost every day during those years.

My mother told me that my grandmother always wanted to be a writer.  She was a writer.  And I thank God for it.

Writing as Witness

runaway horseLately, my life has run away with me.   All I seem to be able to do is bounce around in the saddle of this horse without reins to hold or a trail to follow.  Even my journaling has suffered as I write in retrospect about events / dreams / ideas that occurred days, even weeks, before.  I write feverishly, trying to get it all down before the next turn of events swipes the pen out of my hand.  And if I don’t write at all?  Well, those events may soon feel as if they never happened.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that only a fragment of my life gets recorded in my memory, the rest disappears as if it happened to someone else.  Writing has always been my witness.  Sure, witnesses can have different versions of the same event, but the point is, that someone saw it.  If I didn’t write, whether journaling, fiction, or nonfiction, I don’t think I’d have any credibility in my own life.  Because I write about what happens, what inspires me, what moves me, what angers me, what shapes me, I can actually see the trajectory of my life as it flows over time.

Especially now, in this spooked-horse scenario I keep finding myself in, my life racing in conflicting directions, I need my writing more than ever.  I need the grounding force of the words on the page, the happenings that become even more real as I record them, the dreams that, even if they are never fully realized, are imagined in full flower.

So, race on, life!  Fly away, days!  I’ll find a way to capture you.  As writing is my witness.