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Throwing Things Away

The fascination of the ephemeral


I do know authors with tidy desks and minimalist workrooms, but they are surely rare: most of us inhabit clutter. Hoarding is, I think, an occupational hazard for writers. It seems that there is a correlation between our profession and the inability to throw things away.

This is partly because we appreciate the value of fragments, and of ephemera: a book can be inspired by a photograph, a newspaper clipping or a brief scrawl, which triggers an idea. Many writers’ studies (the sheds of Roald Dahl, Dylan Thomas, David Almond, Cressida Cowell, for instance) are crammed with bits and bobs that might accrete thoughts. Always hunting for stories, authors realise that they can be hidden in the detritus of lives, past or present. I wrote about a Victorian philanthropist (Samuel Plimsoll) because the jokey tone of a letter to his daughter, a paragraph long, made me curious about the sender. If that inconsequential note had been destroyed, the book might not have happened. Such serendipities make it very hard for us to dispense with our own reading matter.

We also believe in the possibility that papers can be priceless. Literary legacies matter to us so we applaud people who ignored instructions to scrap manuscripts, without whom we would not have Virgil’s Aeneid or the works of Kafka. We deplore Monica Jones obeying Larkin’s orders to destroy his diaries and John Murray burning Byron’s memoirs to protect his reputation. And almost the entire oeuvre of Emily Dickinson (1800 poems) was in a cache found by, and published thanks to, her sister Lavinia. How much writerly genius, I wonder, has been obliterated by house clearance? Meanwhile we know that work in progress is more precious to literary scholars than completed texts. The dumping of documents can feel as dangerous as the burning of books.

The historians and biographers among us have pieced lives together, where possible, from original sources, each of which was a helpful clue. It leaves us with a sense that even the trivia of our own unlikely-to-be-chronicled existences might accrue value over time. We understand that to the historian nothing from the past is unimportant. I spoke the other day to a relative who had finally cleared out and burnt his handwritten bank statements from the nineteen fifties only to have his bank ask if he had saved any, because they would love them for their records. This might make decluttering difficult for anyone, but any writer of fiction or nonfiction whose work involves research is likely to share the archivist’s perspective, and tremble at every flier that goes in the bin.

Writers are, of course, particularly disinclined to discard books. We recognise that they are living things, and are aware how much time, labour, determination and hope went into their production. We are emotionally attached to them because they made us. We need them not only for reference but because they are the wellspring of our own creativity; to hang on to those we have read is to keep track of the progress of our own development. They are the context in which we write, so it makes sense to surround ourselves with walls full of them, as most writers do. And these are just the sentimental incentives to stockpile. We are also motivated by knowing about first editions, or overlooked debuts with small print runs, that went on to become collectors’ most-sought-after. We gamble on some volumes in our trove turning out to be winning lottery tickets.

So if we cannot junk books and papers, why should we hoard objects as well? Sometimes it is not snippets of writing but possessions that contain the seed of stories, germinating from their origins or associations. Every present is a souvenir of the person who gave it to us. The things that have been bequeathed to us are sacred relics, often of those we loved, invested with more than everyday significance because they are all we physically have left. What we own is a record of our life, of the people we have shared it with, and of the places and circumstances in which everything was acquired or used. Memories of occasions on which they were worn attach like burrs to all the clothes in a wardrobe. To dispose of belongings is not only to make a decision about the unlikelihood of their being useful or wanted in future, but also to sever yourself from what they represent. For people whose trade is storytelling, it is wrenching to jettison the stories objects tell.

There may be some narcissism in our hoarding. Writers often have an eye on posterity: they write at least to make something that lasts, and maybe even to make themselves immortal. Our times will eventually be interesting, but many nurture the hope that their work will make their lives significant in the long run. Everything is evidence. We have all visited writers’ houses and admired the pipe on the desk, and the desk itself, or (in Dahl’s case) the writing board that sat on his knees.

So perhaps we consider, as we hover over the waste paper basket: ‘What if this had belonged to… [insert literary hero.] (And how much chance do I have of being said hero)?’ A limerick Jane Austen wrote as part of a parlour game is now on the market for £120,000. When you become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, you get to choose whether to sign the register with T. S. Eliot’s pen or Byron’s pen. We’d all be interested in notebooks or laundry lists, snuffboxes or slippers that have literary associations. This makes it troublesome to purge our own.

The world has been fascinated by the ball of chocolate wrappers Dahl collected, the hip bone he had removed, and the shavings of his spine he kept. Andy Warhol – a compulsive hoarder – saved everything, including coffee sachets and a piece of Caroline Kennedy’s birthday cake, in some 600 boxes that were sealed and not opened for decades. These time capsules became testimony to the artist and his milieu. One commentator described them as ‘a giant, three-dimensional diary.’ Warhol’s and even Dahl’s impulse to retain may have been eccentric. Nevertheless what they kept has turned into treasure.

Hoarding in its extreme form is a recognised psychological illness, a disorder related to OCD and often going along with social isolation, prevarication, indecision, anxiety, perfectionism. Hoarders create a barricade against the world that frightens them outside. Most writers are not at the far end of the spectrum, unable to put the rubbish out and afraid of other people touching their property. But there is an analogy with making books as a barricade, or at least a way of making sense of the world. And writing is in itself an accumulation: of words and of details, observations, experiences. Books are made out of the clutter of our lives and other people’s, and out of the literature that has gone before, including scraps that seem insignificant on their own. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’

Nicolette Jones is a journalist and critic and the author of The Plimsoll Sensation: the great campaign to save lives at sea. She reviews children’s books for the Sunday Times, and is a regular chair of literary events.

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