Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Our scraps cannot sustain us

A friend has been accumulating snippets and scraps over the years—little bits of a book-length essay project she’d like to write when she clears her decks of some other pressing projects.

They’re like hors d’oeuvres, these scraps—pops of flavor, about as satisfying as a cocktail wiener on a pick. They’re good or even beautiful, but their job is not to fill us.

Most writers know what it’s like to have a dream project on the back burner. Sometimes these are things we pursue in pockets of time here and there, but other times we leave them to languish. I’m confident that my friend, also named Karen, will get to hers eventually—she’s the kind of person who does. The Karen who is writing to you now will likely never finish that draft of a romance novel she once began as an office-hours project, but she is likely to knock out the publishing textbook she’s been working on for a few years.

My friend’s project is a travel narrative, probably composed of discrete essays, about her relationship to a particular special place. When ideas occur to her, she writes them down, and sometimes her morning pages or other occasional writing includes observations about the topic that’s so close to her heart.

She suggested I tackle this topic in a post—what do we do with our scraps when we’re writing toward something larger?

My answer may be a little disappointing, because we like to think that the work we do is going somewhere, adding up to something—but most of the time, I don’t think we can paste in these segments and arrive at a satisfying whole. These bits and pieces have done their job by keeping our dream project front and center in our mind. The work itself—those words we once jotted on the gas bill—may not be entirely useful.

My friend and I have both fallen into the trap a busy life poses. With so much happening, there aren’t long days to spend at a desk and noodle, daydream, follow our thoughts to their termini; instead, we teach a few classes, grade a stack of papers, handle some correspondence, roll clay into snakes or build Lego spaceships, cobble together some kind of dinner .... People expect things from us, and nearly all of our time is spoken for.

It’s probably tempting to suggest that we don’t need to read someone a bedtime story, but just try telling that to the someone. We need to work; we need to cook and clean and do laundry; we need to make love and exercise and pray and call our mom. Some of this we can put off for a day, but it’s always a matter of shuffling for those of us who have no independent fortune, no patron.

And we’re left with our paltry scraps. For me, they’re usually indistinguishable from garbage, and in fact they’re often made of garbage. That McDonald’s receipt in the recesses of my purse is actually the start of a poem. Those notes on my church bulletin are loose associations that reflect some early thinking about an essay. They’re what I did with the time I had—the “pull forward while we wait for your fries” time; the lost-in-thought-during-the-sermon time.

As difficult as it seems (and, indeed, as difficult as it is), we owe it to ourselves and to our art to make more time for creating, and until we do, I’m not convinced the shortcuts work.

Imagine you’re my friend, and you’re finally at your desk, with time to sort through scraps—some physical, some digital; some overlapping earlier ideas, some going in a new direction; some exciting, some downright inscrutable, whether it’s the idea or the text that is messy.

Does she have a start? Maybe, somewhere in the mix. But it seems to me that she also has a potential distraction during her precious writing time. We like to preserve what we’ve already made—no one wants to re-do old work. But the act of preserving a snippet requires us to organize our thinking around old ideas. We’re always evolving, and the person who wrote a note, or even several pages, is not the person who is sorting scribbled-on receipts right now.

I’ll be honest; often I can look at the start of a poem and pull it from the fire. Poems are often very small. It’s not the same for me with elements of a larger, more ambitious piece of work. That river we slosh into for the second, third, fourth time is just a mimic of that estuary we remember. We dried off. We’re wet with new waters.

Let’s resolve to give ourselves what time we can cobble together—those weeks when we don’t have grading, those days when fast food will suffice, those nights when one bedtime story will do. Where possible, let’s string those spare moments together into an hour, or two, or five—a workday, a whole day, a weekend. And let’s not start with our own intellectual table scraps. Instead, let’s mix up something more sustaining from the creative pantry.

Aren’t you hungry?



  1. Yes, I'm hungry. I'm starving now, thanks to your essay. I have about 10 pounds of scraps and now I know what to do about them. Thanks, Karen.

    1. Me, too! Good luck with them. I need to follow my own advice here. :)

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