Old bicycles, Ferrara, Italy

I clicked on a link to the Dr. Oz weight loss program recently hoping to find inspiration about how to lose unwanted pounds of paper; those pages and pages of first, second, third  …two hundredth drafts of book chapters, essays, lectures – anything that can be written down and rewritten – and saved. These are not stored on a hard or a flash drive anywhere because – heaven forbid – they could be lost. An astroid could hit the earth and destroy everything that is not written in stone on paper.

I know this is an inherited disorder. I’m descended from a long line of paper-savers. My mother and grandmother saved every letter, green stamp and receipt for purchases. Receipts I can understand; anyone can be audited by the IRS and you’d better have proof of purchase for that lampshade bought back in 1941.

These old drafts of articles, poems and essays are like bicycles; I might need them for parts. I revere these yellowed pages as if they are ancient Schwinns or Peugeots. They just don’t make them like that anymore. What if I can’t write like that anymore? Do I really love every word I’ve ever written this much? When Hemingway or Faulkner or whoever it was said that we must “kill our darlings” and ruthlessly prune our writing, even of our favorite parts, he didn’t say that we also must dispose of the bodies. Like those delightful ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, we can cart them down to the basement and stack them in the canal.

There are artists among us who have actually cremated their work. California artist John Baldessari sent all his work produced between the early 1950s and 1966 to a crematorium in 1970 and placed the ashes in an urn resembling a book with a plaque noting the birth and death dates of each piece and a recipe for making cookies. They take up a lot less room on the shelf and he demonstrated a connection between artistic practice and the human life cycle. He turned a page in his life and then went on to create another body of work which he is once again swimming in.

Where is my confidence that the stuff I’m writing today is much more brilliant than those  drafts I wrote thirty years ago or even last week? Perhaps it’s a way of holding on to my youth. I stay young and impressionable because I’m surrounded by every naive notion I ever possessed.

But, of course, I’m being too hard on myself. I can dispose of these hundreds, thousands of early pages. First I must read them and spare any brilliant excerpts  from the executioner’s sword or torch, and then I will lay them out in the garden under the cedar mulch to block weed growth among the roses and perennials. Perhaps a sentence or a word or two will peep out from the wood shavings now and then and I’ll feel reassured that all that beloved paper has a purpose as eventual fertilizer, and a home other than my attic and basement – and I’ll have an art installation in my yard. My progeny will appreciate my act of selflessness.