One of my favorite books about writing is the one by Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The cover is also one of my favorites: a close-up of the exterior of a nice-looking suburban house, with a bulkhead that looks subtly overbuilt and grubby. It takes a while to understand that the bulkhead will lead you to the basement, which is probably not as nice as the exterior of the house.
We all have to go into the dark places to write, is what eventually sinks in. It's very Stephen King, that cover: the horror that lurks behind a pleasant facade, the horror that takes a moment to reveal itself.
Recently, in the wake of a Very Unpleasant Plumbing Situation, we had professionals in to help make sure we never have one of those VUPS again. Mr. G and I had to clear out our basement. The work was hot and dirty. It wasn't exactly twenty years of accumulation, but almost. I thought it was going to be mostly tax records and the like, but I'd forgotten just how many of the boxes held my old papers. (To give you an idea of the scale of the project: I'm recycling seventeen boxes of stuff).
My trepidation grew as we progressed. I was delving into twenty years of a professional life before I started writing fiction, doing an archaeology of myself. Not that any of the things I found were scary or bad--far from it. It was just strange to see this snapshot of myself from 10-20 years ago. There was so much I now don't remember doing, which had been so important to me then.
There were loads of conference papers (I'd forgotten how many); drafts of professional writing projects (I'd forgotten how many); copies of theses and dissertations I'd read (I'd forgotten how many); research notes and old lectures (I'd forgotten how many). Weird, to see my neat handwriting, when now it's a scrawl. Weird to see so early drafts of Site Unseen* tucked in amongst the academic papers. No hint of the Fangborn or my covert op, a/k/a Jayne. Whispers, perhaps, of Anna Hoyt.
There was a bit of personal life, too, a snapshot of the mid-1980s in the form of three boxes of comic books that were hidden last time we did a comic cull. What still works for me: Lone Wolf and Cub, Tank Girl, She-Hulk, Wolverine (limited series). What disappointed on revisiting: Halo Jones, Ninja High School. Interesting to see what young Mr. G was collecting when he was very young; interesting to see what I demand in a comic/graphic novel now.
Here are some of the things I learned:
Wear disposable gloves when handling documents and files. No, it's not to protect the documents (in this case), but to protect your hands. Your hands will be sweaty, but they won't be sweaty AND dirty and covered in paper cuts.
Bring the trash bags, markers, box-cutters, paper towels, cleaning materials, etc., and lots of cold water with you before you get started, so you don't have to run up and down stairs and track dirt.
Why it's hard to discard old papers. They're neat, they're clearly labeled and filed, and it took a hell of a lot of work to collect or create them all in the first place. What I figured out was that either the notes led to a work that is available elsewhere, or scholarship should have seriously advanced by now. Shred and recycle.
Here's the thing: yes, by "going into the basement," you dig out what is personal and emotional, what other people might respond to in your writing. You get a good view of your foundations, too.
So, writers: What have you found from your past that influenced your work? Readers, what is your favorite cleaning tip or...horror story?
*A new Emma Fielding story, “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” will appear in EQMM's November issue!