Compost for Packrat Writers & Teachers

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I’ve always hated throwing things away. I still have ten-year-old shirts purchased when I was in high school, moldy craft projects from 15 years ago, and a Pocahontas journal filled with writing in a “language” I made up when I was six. The “language” is nothing more than over-glorified scribbles vaguely reminiscent of cursive, but I can’t let it go.

My 790-square-foot house is cluttered things that appear useless to others. My mother continuously urges me to get rid of “stuff.” As soon as I begin thinking about it, my hands sweat, my stomach churns and my mind races:

I need this!

What if want to write about that next week?

What if accidentally throw away the mortgage bill?

DSC_0814This attachment to objects and fear of getting rid of stuff goes beyond inanimate objects. I often feel guilty discarding carrot peels and potato skins. When it comes to writing, the idea of cutting or deleting even one line can be physically painful, even though I know cutting unnecessary lines and words is an essential step in the writing process, especially with flash fiction.

Writing a story in 500 words is a challenge that requires the writer to be economical with language and ruthless with editing. “Above the Influence,” the first story I ever published, is a piece of flash fiction – a 500 word story that got shortlisted by Mash. If it weren’t for the concept of compost, that probably never would have happened.

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My interest in compost started a little over two years ago when my husband and I first became homeowners. In an attempt to cut down on waste and add more nutrients to the garden, we began putting food scraps in a compost bin. Eventually, we obtained a stainless steel container  for the counter, and a larger backyard composter.

DSC_0946I no longer trash the carrot peels, tomatoes stems and potato skins. I put them in the compost, knowing that after they spend ample time decomposing, they become fertilizer for next years crops. It’s much easier to toss them if I know they are still serving a purpose.

The concept of compost makes it easier to be ruthless when editing. I never have to delete anything for good. If a line doesn’t work or is unnecessary for a story, I cut and paste it to a compost file (currently titled “The land of misfit lines”). The line can rest while my mind decomposes it, breaks it down to the most basic form of ideas, so that one day, when I am working on a different piece, it can add life and vitality to it.

Furthermore, I’m a big fan of “save as.” After I finish a first draft, I let the story sit for a day or two. When I’m ready to begin draft two, I save it as a new document. If I don’t put all the cut words  into the compost, I know the originals are saved. This also allows me to track my writing process and see how the story evolved from draft to draft. Its light years more efficient that fighting to find a use or justification for every unnecessary line in the piece delivered it.

In graduate school, I hated to cut anything out of my papers. I’d waste hours finding a way to make a line work; I’d add extra paragraphs to an essay that was already over ten pages just so I wouldn’t have to cut one line. When I was tutoring, if a student brought me an essay that just didn’t work, I’d do everything I could to help the salvage as many words as possible. Both me and my students would do okay, but the writing wasn’t our best.

Now, whether I am editing my own writing or helping a student, if something isn’t working, it goes in the compost. The result is that both me and my students write better. Each word is heavy with meaning. The organization is easier to follow. There is no fluff.

The concept of compost can also help me let go of ideas in the non-writing side of life. I know that if I try something, whether it be at home or in the classroom, and it just doesn’t work, that I can put it in the compost. I’m not saying no forever or completely ruling it out. I’m putting it aside where it can get deconstructed and become a basis or fuel for future ideas, making them greener and more productive.

I’ve learned how to avoid cramming so many ideas in one paper that no one reader can deconstruct it. I’ve learned how to let go of methods that just don’t work. Now, if I could only find a way to apply this concept to the ancient pieces of jewelry, notebooks of math homework, and dented keepsake boxes I just can’t seem to part with, both my first and second floor could appear simultaneously clean.

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