Hoarding and writing

There’s a painful process I need to put myself through from time to time: discarding accumulated books. They keep multiplying until they threaten to take over the house. Recently my groaning shelves and other cluttered surfaces – desktop, bedside table etc. – told me another big cull was overdue.

It’s a cyclic pattern: as fast as I shed books, I acquire more. Costly, but for a writer it’s mental food and I also try to justify the expense by thinking of all the other people who’ll get to read these copies more cheaply when I donate them to charities for resale.

Of course I can’t ever bring myself to part with certain books. There are those I know I’ll want to re-read periodically, from Edith Wharton’s to Patrick White’s. And those inscribed to me by fellow-writers are also too precious to let go.

My hoarding habit isn’t confined to books. It’s just as hard for me to relinquish various things related to the writing life. Letters, for instance, from novelists, poets, editors, critics – sometimes responding to my work, sometimes about their own. I’ve previously recorded on this blog my thoughts about the decline of letter-writing, and I’m particularly conscious that literary correspondence is already becoming extinct, so I seldom throw away the vestiges. Whether ‘from sentiment or inertia’ (to borrow Margaret Drabble’s phrase in her novel The Dark Flood Rises), I’ve kept on file some letters received from authors in the past, while putting most of them in a special research library collection.

There may be a fundamental link between the hoarding habit and the writing habit. Writers typically collect and store away miscellaneous phrases, ideas, images, mementos, snatches of conversation, observations. Some of us record such things more or less systematically, seldom going anywhere without a notebook, obsessively preserving scraps of information for possible later development. I think of the eponymous character in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue Karshish, who describes himself as a ‘picker-up of learning’s crumbs.’

Hoarding is especially attractive, I guess, to writers who are drawn to historical subjects, as I am in my novels. We cherish all sorts of objects, documents and visual materials that preserve aspects of the past. Often we incorporate these into what we write, deploying them to reveal characters or provide narrative turning points.

Years ago I wrote a poem about the compulsion to hoard. It appeared in my book The Shifting Shore:


The old retainers are surrounding you.
From oddment jars, leftover keys implore:
‘One of these days we’ll come in handy! Don’t
discard us yet. So many things require
unlocking. In the long run you’ll remember
where we fit, and why. Some happy hour,
with a smooth click, we’ll turn for you again.’
Albums of photos clamour, ‘Keep us here!
Each picture tells your story. We contain
the moments of your memory and desire.’
Rusty-hinged notebooks hoarded from schooldays,
and never written in, say they need more
extended deadlines. Boxes of fading postcards
rattle for your attention – you can hear:
‘Just hold us tight! We’re full of messages
from misplaced friends.’ Name-tags recall each year
of conference-going. Worn-out copper coins,
scuffed shoes, wide ties, stretched cardigans, the flare
of trouser-cuffs, packets of ancient seeds,
dried-up ink-bottles …

                                                 You stare at the debris –
then fling away the keys; what they might open
no longer holds a promise. Photos and cards
belonged to earlier selves; out with them now,
and out with all the other hoarded trash,
into the bin of past expiry dates
like rhymes that have lost their grip.

But the empty notebooks: those, perhaps, you’ll keep.
They’ve waited blankly there for long enough,
And now you’re ready to inscribe them all.

6 thoughts on “Hoarding and writing

  1. Hoarding. Oh my word, yes. Totally guilty. And messy and scatterbrained with it.
    There ought to be support groups for such individuals but, as you point out, they would probably morph into book clubs or writers groups!

  2. reading your poem fills me with horror, my daughters will be clearing up after me when I’m dead and gone. Thanks goodness Vanessa is as bad as me but Lee my very organised younger daughter will be saying ” what would she keep this stuff for? and just look at this ! all these phone chargers and multiple leads, none of which she would know what to do with, and didn’t we suggest she copy her photos to files on her computer, mind you I’m pleased t o have access to all this stuff about our childhood, Ness lots of stuff about your ballet career and how well I did even though I didn’t go to university as she wanted, Carey’s climb to Master class one.Perhaps we should make a pile called keepers, what do you think?”

    Cant write anymore too busy taking stuff to the salvos. D

  3. Perhaps guiltiness shared can become guiltiness halved, in much the same way as hoarded things and thoughts can achieve release through writing…

  4. Your stream of consciousness is hilarious, Dorothy – it captures perfectly a state of mind that’s all too familiar to me!

  5. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post, and I love the poem. I’m not sure how to respond. My initial reaction is to say you need Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (hugely popular here in the States).

    And I also think of the recent California fires that sent so many people scurrying from their homes in the dead of the night. In the following days, everyone was asking, “What would you take with you in such a situation, and what would you mourn if you couldn’t take it?” It underscores how things are, in the end, just things, even if imbued with memories and meaning.

    Easy to say.

    Worth thinking about.

    Your poem is just great. I love the realization–as time passes–that the objects’ hold over their owner loses strength–and yet the very last line is filled with undying hope.

  6. I’m glad you like the poem, Liz. Thanks for your remarks. Yes, decluttering can bring a sense of relief, though for me – as my post and poem try in different ways to suggest – there’s ambivalence about the hold that objects have over some of us, especially in relation to writing. Would a thorough clearing of the decks make it easier to write, and/or might it deprive one’s imagination of a valuable (if also semi-neurotic!) source of ideas…?

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