The Great Paper Purge

Are your shelves bending under the weight of unread books? Are your files bulging with research for stories yet to be written? Do you have boxes or piles of old notebooks in the corner of every room? Every time you encounter a new anecdote or historical fact, do you say aloud, “I can use that,” as you reach for paper and pen? If so, I can relate. Writers are natural collectors—or hoarders, perhaps. We are always reaching for new books, new prompts, new insights and advice. Along the way, we also accumulate pages of notes and research and drafts and critiques and ideas by the ream.

At what point does all this paper trigger paralysis instead of fostering creativity? That’s what I was wondering when I came across Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s theory is that you should hold every item in your house and decide if it “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, you should donate it or discard it. This is all well and good when considering clothes. I’d read barely two pages of the book before pulling every item of clothing from my closet and drawers and happily consigning half of them to the Salvation Army or the rag heap.

But what about books? How long would it take you to hold every book in your house and wonder if it still sparks joy? These are Kondo’s guidelines for books:

  • The best time to read a book is when you first encounter it. If you’ve had it for years and haven’t read it, you aren’t going to.
  • If you’ve stopped in the middle of a book, you will probably never finish.
  • The books you’ve already read are inside you, so there’s no need to keep them.

If these criteria don’t eliminate many volumes, she advises keeping only Hall of Fame books, no more than 30. I couldn’t follow her guidelines to the letter (what writer could?), but I did find myself asking and answering honestly about which books I would probably never read, and which I’d kept out of vanity.

What about papers? Kondo advises throwing them all away, because in her words, “no paper will ever spark joy.” I disagree, and yet I had to confront boxes and piles of research and notebooks and drafts that have not magically transformed themselves into finished stories. Kondo offers this advice:

  • Throw away all seminar notes and handouts. The act of taking the notes is most important. Most people never look at them again.
  • Throw out notes for projects you will start “someday.” We all know that someday means never.
  • Having too many files means you can easily overlook what’s important.

And so I dragged to the recycle bin many boxes of old notes and research for books and stories I hoped to write someday. Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing it. The notion that I would read thirty old journals looking for a single interesting thought seemed silly. Better to be making new journals and new notes, and acting on those. I didn’t get rid of every old draft and every notebook, but the bulk of them have gone and so has the weight of all that failure to act. My life hasn’t changed yet, but my workspace certainly has.

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About the Author

Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch  andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.

See other articles by Michelle Seaton
by Michelle Seaton


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