“J” is for “Junk”: The Dubious Joys of Spring Cleaning


The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. . . . It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!’ and `O blow!’ and also `Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.

–Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Just a short blog this week as I tackle, with decidedly mixed feelings, the process of cleaning house–or room, at least. A task for which I have little to no enthusiasm, but when you walk into your office/study/workroom or wherever you turn out your works of deathless prose, and find you hate just about everything you set eyes on, you have only one choice: change what you’re seeing.

Ideally, I’d have begun this task in January and finished by Chinese New Year–in fact, it’s traditional to have the house spick and span by the lunar New Year, so that the bad luck is all swept out and the good luck may then enter the house. Edits, revisions, and proposals had prior claims on my time and energy, however, so it’s only this past week or so that I’ve had the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and pitch in.

As always, I’m amazed at what I find once I start sorting through stuff and separating the junk from the non-junk. As a writer and an erstwhile academic, I’m used to the piles of books and papers that inevitably end up stacked on my desk and around my computer–for quick reference, of course. But multiple brochures from museums I visited years ago? Ticket stubs from movies I went to last summer? Take-out menus from restaurants that no longer exist? Department handbooks, blue books, and syllabi dating from my undergraduate days? Why on earth did I keep all those? Clearly, these all qualify as “junk” and may be tossed without compunction.

Other items are less easy to relegate to the rubbish heap. The dried corsage from a party or reception. Picture postcards from beloved vacation haunts. Newspaper clippings and reviews of films or plays you saw and loved. Playbills and programmes from those productions. And–something that perhaps any writer can recognize–notes for stories that were never finished, and sometimes not even started. I can almost never bring myself to throw those out, because even if I’ve moved on from those stories and ideas, they were important enough at one time to merit being captured on paper. And because one never knows, can never predict, when lightning will strike. Something overlooked for years can take on new life or lead you down an unexpected path. The name of a character or a place can spark the imagination, and suddenly you want to know more about that character, that place, and, above all, what happens next.

So, while a large quantity of detritus has been cleared away (and my room and workspace look much the better for, I admit), my old story notes have survived the purge. And some ideas that have lain dormant, half-forgotten, are perhaps beginning to stir again . . .

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