In Praise of the Packrat

Today’s guest post is by Ann Hillesland, whose short story “After Waking” appears in Issue #18 of The Quotable.

I’m a bit of a packrat. For example, I have over fifty hats, most of them vintage, many of them unworn by me. I have enough bone china teacups (packed in a snowstorm of tissue paper) for a large tea party. I can’t let go of the teacups, even though I don’t use them, because of their sentimental value—they were inherited from my grandmother or given to me for my graduation or for minding the guest book at my sister’s wedding. But my packrat tendencies are most pronounced when it comes to my writing. From thrift or sentiment, I never throw anything away. I have a filing cabinet stuffed with drafts dating back to high school—every juvenile novel attempt, every Tolkien knockoff, every bad poem I penned in a spiral-bound notebook.

Once I started using computers, I kept even more drafts and scraps. I often have several electronic versions of a story, plus paper drafts with comments from my writers group. For every story I cut significant chunks from, I have a file labeled “bits” where I put the cut writing so that I can retrieve it if I want. The bits folder also contains my darlings I had to kill, sentences that were beautiful but useless (much like the vintage hats and bone china cups).

I think many writers are packrats.  In fact, being a writer is like being a packrat of life—we’re always saving up our experiences for possible future use, remembering the woosh of a falling fir tree, the Jean Nate girls wore in seventh grade, the bright spill of stars on a Mendocino night, the tear-blurred red Pontiac carrying a lover away.  From these scraps we weave our stories.

One day, looking through my old files on my computer, I came across a file named sleepingbeauty. I remembered nothing about this file, and when I opened it, I discovered the beginning of a story about Sleeping Beauty after she woke up. I had stopped writing it a few paragraphs in. I don’t remember why I stopped, whether I couldn’t figure out what to do next or I simply forgot about the story, but after rereading it, I realized that I knew how the story should end. I finished the story three years after I began it. That story, “After Waking,” appears in issue 17 of The Quotable.

Maybe I should have a big tea party to celebrate my story’s publication. On the way through the door, guests can pick out a vintage hat to wear while they sip Earl Grey from beautiful, fragile cups. I’ll remember the cups’ busy clatter, a lemon bar’s tartness, a navy blue picture hat with a white ribbon band.  They might fuel a future story.