The Goodbye Box

The other day I cleaned up my desk and surrounding environs. Believe me when I say: it really needed it. Before I started you could barely see the desk or the floor around it.
It all started when I was in the process of getting yesterday’s blog ready and saw the picture of my desk (taken two months ago)—things really started to deteriorate after I took that picture. I got busy with blogging, with writing, with life, and I didn’t have time to worry about cleaning up my office.

Until I saw that photo. And I thought wouldn’t it be nice if I had a little more work room? So I bit the bullet and started cleaning up. I’m sure I’m not unlike other writers in that most of what I’m doing when I clean up is sorting. Papers. Lots and lots of papers, some of them are just scraps, notes, and then I need to figure out where to put them.

Luckily I have a pretty good filing system (I’m an organizer by nature, although you wouldn’t always know it by looking at my workspace). Anyway, I digress. Some of my storage is of the more permanent nature. These are things that while I may no longer use them on a daily basis, I really don’t want to throw them away: a letter or card from someone special, an old photo or announcement, a purchase receipt of something significant—basically mementos that go into a file box I keep for mementos (did I mention that in addition to being organized, I also have trouble parting with sentimental ephemera? Did I also mention that ever since I read Marilyn Johnson’s book THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE!, that ephemera is one of my favorite words? Okay, now I’ve digressed, but remember, Wednesday is kind of still word day here at wordsxo, so now I got my word of the day in, too.)

Okay, back on track….the memento box is in the closet off my office. It’s one of only two real closets in our old house, so it is really crammed. And as I was putting these mementos away, I noticed a box that I never open, in fact it’s taped shut: it’s what I like to call my “Goodbye Box, from about ten years back when I first read a book called WRITING LIFE STORIES by Bill Roorbach. It’s a great book about helping you to remember and write about your life stories, and it has lots of great exercises.
One of the early exercises is Exercise Nine: New Leaf. In this exercise, Bill (yes, I’ll be presumptuous that way and call him by his first name) says the following:

“You must have heard about Earnest Hemingway’s young first wife, Hadley, packing a suitcase full of the only copies of his early stories in order to surprise him on a visit in Europe. She lost the suitcase on a train. At first, of course, old Ernie was displeased, to say the least, but in the end he said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

He goes on to outline the painful exercise: Basically to bundle everything up written to date (published or unpublished, electronic or paper) and put it in a box or boxes (mine fit into one filebox). Next he instructed: dramatically tape the box shut. Then write PHASE ONE, or something like it, on the box. According to ol’ Bill, this should be done with as much drama and weeping and carrying on as possible.

“….lots of moaning and shouting, keening and weeping. Ululate. Tear your hair. Pound your chest. Put the box of retired work in the attic. Or leave it on a train. Then take yourself out to dinner and celebrate. Next morning, dawn of a new era, get to work.”

Which is exactly what I did ten years ago. Taped up the box, and put it in the closet (I honestly can’t remember if I moaned and groaned and shouted, probably not because I don’t like doing that kind of thing very much…). And there it stayed until yesterday, when I opened it up. Here’s the thing: that box contains the three middle grade novels I wrote (unpublished) and two picture books (unpublished) and about four or five short stories (unpublished) and a lot of essays (some published, some unpublished).

And it also contains two file folders (really crammed) of rejection letters for a lot of those things. Which of course I had to read through. And a funny thing happened as I read through the rejection letters: I realized that about half of them were either personally written by an editor or had a handwritten note on the bottom. They were, in essence: great rejection letters.

In fact, one of the things I also found in the box was a poem (I submitted, that was rejected) called: The Good Rejection.

Where is this leading? Opening that box really boosted my spirits, to see the really positive things many of those editors had written about my manuscripts. For another thing, I found things in that box that I can use in my current WIPs (not necessarily whole manuscripts but parts and pieces and background). And one of those manuscripts is still in a file on my computer (sorry Bill, I cheated a little on the exercise), and may be ready for submission again soon.

But I’m not going to lie, one of the unhappy things about opening that box was that I could tangibly see how much I’d written and yet unpublished. It felt like I have an awfully long way to go. And I remembered one of the reasons I originally put everything away: it was time for a fresh start.

And I’m thinking, maybe it’s time for another one now.

What do you think of Exercise Nine? Would you or have you put all your old work away and started with a clean slate? Do you think I cheated by keeping one manuscript out? Am I getting sucked back into the past by reopening it? Should I just move forward?


P.S. A huge shout-out thank you to Susan who blogs at Coming East who, I found out this morning, presented me with a Versatile Blogger award! I really appreciate it! Since I just recently wrote a post accepting that award, I will refer interested readers to that post here. And I will also say, that I’ve recently found Susan’s blog, and I very much enjoy it. We’ve both had (I still have) dogs named Abby, we both (now I know) love Earl Grey tea and Trader Joe’s, and Susan is a great writer. You should definitely check out her blog. Susan, thank you so much!


  1. Chris Fries says:

    Great post, Julia!

    Besides the fact that I learned a cool new word (“ephemera”), I really enjoyed the saga of sorting and the fun of finding the Memory Box!

    Personally, I think ‘Exercise Nine’ sounds like a great idea, but I also think I’m still much too early in my phase 1 to move on to phase 2 — I have to at least accumulate enough writing detritus to fill a box first. I also love the title — ‘Exercise Nine.’ It makes me think of the classic schlock film, ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space!’

    I don’t think you’re getting sucked into the past. It’s important to periodically review where we are and to keep connected to the past, I think. And by all means, USE that stuff — writers re-use words and themes, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking some of that old material, tilling it a bit to make it fertile, and then replanting it into a new story, format, or whatever-the-heck-you-want-to-do-with-it.

    And congratulations again on your versatile bloggification!

  2. I don’t think you’re stuck in the past at all because you looked in the box. I would have done it. Actually, as I was reading your story, I was thinking, ‘Look in the box! There may be useable material in there!”

    I understand the point of exercise 9, and, while I do like the idea of getting rid of the old to make room for the new, I don’t think I could do it. I’m not out of phase 1 yet anyway. But if I was, I would worry that I was taping up good material that I could use for other stories.

    I’m interested to hear if any of your old Phase 1 stories/novels find new life again.

  3. Sounds like you hit the jackpot to me! I love when I revisit my misfit ideas cabinet and find something that suddenly seems like it will work. And yay for the happy rejections…just one small step away from acceptance.

  4. CMSmith says:

    I think like everything else in life, balance is good. Putting it away is good. Throwing it away? Not so much.

    It’s one thing if the original manuscript ended up published. But unpublished work is still a WIP potentially. Why would you want to discard it?

    I say, stack the boxes high.

  5. I think it’s great that you kept those items; as you say – they are now providing great fodder for current works in progress. No harm in that. I think the key is that you “let it go” for so many years, and did give your mind the room to be creative with ‘other’ endeavors. I did that with my first novel as well … stepping away from it and starting fresh was the best thing I ever did, I think. Someday I will likely revisit and revise it. But for now, it’s sleeping peacefully.

    Very cool exercise, though.

  6. I agree with CMSmith – balance is good. I also liked that you looked at your rejection letters positively. I’m not sure you have to be published to be a writer – it’s what in your heart.

    Do musicians have to have recording contracts and CDs out? I do not work in the restaurant business – but I AM A COOK! It may not be what I do – but it is who I am!

  7. Oh, I love this post — so many good things packed into it (kinda like the box, which I didn’t notice until I was typing this sentence).

    I love that you reopened the box – that you found the GOOD rejection letters (how heartening) – and that you’re wondering which/what to do now (so mind-FULL) — oh, and I love ephemera, what a word!

    Personally, I think you win either way (and that you’ll know which is going to work for you) – move forward WITH some old stuff or move forward without it — you’re still moving forward!! Yea!!!

  8. Coming East says:

    That would be a good exercise for someone like me who won’t start on fresh material and keeps going back to the old stuff. Sometimes you need to write from where you are now instead of where you were. Going back after several years is good, though, because you can see your work from a new perspective.

  9. Great post! And a great exercise. I’m glad I’m not the only one with a messy desk! 😉

    I agree with most of the comments here ~ I’d pack it up in a box, and put the box in storage where I could get to it in a couple of years.

    Happy writing!

  10. Leah says:

    I also think it’s great you kept all those things. To me, putting them away in the box and not having them a part of daily life is what’s important. You did say good-bye and let it go. And now, you can look at the items with new eyes and a new perspective. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up using the writing now. Anyway, I’d say good job and never toss out something written!

  11. Tara says:

    I was afraid you weren’t going to open the box! And what a great find. I’ve also read Writing Life Stories, but I wasn’t brave enough to do that exercise.

  12. Chris, Thanks! I’m working on expanding Exercise 9 to include the “whatever-the-heck-you-want-to-with-it-says-Chris” factor! 🙂

    Jen, It’s interesting that the beginning of the blog left any question about whether I would open the box! I am way too curious to ever not open a box, probably why my family has so much trouble keeping secrets around holidays! 🙂 Here’s to embracing all phases of writing!

    Amanda, Jackpot indeed! I have so much stuff, so many ideas, so many starts, etc., that I can’t even count them. I will sometimes be very encouraged by happy rejections (and I’m working to be encouraged all the time!)

    Christine, Here’s to many many boxes (and also publication!) 🙂 Still, some things I’ve realized will never get published…

    Melissa, It was a cool exercise, but I doubt I’ll ever repeat it (unless I am published, then we’ll see…)… I did very much enjoy looking through it all, admittedly with a little cringing!

    cookinghealthy, I hear what you’re saying, but for me, being a published writer is very important, in fiction and in nonfiction. And to reach that goal, you’re so right that balance and a positive attitude is very important!

    Karen, Glad you enjoyed the post! And glad you loved the ephemera reference (can’t stop saying it, yikes!). It’s all about moving forward, no question! Thanks for the comment!

    ComingEast, You’re so right — it’s certainly one of the reasons I did Exercise 9 when I did. I kept going back to the old stuff and trying to rework it (especially to editor’s suggestions…) and it just wasn’t working. When I look at it now, it’s much easier to see what “they” were talking about! If I can or want to change it, that’s another matter!

    Mikaela, Glad you enjoyed the post –and I’m pretty sure you and I are NOT the only ones with messy desks. 🙂 Happy writing to you, too!

    Leah, I think you’re right–sometimes putting things away in a box and saying goodbye (even for a while) is what we have to do, with writing and other things, too. Thanks for the support! 🙂

    Tara, Again (as with Jen), I’m so surprised someone might think I wouldn’t open the box! Wasn’t Writing Life Stories a great book? I say: be brave! (but only do the exercise if you want to! 🙂 Thanks for your comment!