The Dumpster as a Metaphor


Over the past week, I have been distracted by the excruciating task of emptying our parents’ house in Florida and preparing it for sale. I’d been on a pretty good writing jag for several days before, but came to a screeching halt the minute I got off the plane in West Palm Beach.

My parents were exuberant consumers of … stuff. When my father went out for something, he came back with three. He once went out to purchase a new pants presser and bought four – and sent one each to his sons. I used mine at most a half-dozen times. He took me hunting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland once years ago. On the Annapolis side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we stopped at a sporting goods store to pick up hunting licenses and ammunition. We walked out with that, plus two shotguns worth about $1200 apiece. Several years after my mother had her stroke, he thought it would be nice for her to get around, so he bought one of those JAZZY electric wheelchairs. On her first test spin, she ran into the butcher’s block and took a chunk out of the door frame. Ol’ Jazzy sat in the corner of the guest room for the next four years.

In light of this, you can imagine what a daunting task it was for me and my brothers to start opening cabinets and drawers. Four flashlights. Countless “extra” batteries. Owner manuals for appliances long since discarded. Cuisinarts, blenders, knife sharpeners, juicers, salad bowls, Woks. It was like the domestic version of clowns in a Volkswagen.

You would think that the detritus of couple who’d already “downsized” twice would easily fit into a 15 cubic yard dumpster, but you would be wrong. Not counting the furniture which remains to show the house, or the medical devices and equipment which were donated to the local Hospice, we gorged that dumpster with junk. At dusk on Friday, the neighbors (if they were around) would view the spectacle of three men in their 50’s jumping up and down atop an overflowing steel tub the size of a small bus. It was a curious and melancholy sight.

In Chapter XII of his 1916 book, On the Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch discusses his thoughts on writing style. He comes to this point:

Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

This pithy invocation has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. It is apparent that Quiller-Couch was merely reiterating the thoughts attributed to Samuel Johnson many years earlier:

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’

But as James Boswell explained in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1832) (courtesy of Google Books), Johnson was only repeating to Boswell “what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils. Johnson experts have no idea who that tutor might have been.” (Isn’t the internet amazing?)

Back to domestic detritus.

As we emptied cabinets, drawers and closets (setting aside what we could for charitable donations), we were repeatedly struck by the extrinsic value of  so much of it. Glass vases. Tools. Utensils of every kind and shape. Pictures, paintings, prints, along with their frames. Audio equipment long obsolete but in good operating condition. Hats. Blazers. Lamps and shades. Champagne flutes. Waterford snifters. Bar implements. A golf cart!

So many of these items (particularly the last) were things we would have loved to keep, but they just didn’t belong. They had utility neither where they were nor where they might have gone.

So as I teetered on the top of the dumpster pile, tentatively jumping, fearful one leg might find a bedding sinkhole, I was reminded of the “cut file” I’d created for all of the darlings in Diary of a Small Fish. The dumpster to my manuscript, full of fluffy stuff that was of no value to the finished product.

I only wish there were such a thing as a yard sale for prose. Or maybe that’s what blogs are for.


15 Responses to “The Dumpster as a Metaphor”

  1. Great metaphor, Peter. I have a file where I put everything I think I might want to cut. It’s so much easier to kill your darlings when you know they aren’t gone forever. But pretty soon that folder gets as cluttered as an old man’s house. I think I’ll start a new one and label it ‘dumpster” in honor of this post:)

  2. Thanks for visiting Clarissa. Yes, I regarding some of the stuff I cut like the dice cufflinks I found in Dad’s dresser drawer. Clever and snazzy, but who wears french cuffs anymore?

  3. This post was priceless.
    I can relate, as I am in the midst of doing the same thing.

    What I particularly enjoyed was the visual of you and your brothers on a mound of “stuff” piled high in a dumpster, jumping up and down. You can’t make this stuff up.

    It is also a highly emotional process. You laugh… you cry… you reminisce.
    If the process can be enjoyable at all, have fun with your brothers and don’t forget to talk about all the stories and cherished memories each item brings to mind as you’re chucking the lot.

    Big hug to you, Pete!

    • Thank you, CW – okay if you must be reminded, DUSK in Florida occurs well after the beginning of the Morin cocktail hour. ’nuff said.

  4. Ahh, yes. Kill your darlings. How often have I heard that?

    Such a great post, Peter. It’s so true. I have a cut file FULL of all the stuf I chuck when I go through and revise one of my books. I’m not sure I’m suppose to admit this, but I love the hacking part of the job. The revision is where I fine tune, find what’s important and murder the rest. So satifying. Not sure what that makes me? A serial killer of prose? I’m feeling sort of Dexter-ish all of a sudden.

    I think I’ll follow Clarissa’s lead and call my file ‘Dumpster’ for the next book too. I like the sound of that.


    • Hey!

      How about we all pick out our favorite bits of darlings from the cut file and compose an anthology called Dumpster Diving!

  5. Great post, Pete. I have moved my parents twice in the last few years. Each time I was sure there was enough stuff for six houses. Now that they tell me they are “settled in,” they have begun to collect more. The UPS man arrives daily. They could open a store just to sell the empty cardboard boxes.

    You are right about the out takes on our writing. I even have my files numbered by when I did the cutting. I don’t seem able to throw the bits and pieces away, or use them again.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great post, Pete. I lost both my parents and my in-laws the same year, which meant going through the dumpster scenario twice. My heart goes out to you, I wouldn’t wish the process on anyone. It taught me a very important lesson, though. Any ‘thing’ I hold of value fits into a shoebox. All else is expendable. Less is more, always.

    Having said that, I’ll now prove myself a hypocrite. I, too, keep a file of all those [oh so] wonderful words I can’t bear to set free. I call mine a kill file in honor of murdering my darlings. Seems appropriate for a crime writer.

    Count me in for the Dumpster Diving Anthology!

  7. 9 M M Bennetts

    I kept all that stuff–the prose I mean–and thank heavens I did.

    Because you think, when you’re first writing that first book that it’s such a pig, you’ll never do this again, because, being a clever clogs, you never make the same mistake twice. And writing a second book or heaven-forfend, a third one, would be the same mistake compounded.

    But then…but then comes publication…and the first question you’re asked after that first book has been consumed and approved of is, “So when’s the next one out?”

    Yes, you’re still in a post-production stupor, but your publisher has a smile on his or her face and guess what…you dig out some of that discarded stuff and behold and lo–at least you’ve got somewhere to start on book 2. At which point you praise the Creator for having made you such an electronic pack-rat.

  8. 10 fred


    A lifetime ago my MOTHER oversaw the junkman carrying off a small wareouse full of treasures my grandad had stored behind his seed store in the teensy Arkansas town of Alma (home of Popeye Spinach and not much else).

    What I wish now that I (at the tender age of 6) could have gleaned from that pile.

    treasures lost–treasures found

    I’d like to have that octagon barrel (THAT I remember) .22 back. I now know it was a Remington. Mom probably thought I’d put my eye out with it.

    That would have been interesting.

    Our lives are carried off and dumped or “recycled’ daily. Precious? Not to the junkman. Just another E-bay listing. God Bless him…maybe it will be someone new’s heirloom.


  9. 12 Phillipa

    Making cuts to one’s own manuscript produces such a smug feeling of self righteousness, almost as delicious as saying no to a second slice of cake. But when someone else cuts your darlings, the smugness turns to anger, outrage, hissed epithets and curses. I want to be able to say no to that second piece of cake, not be told I can’t have it.

  10. My son and I were recently at my mother’s helping to pack up her house so she can move it all into the new one she’s bought. After my 10th or so box, he and I realized we should have made a game of it. He could call out something and I would see if I could find it in one of the two closets I was emptying. But sadly, we had missed our opportunity. 😉
    It’s amazing the extraneous things we accumulate both in life and our manuscripts, isn’t it? I’m editing out my own garbage heaps of things right now as well. Great post Pete! Hope all is well.
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

  11. The nice thing about the writing cut pile is that is just ‘vanishes.’ Not quite so much with ‘real life’ detritus.

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