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.
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.
Filed under: Internet, literature, Peter Morin | 15 Comments
Tags: Google Books, metaphors, murder your darlings, Quiller-Couch, Samuel Johnson
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