Cleaning Out the Files (09.06.11)

Some years ago Julie and I sold one of the two houses we owned and moved into the smaller house of the two.  We went from having three thousand square feet of space for our stuff to having less than a thousand.  So we had a potlatch of sorts, giving away bulky items and things that we hadn’t used for several years. Even so we ended up with much too much in the way of material objects.

We’ve adopted rules that have gradually made things better:

  1. If you buy something, you have to get rid of two similar somethings. 
  2. Obsolete computers must be recycled ASAP.
  3. If something hasn’t been used for a year, an unsentimental storage-benefit analysis must be conducted. 
  4. Don’t buy anything you don’t need. Ever.

We haven’t complied with these rules as well as we should have, but economist friends have pointed out that if everyone in consumer culture behaved the way we’ve been behaving, Western Civilization would fall by October.  We’ve replied that by the time you hit middle age, you don’t own things, things own you, and we don’t want to be owned.

Emerson said it better:  “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Lately I’ve been looking at old computer files—fiction, essays, early drafts of articles, my attempts at poetry, query letters, ideas for novels—and have realized that cluttered cyberspace can fester just as badly as real space, and it’s just as important to clean it out. Cyber-stuff can own you just as completely as the tangible stuff.

I’ve been going through old files and getting rid of the embarrassing or ill-conceived writing.  Last month, before sending an old Power Mac off to the recyclers, I smashed its hard drive with a hammer and tossed it in my landscaping slash pile that will be torched some snowy morning in November.

Trust me when I say that what I’m doing isn’t anything like burning the Library at Alexandria.  I’m getting rid of knowledge, it’s true, but it’s the knowledge that I’m a slow learner.  After several decades of teaching writing, I can recognize false starts and approaching pitfalls when I see them, and when I go through my old files, there are lots of both.  There are moments of excruciating naiveté, moments of cloying self-indulgence, moments when my author’s persona spilled wetly out onto the page, pleased with itself only because it was itself, which in retrospect wasn’t anything to be pleased about.

What is evident now is that most of the good work I did in my early career got published.  Books and articles that didn’t get published didn’t get published for a reason, and I’ve been deleting them right and left, sometimes saving a paragraph or two because they contain a good idea, an idea whose value I couldn’t see when it occurred to me.  If there’s one characteristic that separates my published material from the stuff I’ve been deleting, it’s that I had an audience in mind for the former, and myself in mind for the latter.  Writing is sometimes seen as an act of selfishness, and sometimes it is, but I think that the best writing is always conceived as a gift to someone else.


There are exceptions.  A few months ago I came across a piece of writing that I completed circa 1985, and never published.  I read it to an audience this summer and it went over well.  It’s the product of an adolescent and self-indulgent sensibility, and only escapes disaster because I was willing to plunge the audience toward depth at the end.  Audiences don’t always like it when you change the rules mid-piece, but occasionally they do, and perhaps the times have changed enough since 1985 that I can get away with it.  In any event, here it is for you to read, and after you’ve read it I’ll have a few comments on it. Enjoy.


I am in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a small town on the Gulf of Siam, two hundred miles south of Bangkok.  I’ve been here three days, and have walked three times along the mile-long curve of beach below the town’s seawall.  A storm is sitting out in the Gulf, halfway between Thailand and Viet Nam, and interesting things have been washing up on the beach—shells, sandals, small dead fish, odd bits of nets and floats.  Prachuap, as the locals call it, is a fishing town.

The people who live here have grinned down at me from the docks and from the top of the seawall.  I’ve waved.  They’ve waved back, and laughed among themselves at this large and pale farang (non-Asian foreigner) who stops to study seaweed and hermit crabs.

“Where do you go?” they’ve called to me in English.

“To the bungalow,” I’ve said.  Or to the restaurant. Or to the market.  Any answer has given rise to much laughter.  The Thais are a happy people.

“Where you come from?” they’ve asked.

“America,” I’ve answered.

“Ahh,” they’ve said.  “America.” They’ve smiled and nodded.  America is approved of in Thailand, mostly.

Our conversations haven’t gone much beyond that, because Prachuap is off the tourist circuit. It has no big white hotel on its beach, no street signs in English, no English-fluent fake Rolex vendors, no taxi drivers offering tours to temples or waterfalls. The seafood restaurants down on the docks have menus with English subtitles, but you don’t always get what you think you ordered.

My Thai is limited to the essentials. Besides being able to count, I can say No Thank You and My Name Is and Where and Thank You Very Much and A Little Tiny Bit. A Little Tiny Bit comes in handy when you’re asked if you can speak Thai. 

Nit noi,” I say. “Nit noi Thai.” 

Whenever I say nit noi Thai, I generate much laughter, many smiles, much shrugging of shoulders. You realize again and again that you can go to a country, eat its food, walk its beaches, and yet not be there at all because you don’t know the language.

Yesterday, however, wandering the back streets of town, I found a place that contained a tiny bit of home.  A sign out front spelled out the word TEXAS.  Beside it were the doors of a western saloon, swinging back and forth under the nailed-up skull of a water buffalo. Willie Nelson was whining over a stereo inside, and as I walked up to the doors, I could see pictures of cowboys and cattle drives, cactus and Cadillacs.  I pushed my way into the dim interior, sat down at a table and ordered a shot of Mekong rice whiskey.

The woman who served it didn’t look anything like Miss Kitty.  She was a beautiful Thai woman, dressed in flowing silk instead of ruffles and gingham.

She was, it turned out, the saloon’s owner.

“How’d this place get to be named Texas?” I asked her.

“My husband’s from Texas,” she said.

“Ahh,” I said. “Texas.”

“You like my saloon?” she asked. She pointed to the pictures on the walls, at a Marlboro Man poster above the back bar, and at a western saddle hanging in one corner.

I nodded. “Khaap,” I said. (Yes, thank you very much.)

“You come with me,” she said.

She took me by the hand back through the swinging doors, along a hard-packed dirt path that led to the rear of the building and up a steep flight of stairs that led to the second floor.

At the top of the stairs, a second question occurred to me.

“Where’s your husband now?” I asked.

“Texas,” she said.

“Ahh,” I said.

She led me into a room that contained a shrine.  Almost all Thai homes have shrines, small places where a Buddha image, decorated with flowers and yellow ribbons, smiles out on the house and its inhabitants.  Some shrines give space to many-armed Hindu deities, or figures of elephants or monkeys.  Small offerings of food and Coca-Cola and incense are placed in front of the images, on the floor.

But this shrine was not dedicated to Buddha. It was dedicated to James Dean.  Underneath an American flag were photos of James Dean with a motorcycle, James Dean with his Porsche, James Dean looking forever young in an East of Eden still.  A pair of cowboy boots and a fifth of Jack Daniels lay in front of the photos, along with chrome insignia from American cars, a Levi jacket, and a switchblade knife.

“James Dean,” said my hostess. “America.”

We stood in silence for a moment.  Then she motioned me back down the stairs. On my table in the bar was a bucket of ice, a Coke, and a pint bottle of Mekong. I sat back down, alone now, and started toasting dead American heroes.

By the time I had worked my way down to Jim Morrison it had grown dark outside.  A warm sea-laden wind was coming in through the windows from the shore. The pint was half-empty and I was thinking of home.  Thailand is not usually a place that inspires homesickness, but there I was, wanting the desert spaces and wide empty highways and the silver winter sunrise that even then was brightening Idaho skies. I was feeling a little melancholy about my own country, and it seemed that it, like James Dean, combined equal parts of youth and promise and death. Americans are a happy people, but they have tragedy in their makeup, and all it takes to bring it out is a glossy photo of home.

I paid my bill and put the bottle in my hip pocket.

“Where is he going? (P’naii? P’naii?)” one of the bar-girls asked my hostess.

“Texas,” she said.

Looking at this piece now, I like its word-play and its gentle ironies, but I would still be happier if I had written it when I was twenty-five instead of thirty-five.  If a student had sent it to me, I would advise him not to get his narrator—and thus his credibility—drunk and maudlin.  I would also say that the only way to rescue such a narrator is to plunge toward the darkness and death in an attempt to justify the drunkenness and sentimentality.  It’s helped—the piece, anyway—that events have made America and death-wishes a credible juxtaposition.

Which brings up another even more disturbing point. Now, when I read my early fiction, it’s scary how prophetic it was–not so much with events but with character, perspective, and moral outlook.  I used to invent these grotesques just to see what they would do on the page.  Now, of course, I realize I wasn’t inventing them at all. They were in the process of inventing me.  In some instances, that’s reason enough to hit the delete button.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joan L. Cannon September 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm

For someone with such a fund of humor, I find your comment about this piece distressingly pessimistic. But then, I ‘m old enough to be your mother.
I’m also widowed and too far from “home” (which is to say, where my children are). I’ve just published a collection of short stories written over more than 25 years, and I like that they were (as you brilliantly said!) inventing what I’ve had to learn to become. Could you think of the journey in that way? Thank you for showing me your approach to youthful experience. Mine in writing didn’t start until middle age, and still you give me something for which to aim–a true gift from one who knows how to recognize such things so much sooner than I have!

Maria Murad September 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Dear John,
Like the previous commentator, I didn’t come to writing until late middle age. So what I write now is from that long-range perspective. The only pieces of writing I can look back on are letters I sent to a friend, who kindly kept them and passed back to me. How young I was!
I, too, think you are overly harsh on your early writing. I found good insights and truth in what you wrote. Plus, your voice comes through as strongly then as now.

Sandra Ramos O'Briant September 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm

“Grotesques” inventing you? Sounds like there’s a painful story there.

Jane Shortall September 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Thanks for Cleaning Out the Files – excellent approach… I’m doing the same & wincing at what is is there, rejected by agents and still being kept in ‘Work in Progress’ ??

Sharon Espeseth September 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I have enjoyed reading your articles, and have hopefully absorbed some of your wisdom, experience, advice, and/or perspective. Just this week I have given to the library a number of writing books donated to me by a friend who is going out of the writing business; therefore I believe I’ve complied with your Rule #1. By supporting your cause of selling MFA in a Box, I may have broken Rule #4, as I also am in downsizing mode. So much for the wisdom you inspired.

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