In 1970, John Baldessari cremated all of the paintings and art he made from 1953-1966, and put the ashes in a bronze urn in the shape of a library book. I learned this fact recently from watching the Tom Waits’ narrated short film “A Brief History of John Baldessari.”
What strikes me when any artist destroys or deletes some amount of his or her oeuvre is how complicated the sentiment is behind the simple gesture. It flies in the face of ambition, mocks sometimes a life’s work. But it is also tinged with enough pride to sit uneasily as a wholly noble statement. It judges what has come before as inadequate but still believes in something enough to make room for the new or to start over. Perhaps it is the practiced resurrection the mad farmer recommends in Wendell Berry’s poem. Anyway, I admire it even as I resist it.
I attribute some of my reluctance to my Appalachian upbringing. I still have my first pair of track shoes. They hang on a hook in my parents’ cabin where I use them to walk in the creek. Their traction makes them perfect for navigating slippery rocks. My mother repurposes almost everything from disposable strawberry containers to inherited boxes of odds and ends lamp parts. I am naturally inclined to save what I’ve written.
Still, I appreciate a good clean-out, sweeping files into the bin of progress and moving forward. But how to know when? And, after learning about Baldessari—how? It sounds more fun to stage an event, make the disposal itself artistic. Too, I’m curious what it would feel like to erase an unfinished manuscript, even as I hesitate to wipe files that may be, too, God knows, “boring” as that art Baldessari promised never to make again.
I have preferred dramatic edits, reducing my thesis by two thirds to a published chapbook. I crafted a novella into a long short story. Publication is perhaps the cleanest form of disposal. At its best, getting a work into print frees up renewed creative energies for untried outlets.
I should say that as I get older, I find that holding onto things takes more effort than it used to. I am more willing to set down heavy thoughts or put aside grudges. It only makes sense that the notebooks I imagine returning to in later years for some kernel of insight reflect fear of running out of ideas, having nothing. My grandmother had nothing when she left her first husband except two boys. It’s a legitimate fear. But she left anyway.
In her honor, I’m going to face this fear and lime the soil at her old house with the ash of some old work. It won’t be a grand overarching gesture. I’m going to comb through papers and files like she ran her fingers through the beans plucking weeds. But, I will toss some of it, as I’m going, over my shoulder like spilled salt. Perhaps by fall, a little luck will have come of it.