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On Throwing Out Work with a Flourish

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.

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Amy Wright
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.
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13  Comments
  • Deanne

    I’m undergoing a photographic journey of dealing with clutter. It’s a struggle to let go of stuff, let alone art work! So glad you introduced me to that JB video.
    Love your statement “I’m going to face this fear and lime the soil at her old house with the ash of some old work.” Cheers

  • Amy Wright

    MItzi,

    You do me a great honor with your comments, since I know the writer and artist you are and I take your feedback very seriously. Thank you for this treasure trove of encouragement. May I spend it wisely and spread the wealth.

    xo

  • ryder ziebarth

    My husband, artist turned stockbroker, burned all of his work and dismanteled his scullptures,before he left the west village for the upper East side. I never quite understood the story, because he was significantly talented in everyones elses mind.But what you wrote,(the act) “judges what has come before as inadequate, but still believes in something enough to make room for the new or to start over” helps me make sense of his action. Like a cicada, he needed to shed his old skin.By the way, when he retired, he went back to his art. Thanks for the clarity. Well done.

  • Mitzi Cross

    Amy~ What a gorgeous piece of writing. I love the subject matter. You have so many kernels of wisdom… Letting go (in general) is such a process on so many levels. It is a surrendering and sometimes nothing can feel more daunting. I had to pull out some of my favorite parts from this piece:
    * This is brilliant!
    “Publication is perhaps the cleanest form of disposal.”

    “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. ” I had never thought about that before, but you are probably correct that the underlying fear is that one will run out of ideas. I have tons of yellow legal pad full.

    And Amy this ending is worthy of a poem. It is begging to become a poem!!! This first line just hits me right in the heart. It’s powerful and so is she. “My grandmother had nothing when she left her first husband except two boys. It’s a legitimate fear. But she left anyway.”

    Just such gorgeous imagery. No flowery, forced metaphor. It is natural and your voice is so true and refreshing. I enjoy that about your writing. It is tight and you don’t waste language.

    “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.” Okay, I admit this line makes me cry. I can see you on your knees in a private little sacred ceremony.
    Great job Amy.

  • Amy Wright

    I am simply thrilled to read your comments, friends. One of the most important things about writing for me is that it communicate. Thanks to your posts I get that rare pleasure of a writer–to dialogue with readers. I am fortunate beyond measure. Like editing, like the writing process, like gardening, it takes effort, and I appreciate your taking the time.

    Marsha–I’m delighted to know you’ll be receiving Zone 3. I hope you’ll consider the journal as a potential home for your work and send us a submission.

    Michelle–Contribution is just the right word. May we both lighten our burdens as we make ours. <3

    Thanks all for reading!

  • Marsha McGregor

    Love this post, Amy. “Lime the soil of her old house with the ash of some old work.” I learned about the power of ashes from my gardening mother, how they strengthen and nourish roots and even change the color of hydrangea blooms. What we let go of feeds something else, as you aptly captured in your words. I’m delighted to discover this site and your blog via Brevity, especially since we recently had the pleasure of meeting at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop. I’ve ordered my subscription to Zone 3 and look forward to receiving it in my mail box. Gorgeous art work on those covers!

  • Ruth W Crocker

    I’ve discovered that paper makes great mulch in the garden. I love the idea that my roses are surrounded by first, second and third drafts of this or that. Sometimes a sentence or two shyly peeks out to greet me when I’m watering.

  • Michelle Hampton

    “..face this fear and lime this soil…” Amy, you are master with words. I love this line. Of course the entire piece is good, but these words reminded me to think about my work and my contribution and not to haul every note around in the milk containers that have lined my closets for years. Let the cleaning continue! M.

  • L. George Alexander

    I really enjoyed reading this selection by Amy Wright. I have traveled vast distances since my early years and long lost all of the evidence. It is one of those necessary things. When I read the above essay, i remember so many of them.

    I agree with the editing process as way of throwing things out. As a writer, I edit out portions of my writing everyday. It gets deleted and thrown away or converted into something else. That is why the editing pencil exists and it is part of the creative process for me. I keep all of my journals for the most part only to have a record of where I’ve been. I like a quote by James Salter: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” My journals are real for now.

    I am an avid second-hand store explorer. The Value Village near my home is always full of things that are tossed by relatives after the death of someone. I am sure the same will happen to me. It only goes to show how none of us can take anything with us.

  • Sara

    I have a huge pile of journals/diaries/notebooks/scraps…. I struggle with the idea of trashing it all, too.

  • John Domini

    That’s “winelike nourishment.” What fresh autocorrecting hell is this?

  • John Domini

    Amy, thanks. Somewhere the spirit of a grandmother hesitates a moment, lingering over the finlike nourishment of your MS ashes.

  • Sandra Branum

    I also have difficulty disposing of things like the storage unit I have in IL that holds memories of Mom and my past life before moving to Dothan, AL. It’s hard to let go, but a necessary part of Life. And yes, I have begun to clean out the unit, but “begun” doesn’t necessarily mean that much has been accomplished.

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