Craft: Bone Heap — On Returning to One’s Own Work by Donna Steiner

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Any writer who has been at it for a while knows what throwaways are, although you might have another name for them. Exercises, warm-ups, unfinished pieces, maybe the ever-optimistic “works in progress.” I call them throwaways, and they refer to writings that have, I believe, come up short. Sometimes it’s an early version of a piece that will be re-conceptualized and written better at a later time. Or it could be an echo of something I already did, but haven’t gotten out of my system yet. For instance, I’ve attempted, many times now, to write about a dog I saw get hit by a car. The scene has never quite clicked and is usually destined for the throwaway pile – more catharsis or therapy than good, fresh writing.

Every once in a while I ransack my throwaways, hoping to find a bone or two with some meat on it. (This is a disgusting metaphor, I recognize, especially after the dog reference…) I pick out these scraps and hope to salvage them or reconfigure them into something new, something that sparks. This can be futile – like hoping to pull together a salad out of a dumpster. (Again, apologies.) But occasionally I find a line or phrase or some merciful combination of words that seeds a new piece of writing.

This is one of many reasons that writing teachers urge students to save drafts. I, too, tell my students this. It can be difficult to assess the quality of a draft; discarding work prematurely is an easily avoidable error.

That being said, I’m not a saver. If a draft or even a completed piece feels subpar, I tend to hit DELETE and never look back. I literally throw away my throwaways, preferring to keep my document files and desk and mind as uncluttered as possible. In other words, I don’t take my own advice – I believe, in the moment, that I CAN assess the quality of my own work.

But I’m trying to be a little messier, a bit more of a hoarder, a bit of a saver. I like the act of reviewing, whether it is weeks or months or years later. I like to return, and I can’t return if there’s nothing to return to. Occasionally I discover something I judged harshly, considered a definite throwaway, but now recognize a glint beneath the rubble. I like noticing the scaffolding of an interesting structure in a piece that I’d previously assessed as sloppy, or rescuing a cohesive paragraph from the chaotic ramble of a failed essay.

There’s satisfaction to be had from rifling through one’s own failures. Perhaps it’s embarrassing to admit, but I like realizing that something I wrote, and then wrote off, isn’t as bad as I’d thought. There’s a kind of pleasure derived from surprising myself – “you’re alright,” I think, cozying up with my small dose of self-satisfaction. “You still have some moves, you can work with this.”

And then, of course, it’s time to take those scraps and see if they really qualify as salvage, if they were worth saving, to see if you’re able to work some alchemy… or if you’ve simply been delusional and needy.

I am trying to remind myself that bones are beautiful in and of themselves; they are as good a metaphor as any for the long game, the writing life, the craft of writing and revising. I am trying to reconsider my bones, to remember that is where the marrow is, to remember that fractures can be mended, that bones are both fragile and strong. Some may eventually be considered throwaways, destined for the scrapheap… but not before I’ve mined them well.

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  4 comments for “Craft: Bone Heap — On Returning to One’s Own Work by Donna Steiner

  1. Very useful article for writers who’ve “been around awhile” and also for my students…may I copy and use as a handout?

  2. I’ve been tinkering with a piece that just didn’t feel right. An editor asked to read it, but I never sent it to her because it was “an echo of something I already did, but haven’t gotten out of my system yet.” Bingo. You put into words my struggle the past few weeks. Thank you! Now I can move on.

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