The Writing Life: “Word-Hoard” by Stephen D. Barker

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[Editor’s note: Stephen Barker was a runner-up in the first HippoCamp conference scholarship contest, which included an essay prompt of ‘writing lessons learned.’ Hippocampus is publishing the winning and two runner-up essays in this and the two previous issues.]

Wordhoard is an Anglo-Saxon epithet for the mind in the chest, seat of reason and emotion—we still speak of getting things off of our chests. Poets or lords needing to captivate their audiences would unlock this store of accumulated wisdom, and the appropriate words would rush forth. My word-hoard grants me eloquence by staying locked.

* * *

Save everything. The detritus from former lives burgeons with memory: all I have to do is open the rotten cardboard boxes in my basement to find, among other things, birthday cards from decades ago, trinkets like a London double-decker bus pencil sharpener that reminds me of my English grandmother—though I’m pretty sure she didn’t give it to me—a bag of rusty coins, and Stephen: the Complete Grade School Works. Words are the worst offenders. I keep them around in case, charms against future need. I’ll never read The World of Napoleon III (1957) or The Household Encylopedia (1964), since Wikipedia will give me more up-to-date history, and my first stop for fix-it advice is YouTube. And those hundred-odd books in German, an aspirational hoard plundered from a retiring professor on the grounds that my German may eventually be good enough to read them? Let’s face it—I’m a hoarder.

My trouble letting go used to make revision hard, but English professors taught me to wield the scalpel, to cut unnecessary modifiers and eliminate the unintended repetitions of the composing process. Writing throwaway articles for Yahoo with low maximum word counts helped too—500 words on running with the bulls, 500 on the Declaration of Independence, 1000 on diving terminology. Strange priorities, but they paid.

When I could get around to more serious writing, the beginning of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life inspired me further. Knock out the walls of your writing, she commanded, even the load-bearing ones: “You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now.” The physicality of the metaphor still resonates, as does the mystic fervor informing it. Only straight, narrow writing leads to the divine.

But murdering my darlings seemed cruel—what if there were a way to put them in stasis? And so the word hoard began, a grey limbo of pasted-in fragments, a word processing document of banished thoughts—the parts that weren’t working, that weren’t as clever as I thought, that didn’t serve the story.

Knowing that all my old thoughts are there eliminates revision paralysis: “What if I want it later? What if I’m wrong?” I no longer worry. After letting the essay grow all the wild and fuzzy edges it wants, I scythe through. Only the best stays. Might I be making mistakes? Sure, but I’d much rather have a tight essay than one cluttered with precious thoughts.

I rarely go back to the hoard.


stephen d barkerStephen D. Barker lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University, where he teaches English and studies Anglo-Saxon shame. His essay “Churchgoing” recently appeared in The Southwest Review.



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