The ‘Keep’ Pile

April 9, 2018 | 6 min read

My mother announced that she was going to declutter: pare down the excess in her house. Much of this was, admittedly, boxes of mine and my sister’s that had been stored in her attic since we were children. She asked me to come over, sift through them, and take anything I wanted to keep.

I arrive around dinnertime one evening, already exhausted from a long day at school. I direct the creative writing program at a university in Philadelphia, and had spent the better part of the day sitting in meetings, wading through emails. I’d tiredly edited a few pages of my novel on the subway ride home. My husband, Jake, is working late, so I’ve brought along our two-year-old, Theo. Still, I foolishly imagine I’ll be able to put a sizable dent in the boxes, which my mom has already hauled downstairs. What I find waiting is a mountain of cardboard: 19 boxes, soft and sagging, seams splitting, nearly blocking the hall.

They are, for the most part, very large boxes packed with small things. For starters: every homework assignment I have ever done. Book reports, spelling quizzes, tests, and report cards. Programs from band concerts and awards ceremonies. To move from one pile to the next is to plumb a different age. In one, it’s 1982, fourth grade: a Trapper Keeper with a pair of kittens on it. Two-pocket folders, filled with my carefully practiced cursive, bearing pictures of the Muppets and ET. Autograph books and Christmas lists, plans for secret clubs and lemonade stands. Next I’m in junior high, 1987: congratulations on the Presidential Academic Fitness Program, signed by Ronald Reagan. Detailed instructions on wearing makeup from my far more sophisticated cousin in New York. Soft brown-paper book covers—I recall, with a visceral jolt, the blue-inked notes scribbled on them (like the “you’re cute” that Tommy, who sat in front of me in Algebra II, had once swiveled and slowly written and I had stared at, disbelieving, for the rest of the term). Then, abruptly, I’m in college: spiral-bound notebooks for Shakespeare, Milton, Modern Drama, the short stories I wrote for my first fiction workshop sophomore year.

It’s all still there. It’s painstaking. In part because of the sheer quantity, and in part because so much necessitates a sentimental pause, a moment of laughter or recognition, before deciding whether to toss or keep. For the most part, I toss. I’m trying to be practical; when, realistically, would I look at them again? If there’s a flicker of doubt, it goes in the trash pile. Scented erasers, puffy stickers, Lip Smackers, friendship pins, fuzzy footed cotton balls that lined my headboard—were I a different sort of person, I could have amassed a small fortune on eBay in ’80s memorabilia. Flattened photos in paper envelopes, with tea-colored negatives. Piles of archaic mix tapes. (One of the playlists, called Fall 1992, I transcribe and email to my college friends before pouring the cassettes in the trash.) At the bottom of a box, I find one of those star-shaped origami fortune-tellers that were popular in elementary school. I show it to Theo, stuffing my fingers in and pinching it this way and that, while he stares, curious, a relic from a distant age.

And of course, there are my stories. They overwhelm the boxes—hundreds, thousands of pages. As a kid, I was always writing, clacking furiously on the manual typewriter in my room after school. I recognize the blocky gray of the Smith-Corona, the trim black letters of the electric typewriter from my dad’s office (a jolt of pleasure as I remember the hum of it, the can of orange soda by my elbow from the vending machine). Other stories are hand-written, in notebooks or stapled sheaves. I had saved every page.

I don’t have time to stop and read them, though I could easily linger for hours—I have the fleeting thought that, had I more time, this might be worth writing about—but I’m trying to be efficient. I’m pressed for time; lately, I’m always pressed for time. Five years earlier, I took on the directing of the writing program. Two years later, I became a mom. In those years, the shape of my life changed. My own writing drifted from the center; my novel, under contract, is now two deadlines past due. I adore my writing students but my job is consuming, my inbox seemingly bottomless, my hyper-responsible nature less a blessing than a curse. Recently, a friend noticed my shoulder floating up near my ear and gently pressed it down, like a jack into a box. She suggested yoga (a perfectly sensible suggestion—but who had time for yoga? It was precisely because I had no time for yoga that I needed yoga so much).

The sun is setting. Theo is sleepy. I entertain him with some Garfield stickers. I move all my stories to the keep pile, along with all photos, cards, and letters, stuffed in bloated envelopes and addressed to college, camp, study abroad—pausing to rue the dawn of email—then drag the discards to the trash.

By the time we leave, I’m thrumming. And I only made it through four boxes. I slide a partly filled plastic tub in my trunk, avert my eyes from the heap by the curb. I strap Theo in his car seat, toying with a Rubik’s Snake. Driving home in the dark, I feel the stirring of a deep melancholy I can’t yet place.

Over the next few weeks, the excavation continues. I return to my mom’s house to make my way through another box or two. When she comes to mine, she has one in the trunk. Now, though, I sift through them more slowly. I’m more cautious about tossing things in the trash pile; if there’s any doubt, I move to keep. Sometimes I pause to read my old stories. They’re about families and friendships, girls my age waiting for their lives to begin. One imagines a woman president (written in 1981—I was eight). Often I can guess what I was reading, and therefore imitating—Judy Blume’s funny Fudge series, the relatable teenagers of Paula Danziger and Katherine Paterson. A brief experiment with fantasy (Madeleine L’Engle), with mystery (Ellen Raskin). There’s my short-lived foray into fashion journalism: photos of my Mandy doll posing on the playground—the swing, the monkey bars—in different outfits, with sprightly seasonal captions: A Shawl for Fall! (Much as I’d wanted to be a kid who liked dolls, I had little use for them except as writing prompts.) There were family newsletters (Baby Cousin Katie takes first steps!). Issues of the Elkins Park Torchbearer, where I published thinly veiled fiction about my middle school preoccupations—locker combination, gym class, popular kids, boys—written with an openness, or lack of guile, that is amazing to me now, that of a shy person who doesn’t yet realize she can be seen. My kids’ book review, which ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer. A list entitled My Writing Career as of Now and My Plans for the Future, dated 1984. Ticket stubs from a playwriting competition I won in 11th grade. Rejection letters from contests—I saved these too, developing a thick skin that would serve me later on.

Combing through the remaining boxes, I see a through-line rising to the surface with increasing sharpness, as if drawn with invisible ink. It’s not that I’m remembering things I’d forgotten—if anything, the surprise is how immediately familiar many of these things are. I know, of course, that as a kid I was always writing. Yet seeing it all together, box after box and pile after pile, is striking: not just the volume but the focus, the way writing saturated every pore of my life. The notes from teachers. Yearbook messages, letters. An article from our local paper my senior year: The Write Stuff. A poster on which I’d glued scenes I’d scissored out of my stories, a collage of typed paragraphs (and possibly the most boring-looking poster of all time). Even during the high school period when I wasn’t writing stories (too preoccupied with real-life drama) I was writing stories: unsent letters to my friend in Scotland, my cousin in New York, melodramatic non-encounters with boys I can barely recall. Twenty-five years later, I can’t help cringing at the crisp, sassy voice I was affecting, though I see that the letters doubled as diaries, or writing practice, or both.

Something about the totality of it, the definiteness and the joy of it, is moving. It wasn’t just a private hobby, something I knew about myself; it was how everyone else knew me. It’s an exercise in clarity, a return to my childhood that saddens me, but centers me too.

A conviction is forming: I need to strike a new balance. Make more time for writing again. Pare down outside obligations, difficult as it will be. That fall, I will decide to return to teaching full-time. In the mornings, I’ll set the alarm for five and write for two, sometimes three hours in the house before teaching, and before Theo and Jake are awake. Eventually, the novel will get finished. Of the 19 original boxes, I’ll amass just two. But the pile of cardboard, initially a chore, was a gift—like the attic, a call to simplify, a reminder of who I was that helped affirm who I am.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Elise Juska's novel If We Had Known was released this spring. Her previous novel, The Blessings, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and one of the The Philadelphia Inquirer's 10 Best Books of 2014. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, The Missouri Review, and Electric Literature.

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