Writing Clean: Freeing Yourself from the Past So You Can Write Today

In 1922, Ernest Hemingway lost a suitcase filled with stories and a fragment of a WWI novel.

But what if Hemingway didn’t lose his suitcase of stories? What if it wasn’t stolen? What if he tossed it into the Seine to free himself from the past?

Well if he did, it obviously it didn’t work. The incident appears in each of his posthumously published works. In other words, he spent the rest of his life lamenting the loss and writing about it incessantly.

I know exactly what this feels like… I have my own trunk-full of stories and the idea of tossing them out the window fills me with terror.

Fear of lost luggage

When Ava Gardner asked Hemingway if he ever had an analyst, he replied:

“Sure I have. Portable Corona number three. That’s been my analyst.”

I’ve said before that writing is cheap therapy. I’ve used it as such myself. In fact, I’ve often thought that people who major in Psychology are just trying to figure out why they’re screwed up while English majors already know why — they just want to figure out how to tell everyone about it.

After years of journaling, I have a pretty good idea about the ways destructive patterns can ruin your creative work. For example, mixed into the 2MM words in my journal, three particular themes repeat over and over again.

Reading through old entries, it’s easy to see how each obsession takes the stage. It’s almost comical because the journal entries often recognize the fact that the pattern is beginning, and then I go on for days writing thousands of words to describe things I’ve already written about perhaps two or three dozen times.

I’m tempted to list those problems here, but then that’s bound to set me off on my usual holding pattern. I have stories to write and ideas to share, and getting rid of the baggage is the whole point of this little piece.

In general, I think it is possible to pin the recurring themes in my journal to the more general idea of being afraid of abandoning the past. I’ve lived with these pains so long that they have formed an identity of their own. They have a mythology and a gospel. They are sacrosanct.

I know, I know. It’s psychotic. So, let’s figure out how to get rid of or make peace with the beast and move on.

The quick fix: get me through today

Below are three things I do to get back on track quickly. It doesn’t get us to clean, but let’s start by removing the urge to play the fiddle on our wrists with shiny razors.

1. Step away from the keyboard

The phrases I use in my journals are so predictable that I should write a program that shuts down the computer when I type them in.

When you find yourself falling down the rabbit hole, it might be time to simply take a break. Go outside and take a walk. Draw a picture. Fold the laundry. Do lunch with your friends. Hell, do your friends. Whatever it takes. Just get away from the work for a little while.

2. Put it in the drawer

The story isn’t bothering you but you might be bothering the story. Try putting it in a drawer and write something else. Not that the something else should be your journal. Try writing some non-fiction, something structured and direct that will take your mind off of the flowing abstraction of fiction.

3. Change your music

Simple but effective. Sometimes I go from Jazz to Classical, or Classical to Funk.

Avoidance will not save you

All right. That was peppy and clever but in the end you’ve got to face the real troubles weighing you down. You have to tackle them head on and release yourself from the hold they have over you.

This doesn’t mean marching in and having an all-out drama screamfest with your parents, co-workers, or spouse.

It means that you have to allow the past to fade and realize there is nothing you can do to correct what has happened. The only path forward is through the present and the choices you make today on your journey to tomorrow.

The baggage of the past is what is keeping you from writing today. Let it go and write clean.

[Ref for Hemingway stuff above: Trauma Theory and Hemingway’s Lost Manuscripts by Marc Seals]

9 thoughts on “Writing Clean: Freeing Yourself from the Past So You Can Write Today

  1. Every time I write I treat it like a run. Every run is different. New day, new run. While I bring my life experience to each run I don’t allow the failures, missteps or disappointments of the past to weigh me down and keep me from enjoying the moment. I lace up and head out fully engaged in the moment. Some days I feel like a gazelle others like a clydesdale but every day I aim to hit my stride and have the perfect run. Our writing will of course be infused with who we are and where we’ve been but it should not be limited or weighed down by that. We must free ourselves to explore new terrain, to step away from ourselves and delve into the world around us.

  2. Oooh, great comment, Karen! I love the metaphor of writing and running.

    I’ve been thinking about putting up the archives from my old blog, one that stretches back to 2002 or 2001. There is a long post in there about a morning’s run. I think I’ll dig it out later…

    Of course, there was that one run when I was attacked by a Canada Goose.

    It charged me and then rose up into the air. Flew right into my face. I punched it (what else could I do besides scream and flail)…

    Do not punch a goose in the chest. Ever. It hurts.

    The goose landed and shrugged its wings like nothing had happened. My hand ached for a week, but my wife called me Goose Puncher for a month.

  3. ROFL!!! Please dig that post out of the archives. I was surprised when I moved to MI to find out that Canadian Geese are mean! I am going to double over with laughter now each time I look out the window at those geese. Oh my gosh, that is the funniest thing Ive heard all day! LOL!

  4. Wow, just had a flood of memories… This kind of thing really does seem to happen to me quite a bit. My Karma is wicked silly.

  5. You know, I actually just got done struggling with this one, and I’m sure I’ll have to do it again sometime down the road.

    I’d been rewriting a practically ancient story for far too long and just couldn’t get it to work. I finally figured out it wasn’t so much the story that mean something to me because honestly it wasn’t that great, but I was still struggling with the personal conflict that prompted the first version. Putting the thing to rest and casting off the burden of said conflict did do a lot in the way of freeing me up both emotionally and creatively.

    That’s too funny about the geese. Around here it’s more the clouds of starlings you have to watch out for while driving. I swear those birds are suicidal or something.

  6. @TL I have a story right now that I have been working on for about 14 years so I know exactly what you mean (somewhat painfully I might add). About the starlings, you must live in the SE. I lived in Birmingham, AL for 2 years and I was always amazed at the clouds of those wicked birds.

  7. You guessed it. I’m up near Huntsville, AL actually. It’s handy being a science-fiction writer: living so close to the Space and Rocket Center and getting the chance to chat with folks who worked for NASA during Von Braun’s day.

  8. Having canine buddies helps me “walk away” from time-to-time during the day. The foxhound in particular is most persistent about getting me out of the chair to play. It is also better for the eyes to get away from the monitor and look at distant objects for a while.

    I think number 2 is critical. I’m always amazed at what I think of or find after letting the work “ferment” for a time.

  9. @TL I was just looking at our space center pictures the other day! Huntsville is a cool place.

    @JLK When I partake of my fermented works I tend to stare into the middle distance. A little while later, someone nudges me and I wonder where I’ve been. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *