By Ian Cooke-Tapia
Finished: 27th November, 2018
I have a Dropbox folder with 44.5mb of written material coded as Microsoft Office 2007 Word documents. I sit here on a Friday evening, going over the words written by someone I haven’t been in two, five, seven years, and my finger hovers over the delete button.
I believe I speak for most writers, artists, artisans and, well, everyone, when I say that if our lives were to be surmised by projects left unfinished, uncompleted and forgotten rather than the stuff we’ve pushed through to completion, that total number might drive us to some sort of existential questioning. Such an impressive number would as towering blocks in a quasi-Soviet architectural style, with the same psychological impression as a parent’s look of disappointment. It’ll be the travel agency holiday of disappointment. Is this a positive impression of our lives or not, let the person gazing up at the structure bricked by their own attempts decide. Each little brick has its own history, after all.
My own folder titled “FINISH ME!” is impressive in the variety of ideas I’ve had in the near ten years since I started writing, and that is not even half of all the things I’ve ever committed to words that went nowhere. It sits inside the Literature Dropbox folder; morgue, sick room and neonatal incubator all rolled a metaphorical hospital in yellow pixels. Here I have seen stories be born and developed and let out to the world to live a full life; as well as those missing something, kept on life support to let time and hope and my own life bring me the cure to their ailment; there are the novels placed in a coma, and the short story collections under observed isolation for they have something in them I don’t yet understand that cannot be allowed to infect others. There is a morgue in this hospital of storytelling, or so I thought at first. The more I think about it the more it straddles the spaces between two institutions dedicated to what has died. I’d like to think that here I keep the stories that I know for a fact are dead, which I should spend no energy trying to revive or explore. Am I waiting for some external permission, some understanding that, yes, these are dead, in order to press the DEL key? Yet, by keeping them is a reminder of what wasn’t, I’ve turned the morgue into that institution dedicated to understanding the dead: a museum. Yes, morgue or museum, both terms fit – for looking at those stories preserved in the balmic fluid of failure is a learning opportunity. They remind me that, yes, sometimes ideas cannot be polished with the skills I have.
I look at some of these files and realise that this thought is déjà vu. I’ve been writing for ten years and the number of unfinished material grows in diametric opposition to my self-disappointment in being unable to finish them. I like to think that is a sign of me maturing and better understanding my own writing process. I am unwilling to let even the remote idea of it disappear. What if? What if? I ask. What if this badly written phrase, whose context and true meaning has been lost to time and the faults of human memory, could become… something. Anything! Sometimes, good art happens through hard work. Marble becoming statues and all that. But what about the many times we have invested time and effort sculpting a statue, only to realise that it wasn’t marble we were working on but crumbly clay? Even the dead can speak, they say; bodies in a morgue can be a learning tool. We have museums to study the dead, after all: mummies, ruins, rusted coins – what was can teach us a lot about where we are and where we can be. I like to think that failed stories can do the same.
But these stories which I haven’t been able to finish in ten years are not worthy of being in a museum. My father is an archaeologist and he has warehouse full of bags upon bags of soil samples, all full of bits of bone and shells that will never be displayed in a museum. He keeps them because they might yield some information in the future. But my stories are neither artefacts from the past nor ailing bodies. They’re words thought in passing in those moments between dreams, they are idle musings pondered on a long walk home. And a lot of them are crap.
I could one day make them into great stories, maybe. But keeping this ever-growing list of “things to do”, things to one day finish, is increasing that very long list of failures that my successes will be measured against. That anxiety is real and I am reminded of it every time I open the Dropbox folder. Yes, there is no cost to keeping those files – in terms of storage space they have less worth than shavings off a penny. Nothing! Nothing in the great scheme of things. I could keep them there forever and they would not affect me at all and I would have these ideas until the day I need them.
But deleting them? Getting rid of something I’ve been carrying with me for years and have never once used?
Digital declutering isn’t like cleaning out your house where the physical satisfaction predates the mental gratification, but, damn does it feel good. And no matter how many times you do it feels like it always reappears on your to-do list, like an endlessly respawning enemy in a bad videogame. I’ve come to see it as an inherently creative problem, as we creative people tend to create more than anyone ever gets to see. And we get a little too attached, and we have a massive debate about what to get rid of, and when we finally pull the trigger it feels amazing and then we wonder if we might be losing something valuable in doing so. I was originally going to end this here but while I was writing this I started to deal with another archive of possibilities and dead memories: my sketchbooks.
I keep my sketchbooks, as diaries and as archives of possibilities. I keep them for years on end, gathering dust, sometimes used as reference material. And recently I peeked into the pile from the last five years, leafing through stuff that made me smile; because I’ve improved, because I forgot I made it, because seeing those drawings put me back to the very moment my hand moved the pencil over the paper. The sketchbook itself was thrown into the recycling pile, but all the pages that had an idea that still held enough merit, even those that survived the sharpened gaze of experience the years of hard work have empowered me with; those I kept. Those I moved to another sketchbook and started to fully develop into the elusive concept of “finished work”.
Instead of seeing those Microsoft Office 2007 Word files and piles of paper through the eye of a health and safety officer, I should see them through the eyes of a scavenger. Perhaps only one phrase can be salvaged, but there is some/any/a little value in everything I’ve ever written. I think that to outright condemn my past attempts is like the adult condoning all play as childish. It is self-hate, in a way; to hate who I was, without accepting that that me allowed me to be me.
I’ll be honest, this sort of activity should be done more often. Call it curation, decluttering, digital cleaning, mindfulness… call it whatever you need to call it. But judicious preservation of my own history, failures and all, is a great way to initiate a personal conversation. Besides, even a condemned building still has good bricks somewhere in its walls. And I invite you to go through your own morgues, museums, hospitals and dig sites; find those good bricks with which you can build anew and rediscover those ideas which still hold water. Find joy in your adolescent skills and be happy for how much you’ve improved. Does it make you anxious to discover that you haven’t “finished” as much as you set out to make? Good. As it should. But own that anxiety, make it your own. Make that anxiety into energy to bring work to the finish line, to improve.
At worst, you’ll share a moment with yourself.