We could have saved sixpence. We have saved fivepence. (Pause) But at what cost?
—Samuel Beckett, All That Fall
Real world aside, this experiment is paying off. It took a week to complete Day 1 (Writing—digital), but I feel the difference every time I sit at my computer.
For instance, I never realized how much energy it took to steel my mind against the digital mess of a jam-packed file window. In that nano-second before I decided to search instead of browse, I would sublimate a pang of disgust. But now that my files are organized, opening that window gives me a small jolt of energy instead. It’s like savoring a sip of Peets instead of enduring the taste of lesser coffee, just to get the caffeine.
Day 2. Writing—physical.
Having tidied the digital files, today I move to the physical ones: binders, loose papers, the diary from 8th grade, a dozen blank books friends have given me “to write in” that are too pretty to write in, countless journals and notes and playbills and newspaper clippings.
Most of this has been living in my office, in a grim oak bookcase from 1993. Already, I’m certain this is not going to work. Digital files are one thing, but words on paper feel sacred—and, in almost equal measure, outdated and forlorn. How am I going to get rid of any but the most obviously useless?
Step 1. Pile everything on the bed.
Or, in this case, on the floor. At first, I wanted to cheat and extract one item at a time from the bookcase. But as soon as I said, to hell with it, and starting piling, I realized two things:
- Binders have no touch appeal. In their plastic-i-ness and random colors and Sharpied spine labels, they don’t shout “creative synergy!” but instead mutter “windowless computer lab.”
- I almost never use them. When I need something, 99% of the time I pull up the most recent digital draft instead.
This is annoying to acknowledge, because a few years ago I created a binder for every full-length play I wrote, every class I taught, and every category of shorter writing. Old drafts, notes, contact sheets, programs, feedback, everything was filed into these binders. I spent countless hours making tabs for different kinds of writing exercises. I bought document sleeves to put programs and cast notes in. I labelled each binder on the spine for easy reference and put it in the bookcase. And then, I almost never opened them again.
But I’d put so much work into hole-punching and binding. Was it for nothing? And what about all the journals and notes that have no digital equivalent?
Step 2. Sit down with an expert.
For advice, I turned to storyteller and producer Jill Howe, who has been posting beautiful photos of her tidying process all year. We met at one of my favorite breakfast spots, Over Easy, and Jill convinced me that the papers are tamable.
Over corncakes, Jill confided, “Before, with storytelling I did everything on paper. And I would keep every draft, so I’d have like 20 drafts of a story. I mean, it was kind of fun in the beginning, like, ‘Look at all the work I’m doing!’ But if you’ve told a story now and then you tell it again in two months, you look back and go, ‘I ended the story like that? What the eff was I thinking?’
“So now, when I do a piece for a show, I have the final draft and that’s really the only paper I keep. I don’t need the 20 drafts that got me to that point.”
But Jill admitted that there’s the stuff that’s easy to toss, the stuff that’s easy to keep—and then there’s everything in between. Luckily, she also had a solution for this, the largest category. “Are you familiar with Evernote?”
Step 3. Get some apps.
Jill uses the notes-app-on-steroids Evernote and Evernote’s free Scannable app to digitize and organize all the in-between stuff. “The app takes a picture, immediately crops it to the frame, and turns it into a high-quality image,” she explained. “You can make folders in your Evernote for all the different categories, and scan directly to those.”
Jill also has a WiFi scanner that she keeps on her desk, along with a tray for day-to-day stuff like bills and receipts. “When the pile gets deep, I pull out the scanner,” she said.
Step 4. Hold each document…
Once you’re set up with a scanner or two, you’re ready to:
- Pick up a notebook or stapled pile of something.
- Turn each page.
- Decide whether to keep the whole thing, toss the whole thing, scan selected pages, or scan all the pages.
- Put the binder in a donation bin.
- Thank and then trash every page you can possibly live without.
- Trash sacred words? Like, in an undignified recycle bin?
Step 5. Have a bonfire.
About that whole written-words-are-sacred thing I was feeling? Jill’s been there, too. “I’ve been carrying around journals since I was in college,” she told me, “you know, repressive, horrible poetry. And you know, that whole corny thing about, does it spark joy? It just reminded me of things I didn’t want to remember. So I asked a friend, ‘hey, can we build a fire in your backyard?’”
So instead of tossing my outgrown scribblings in the recycle bin, I’m collecting them for a bonfire, first day it’s warm enough to sit outside around the fire pit and toast some marshmallows.
Step 6. Stay motivated.
Jill advises taking before and after pictures to remind you of why you’re doing this, and to help fine-tune your work. “There’s something about taking pictures,” she said. “I would declutter a space, take a picture of it, and—I couldn’t see this in real life, but when I’d look at the picture I’d say, ‘that’s still too much.’ And I’d go back and get rid of more.”
Now that I’m actually going through each item, I’m kicking myself for piling everything on the floor. I hate the mess and this is taking way too long already. But that’s exactly why the pile is brilliant. I’m extra-motivated to move quickly so I can get what I want: a digitized library of documents, journal entries, and notes that I can access from anywhere without ever having to dust.
Thank you, Jill! Thank you, Marie. And thank you, Samuel Beckett.