Years ago I took my first writing course, an undergraduate intro fiction offering taught by a high-strung, tenured loon whose own aspirations as a playwright had burned out along with his ability to comport himself civilly in social situations. His over-the-top insistence on a kind of Victorian propriety, combined with his inability to suppress his opinions in the face of things he considered improper, often led him to an ironic rudeness that put him on the outs with students and English Department faculty alike. Still, the guy could teach, and his early encouragement of my work gave me the confidence to continue trying my hand at fiction.
Oddly, one lesson of his stands out in my memory from all the others. I say “oddly” because this piece of advice has nothing directly to do with the writing process itself: “Don’t throw anything away.” No matter how awful you think something is, he counseled, keep it. There’s likely something in it, even if merely a seed, you might find a use for in a future work. This is akin to what I call in my professional life as a business and technical writer “repurposing.”
Over the years, I’ve heeded this man’s advice and dutifully filed away all my discards, false starts, and flops. And, indeed, I have come back to them, more often than not finding a way to dig out the essence I was seeking in my original attempt and repurposing the material in a new work. I found myself doing this a lot when writing my first novel Flicker in the Porthole Glass. The novel creates a kind of mythology of Philadelphia and my life there during the mid-80s. During my time in Philly, I’d written a number of abortive stories, amateurish poems, and filled several notebooks of reflections on what I’d seen and who I met. For writers interested in what this repurposing might look like in practice, I offer the following example.
I wrote this mediocre poem during my time in Philly. After multiple rejections from various litmags, I tucked it away in a file cabinet bursting with my other flops.
I scratch with my woman’s fake leg
and reach through the wrought iron bars
that keep us from the coins
pitched on Franklin’s grave with whispered wishes.
Fumbling with the leg bundled
in stocking rags and the vestige of her shoe,
I work the coins to my blunt fingers
and paw the slab marking Ben’s tomb.
Propped against the Christ Church
Burial Ground wall, I
struggle with this prosthetic rake
while my woman plies her half-a-leg
against the pity of folks
who come to glimpse a tomb, a grave.
Friends Meeting Hall and Christ Church,
we work Olde City for change,
dredge fountains for wish-pennies and
comb the monuments for all we’re worth.
Tonight at the Delaware, we’ll sleep
on a soft bench cradled by the river’s lullaby,
lost in dreams beyond the moon hovering
above the withered shadow of Camden,
the tugs and freighters, the motor boats
bumping over their own night wakes,
the lights of the high-speed train
gliding the arc of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Later, when working on Flicker, I wrote a scene in which my narrator contemplates the harmonica man, a destitute street performer who entertains the sidewalks with his Hohner-and-spoons act–and who haunts my narrator in various passages–this poor soul encounters people even more pitiful than he. I didn’t like my original effort, but during the revision process I remembered my poem about the beggars at Franklin’s grave. So, to the file cabinet I went.
For me, for the way I write, the distinctions between fiction and poetry are both arbitrary and few. So, I had little trouble reworking the poem to suit this particular moment in the novel, a passage in which the narrator contemplates a painting that inspires a vision of the harmonica man and all street people he encounters in the birthplace of a nation. It’s a kind of dream that telescopes back from the harmonica man through my narrator. The following is the result. It’s from a section of the book titled “Paintwork”:
—… Only hinted at is the internal chatter of two million minds, the reflection of headlights riding the walls of claustrophobic apartments, the blinking red warning lights on the pinnacles of office towers, the young woman on Chestnut Street who drops a handful of change that quarks all over the sidewalk as if only to enjoy stamping them into stillness with her sneakered foot. Or what about the young man on Broad who stoops to tie his sleepy child’s shoe? And the harmonica man: he must be taken seriously.
Follow him after the office blue and sharply creased pinstripe have all bunnyhopped away in their nurse-white athletic shoes to the buses cars trains in which they slumber or compute toward home and hearth. The harmonica man will undo the padding from his thigh, fold it with love, and stuff it deep into the pocket of his stained trousers. From the soup can he will pour coin and paper into a small woman’s purse, a “pillbox” he’s rescued from the dumpster behind the Saint George Diner on 7th Street. Into the breast pocket of his sooty jacket he’ll slip the Hohner and the spoons, but only after having wrapped them in a surprisingly crisp and clean handkerchief. Then, with a sigh of resigned contentment, he’ll pick the milk crates off the sidewalk and start up 5th Street past the Liberty Bell, where it rests in its plexiglass sepulcher. In Sansom Alley he’ll stash the crates in a niche against the Lafayette Building, cover them with protective layers of cardboard against the oily offerings of pigeons. Hands in pockets, a pillbox full of coin slung over his shoulder, he’ll shuffle up to Arch, to the section in the rick wall surrounding Christ Church Burial Ground that’s been knocked out and replaced with a wrought iron picket that allows a view of Ben Franklin’s grave. There, Liadov scratches with his Glinka’s detached fake leg, reaches through the iron bars that separate him from the coins pitched to Poor Richard. With whispered wishes, the Russian fumbles with the plastic (still bundled in Glinka’s raggy sock and the vestige of her shoe), works the coins from the memorial slab toward his blunt fingers. Propped against the Christ Church Burial Ground wall, Liadov manipulates the prosthetic rake, a croupier of destitution, while his old girl, Glinka, plies her half-a-leg against the pity of the stray passerby, the wayward after-dark sightseer, the soft touch straining to make out the inscription on the tomb. The harmonica man will of them half his take and tell them: “Tonight, at the Delaware, you’ll sleep. With something in your gut, lying soft on a municipal bench, the river will cradle you and sing you its lullaby. Lost in moondreams, you’ll be, hovering above the withered shadow of Camden, the tugs and freighters, the motorboats bumping over their own night wakes, the lights of the high-speed train gliding the arc of the Ben Franklin Bridge.”
So much phenomena this image implies.
The more expansive novel form easily received this reworked poem and allowed me to invest the begging couple with a bit more specificity and detail. Set against the larger context, I think the image they create achieves a clarity I couldn’t manage in the poem.
So, hang onto those throwaways, flops, false starts. Like leftover nuts and bolts stored in an old coffee can in the basement, you never know when they’ll come in handy and solve your problem.