Hopper: “a container for a bulk material such as grain, rock, or trash, typically one that tapers downward and is able to discharge its contents at the bottom.” There it is: lots of material, some of which is useful, some of which is trash. Most of us have writing hoppers—our notebooks, our journals, our idea files. Sorting that out is not so easy, so we tend to collect everything, “just in case.”
Poet Donald Hall suggested that New Hampshire’s state motto should be “It might come in handy,” and I have a little of that notion operating in my writing life—I should retitle my paper and electronic notebooks “Handy,” “Something Might Come of This,” “Just in Case I Need Something About the King of Albania,” and “That Man Who Was Folding his Plane Ticket into What Seemed to be an Alligator.” What I have, instead, looks more like this: “January, 2008 - July 2009” and “Last February—now.” These are not very useful or inspiring—those assortments of pages (keeping working on those) and electronic files (really not a good idea) are filled with grain, rock, and trash, only two of which I can do anything with. The other? I should just trash it. I have to sort through all of it and start pitching. But wait . . . . .
There is the problem. With some perspective, I can recognize the heavy rocks in my notebooks—they are the “big ideas” I am tempted to lay down and build on: “The Problem With Teenagers” “Why Americans are Selfish,” “The Real Reasons my Boss is a Jerk.” These might provide a foundation for opinion essays (although few people are likely to ask for such opinions), or, maybe, flash fiction (nope), short stories (they will inevitably sound stiff, forced, or didactic), or novels (don’t even bother to try—that’s not how it works). So leave those big-idea rocks alone after you have found and hauled them out of the hopper. I know: it’s hard. Like so many of us, I have several projects on my desk, and a good share of them are boulders.
Get rid of them. Start from the specific and concrete, not the general and vague. We should begin with the little pebbles and, maybe grains of sand—you’ll never chisel your way through the boulders, and even if you try, your readers are not likely to want to join your project. Dig though what you thought was trash and find the little seeds of grain—an experience or observation you can see in your mind’s eye and recreate with your other four senses. See if you can tell a grain of sand from a grain of seed, which are grit and which will grow. If you are a journaler, make a habit to include distant memories and their concretions—the “real” part of them that call out your senses. Go back and find that old that old book or shoe or your grandmother’s watch or a family photograph and try to smell, taste, or feel the times and places they carry with them.
We never know: Something might come in handy.
Digging through our writers’ hoppers is sometimes an excruciating process, requiring us to see trash for what it is (now), to confront a bit of slimy garbage (probably useful), and to sort through the seed and grain that could generate good fiction, personal essays, or poetry. Lug away the rocks, which someone else might want—but not you, and not for this.
Winona Winkler Wendth is a freelance writer and editor and writing project mentor, and teaches courses in literature, writing, and the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College; she a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at email@example.com