The Life-changing Magic of Erasing Your Life
Maybe you have heard of Marie Kondo. Maybe you have read her book. Maybe you have read a think piece about her book. Maybe you have read an op ed criticizing the number of thinkpieces that are being published about her book.
Maybe you haven’t heard of her. Marie Kondo, the Japanese organization guru, who is currently #trending advises clients to throw away anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” I haven’t read her book (we’ll get to that in her moment), but her method goes something like this: you take each object you own and hold it in your hands. You think long and hard about the work the object has done for you. Maybe it’s a tchotchke your ex got you in Monterey. Maybe it’s a hat you bought for a silly hat contest. It has served you. It has done its work. You thank it, and you send it on your way. And I don’t mean to the back of the closet or your parent’s basement. I mean the dumpster the day before trash day or the Brown Elephant on a Saturday morning.
Kondo’s books are flying off the shelves. Pinterest is swooning. She has a worldwide network of converts. Because wouldn’t we all be happier if we lived a bit lighter? With a bit less?
I haven’t quite made the mental leap. If you give yourself away, are you giving away your life?
Keep what sparks joy, remove what doesn’t.
There is a genre of writing that follows a process similar to Kondo’s. It may seem strange to bring poetics into dialogue with pop-self-help, but that’s what we’re doing today.
What I’m talking about is erasure.
One of my favorite writers (and a very prominent erasurist) Mary Ruefle describes what this means: “I call them erasures, but elsewhere they have been referred to as elision books, hyper-editing, cross-outs, and, my least favorite of these unfavorites, ‘creative defacement.’ They are texts made by getting rid of, in a thousand and one ways, surrounding, pre-existing text.” Ruefle is one of the foremost contemporary erasure poets, and certainly the most prolific, which is a paradox in its own right—she has produced dozens of works through a creative process of destruction.
In its simplest explanation, erasure is poetry that is derived from a source text; it is what is left behind after an act of omission—by crossing out, painting over, cutting up, whiting out. Some would consider this “found poetry.” Others view it as a type of “revision” or “editing.” Some would say that this method is less of an erasure or deletion of a source text but rather an act of selection—choosing elements of it.
This seems in line with what Kondo is saying—focusing on what you keep versus what you eliminate.
I’d like to think Kondo and Ruefle would get along.
After all, tidying is not so different from erasure. In creating a piece of erasure the writer eliminates any words that don’t carry a certain weight or heft—similar to Kondo’s “spark joy” mantra.
I wrote my thesis on erasure several years ago. I spent a baffling amount of research grant money and an entire year up to my eyeballs in words that were disappearing. I studied these things from a distance but was never able to reproduce anything similar to the stark poems that many erasure poets had created.
Not until erasure became a personal project, that is.
Unable to sleep after the sudden death of my brother, I began erasing sections of Kondo’s book, wondering, if they don’t spark joy, what does one do with artifacts of grief?
I followed the book in order, from beginning to end, eliminating words but never rearranging. Let’s take a look at what that looks like:
Sample text from Kondo’s book…
My favorite pastime was reading home and lifestyle magazines. My mother subscribed to ESSE—a magazine with features on interior decorating, cleaning tips, and product reviews. As soon as it was delivered, I would snatch it from the mailbox before my mother even knew it had arrived, rip open the envelope, and immerse myself in the contents… I also made up a variety of my own solitary “games.” For example, after reading a feature on saving money, I immediately launched into a “power-saving game” that involved roaming about the house and unplugging things that weren’t in use. In response to another feature, I filled plastic bottles with water and put them in the toilet tank in a solo “water-saving contest.” Changing lifestyle habits acquired over a span of many years is generally extremely difficult. IF you have never succeeded in staying tidy to date, you will find it next to impossible to develop the habit of tidying a little at a time. People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking. And that’s not easy! After all, it’s quite hard to control what we think. There is, however, one way to change the way we think about tidying… Tidying brings visible results. Tidying never lies. The ultimate secret of success is this: If you tidy in one shot rather than little by little, you can dramatically change your mindset.
The erased poem…
I realize my habit of taking care of my younger brother was my favorite pastime. My mother wasn’t actually able to fold my dream of saving that roaming thing. I knew nothing about water, the tank in between two kids, our contents, the poor storage. If only there was one long space. If I had assumed it was true. If I had a time machine. If you still could begin when halfway. If you are by nature.
A day and forever
If all at once, it’s already wrong.
Don’t be fooled. People cannot
change. When I encountered the shock
of several hours motionless on earth
I could see parts that had never been
revealed before. My insides were
visible. Every one of them the root
within a span of time. What came
when I was devouring one day,
tomorrow, the day after that,
the following day? I could not keep pace
with the half- hearted perfection of each.
One at a time unable to stop. Overcome
by the previous night, life returns
temporarily. The space itself. Does it
look more than just physical? Is the heart
in a tidy room? What is the moment
I can make the easy leap?
In loss you acquire too many possessions. You inherit a dozen flannel shirts and a set of Ikea bed slats. You inherit everything that belonged to someone. Everything they ever held. You inherit their life. I couldn’t bear to throw anything away, not a trace of that life.
In erasing, I think I hoped to do what I had been unable to. To catalogue the rubble, to find some order, some coherence, a message, a train of thought. Or even just get out of my own brain and let someone else do the talking.
Another erasure poet Travis Macdonald describes his role as one that “more closely resembled that of an archaeologist much more than that of an architect” as his poems are “something lying dormant beneath the surface and waiting to be pulled and extracted from the grasp of a nearby potentiality.”
I was digging for something. Excavating something. In the months after my brother’s death, I didn’t write. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t find the words. I wrote my brother’s obituary, and that weighed on the tip of my pen. I couldn’t create anything. I had no words left.
Erasure is interesting in what it does with language, adding additional meaning with every word that is taken away—a notion that becomes increasingly more apparent if you look at the source texts of some of the most famous works of erasure: Heart of Darkness, The 9/11 Commission Report, and the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim. These poets want to get at what’s there, what’s unsayable—dark secrets, unspeakable cruelty, conspiracy…
If you believe linguistic theory (I studied Mikhail Bakhtin extensively, but I won’t bore you here), words gain their meanings from their past usages. That’s why word meanings can change over time—how the word “queer” has been reclaimed, and why hate speech can carry so much power. Erasure scoops up these words along with their past meanings, their past residues. (I think about it like this—do any of you have a cast-iron skillet? I cook nearly everything in mine. It acquires all of the flavors of everything you ever cooked. I inherited my skillet from my grandmother. I like to think of the flavors of all of our foods blending together. My vegetables seasoned by the residues of her steak. Everything flavored by what came before.).
In taking a book about getting your life together and turning it into a series of poems about loss and life after your world has been completely shattered, am I cleaning up my own mess? What residues are left of this life?
I’d like to end with another quote from Mary Ruefle: “You know how when you go into the wilderness you are expected to bring out your trash, leaving nothing behind? I spent the first half of my life leaving words in the world, and will spend the last half taking them out! After all, when they asked Neil Armstrong how he felt about his footsteps being left on the moon, he said he’d like to go back up and erase them.”
In writing, in creating, even if just building from scraps of something else, can I spark joy again? Or at least erase some of what I hope to overcome? Can I write my way out of this? Or can I erase and start again?