Sit back and kick off your shoes, I’m going tell you a story.
My father was a Research and Development Engineer. His work was mostly designing in metal and plastics, but he was also an excellent carpenter. He used a wheelchair which meant that in an ableist world, much of what is taken for granted didn’t work for him. Desks and tables were persistent problems; the wheelchairs he used were the largest available to accommodate his six feet and four inches frame but they didn’t allow him to sit with his legs beneath the surface as an able-bodied person would. However, instead of struggling to ‘make do’ he set about making his world better and made his own.
Dad was a little too young to have fought in the war, but his was still a generation of Make Do and Mend who learned never to waste anything. The carefully seasoned hardwood timber that he chose for our kitchen table was expensive. I remember the table very well. In fact I see it every time I visit my mother who still uses it even though it’s uncomfortably high for a small woman made smaller by age. But it’s still perfect, still barely touched by its years and made with love, so why would she replace it? She just sits on a big pile of cushions!
It hurt to have to buy more timber than was necessary to build the table, but then as now, wood of all sorts was sold by the length, so there were offcuts. Quite considerable offcuts if I recall correctly. My brother and I were very little, but we helped with the fetching and carrying and handing Dad the right tools when he couldn’t reach. And we moved the extra pieces out of the way when they fell to the floor under his circular saw.
We might have been expected to filch these extraneous pieces to use for own childhood games, but we knew better than that. We piled them carefully in a corner, then stood well out of harm’s way to watch and learn.
When the table was finished and moved into our kitchen to replace the floppy-flapped, blue fablon-covered pine folding table that we’d used before, Dad turned his attention to the pile in the corner. There wasn’t quite enough for the box that we wanted for our dressing up clothes—also cast-offs from another era—and definitely not enough for the proper full-sized bookcase that I dreamed of in my bedroom. The wood was far too good for my brother’s longed-for go kart and we were too old for building blocks. But, after being sent on an errand to find my favourite books to provide some all important measurements, there was enough for two table-top bookshelves carefully designed with ballpoint pen, literally on the back of an envelope. Two upright bookends connected to a back plate and a sloping base set at the perfect angle to secure the row of books, but allow easy reading of the titles. One for each of us.
Surely the smaller pieces left would be given to us to play with; what other possible use could they be put to? But even these were beautiful and useful to my father. He made bird boxes. The most painstakingly constructed bird boxes, handed to us on completion to learn how to sand, prime and paint, then hung around the garden and orchard to be used and appreciated by some of the many song birds that enjoyed my mother’s garden.
I choose to call this piece offcuts rather than outtakes or waste or scrap, and anyone creative will recognise why. We all have pieces that haven’t made the grade: those that were part of an apprenticeship or private practice and never intended for public consumption, outtakes that ended up on the metaphorical cutting room floor or experiments that simply failed. But offcuts are something different. What of a piece of writing that has nothing inherently wrong with it? Perhaps something that we really loved but overshot the word limit, or that some pesky editor insisted needed to be pruned? Well, maybe don’t be too hasty to press delete.
When I was not much older than the child watching my father make book shelves and bird boxes, I started to spend my pocket money on notebooks into which I scribbled my own stories, but I rarely finished anything. Then later, before computers and when I still chose to write everything longhand and I’d learned the discipline of starting and finishing, I would stuff those notebooks and sheets of paper into a box file at the bottom of a drawer.
I learned my father’s lessons well and I still can’t bear to waste anything. In fact I have to be pinned to the wall before I’ll allow anything to be thrown out, much to my husband’s despair.
However, and this is where I’m finally connecting the beauty of bird boxes to writing, during these past horrible years, times peppered with a backdrop of loss and anxiety for our loved ones, that every day left, and still leaves some of us feeling unfulfilled yet depleted and exhausted, I have been turfing out my offcuts and giving them a second chance.
I have read about the lack of drive and creativity that many writers experienced during the Lockdowns, and I was no different, but the end of last year and the first six months of this year were also personally incredibly stressful. I became almost overwhelmed and stopped writing entirely. Things are definitely better now, but I am concerned that avoidance has become entrenched. Pulling original work out of my imagination is a little like pulling my own teeth—it feels horrible and mostly I fail. Then I go back to my garden and FaceTime sessions with my beautiful grandson.
But lately, I’ve been rereading past work: stories that didn’t quite work, poems that ran out of steam, and nearly 90,000 words that were cut from my latest book. My wonderful editor didn’t so much as take the scissors to my initial rambling, out of focus memoir, as wield a scythe, slicing away nearly half to bring it all back into one story arc. It really hurt at the time, but I knew he was right. However I never deleted a thing. Instead, I made another file and simply dumped all the cuts we made. It’s the digital version of my original box files. Which, naturally, I also still have.
Then I woke up one day with the realisation that I need no longer beat myself up about losing my creative impulse, as I have a pile of potentially valuable offcuts lying in the corner.
It really couldn’t be simpler. Don’t waste your words. If you like something, anything, about a piece of writing but it doesn’t fit with what you’re doing at the time, take the passage out and save it. If, as so many do, you write Morning Pages, and you like a particular phrase or idea, get out your highlighter pen and mark it. Then if you find yourself with Writers’ Block or perhaps you’ve been ill and are simply tired or distracted, I encourage you to go through the offcuts file for inspiration.
I love the process of assessing, editing, rewriting a piece of prose into a poem, or pruning further to make a piece of flash, then polishing prior to submission. Even more, I’ve love getting some of my metaphorical bird boxes accepted. The offcuts can find new life, and in the process, so will you.