Bad Advice All-Stars: Lose the Suitcase!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


There is almost nothing more frightening for a writer than the idea of losing one’s work. This used to mean losing one’s work physically when, say, your house burned down.  (I actually remember reading, and following, the advice of another writer who suggested placing final drafts wrapped in plastic in the freezer, where they might survive a fire.)  Of course the world has changed and now the anxiety is focused more on forgetting to hit SAVE or having your computer crash. Here at Bill and Dave’s its been an anxious few days as we try to recover lost posts, but we consider ourselves lucky not to have lost the entire content as both of us do our final revisions on line.


But that’s not the kind of loss I want to talk about today. While there is nothing more frightening than losing your work, for the development of a writer it is not always a bad thing.  The most famous story in this regard was that of Hemingway and his wife Hadley.  As the tale goes, Hadley was on a train to Spain and lost the suitcase containing many of Hemingway’s earliest short stories.  And as the tale goes, narrated of course by Hemmingway himself, our macho hero greeted this news with stoicism.  (Why is it that I imagine there might have been a temper tantrum or two?)  Of course he was devastated, but later he could look back and see this tragedy as less of one, as in fact an opportunity to grow beyond his apprentice work.

“Lose the suitcase!” I exhort my students, trying to get them to shed their earliest writing skins.  It is scary advice, but it is important ability to have, an ability that allows us to finally get rid of apprentice work and trust the writers we have become. But it’s hard: you have written something, you think it’s good, you never grow beyond it.  The problem here is that the secret of writing—if there is a secret (there isn’t)—lies in the growing part.  Of course it’s human nature to cling to the suitcase, to want to “use” your old work if it hasn’t been published (and sometimes if it has) and to never want to lose it.  And there are many reasons to cling to the old, indolence and fear being two.  It is scary out there in the new; safe back here in the old.  Most of us hold onto our suitcase, work that is both finished and acceptable to us, for dear life.

But.  Still.  Lose the suitcase!  Say you are writing a novel and you have gotten to the part where Mrs. Edwards throws the dinner plate at Mr. Edwards and you are oh so happy because five years ago you wrote a short story based on the same incident, which means you’ve got it and now you can rest and be confident for a while instead of living in the insecure (but thrilling) world of the first draft and insteaad of doing the daily impossible, uncertain work of making something out of nothing.  But, lo and behold, it turns out you are a slightly different, maybe even better, writer than you were then, and the story made use of the event a little differently than the novel, and the story, after all, was a story, with a story’s shape, not a novel’s. So you suck it up and do the hard thing and make it new. You know your book, if not your mood, will be better served by writing the whole scene anew, and adding all the subtle differences that occur to you in the frenzy of creation, instead of leaning on, and clinging to, the old work.

Before I get carried away, let me be clear about one thing.  I’m not saying you have to always lose the suitcase.  I’m not a rigid anti-suitcase-ist, and there have been plenty of times I’ve jammed the dinner-plate-throwing scene in and it’s worked just fine.  And I will admit that while we tell young writers to let go, there may be no more important tool of the trade than that of hanging on.  Without it books wouldn’t get written. And yet….we writers too often err on the side of the suitcase and too infrequently embrace the scary world of letting go.  It’s natural to want to hold on.  But there is something to be gained by a new draft, new writing, where all of your faculties, including, most importantly, your imagination, are fully engaged.  That is when the unexpected starts popping up on the page.

I think Bill is going to tell a story about Fitzgerald in the comments below.  But one of my favorite suitcase-losing stories comes from the great essayist Brian Doyle and I’ll now mangle that story off the top of my head.  Robert Louis Stevenson  had written the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a mad rush, the way it seems he did everything, cranking the whole thing out in three days after having a dream about a Hyde-like character.  When he had finished he came down and read it out loud in front of the fire to his wife and step-son Lloyd.

I’ll let Brian Doyle take it from here:

“Lloyd listened, “spellbound, and waiting for my mother’s burst of enthusiasm,” but it did not come: “Her praise was constrained, the words seemed to come with difficulty; and then all at once she broke out with criticism. He had missed the point, she said; had missed the allegory; had made it merely a story – a magnificent bit of sensationalism – when it should have been a masterpiece.”

Stevenson was livid, enraged, “his voice bitter and challenging in a fury of resentment,” said Lloyd, 17 years old at the time and frightened to see the stepfather he dearly loved “impassioned and outraged.” Lloyd fled, Stevenson stomped back upstairs, and Fanny stayed by the fire, “pale and desolate.”

Then Stevenson returned. “You’re right,” he said quietly to Fanny. “I’ve missed the allegory, which is, after all, the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript in the fire. Fanny and Lloyd shouted and reached for it but Stevenson stayed their hands: “In trying to save some of it, I should have got hopelessly off the track. The only way was to put temptation beyond my reach.”

He wrote it again, in three days, and then off it went to be published….”

* *

So throw it in the fire.  Lose the suitcase.  The thing about our early work, our apprentice work, is that we think that if we don’t use it, it isn’t good for anything.  But it is good for something.  It’s good for getting us to the point where we can throw it away.

  1. india writes:

    when the ’83 bushfire ate my juvenile nonsense it was a blessing in disguise. unfortunately i’ve been accumulating again since then
    might be time for another conflagration
    what is good
    should pop up its cheery head from the ashes, as any decent phoenix will…

  2. Shelley Burbank writes:

    I wrote a story not long after college when I was still typing stories on a Smith-Corona and there was no such thing as a thumb drive. I kept the story for fifteen years or so in a filing cabinet with other stories I might want to go back and do something with someday . . . when I’d finally become a “real writer” or earned an MFA or some other vague milepost that would mean I was capable of fixing up a halfway decent story.

    Three years ago I pulled out the story and let a friend take it home to read, saying, “Please don’t lose it. It’s my only copy.” I even stuck it in a bright red folder.

    Guess what happened?

    Suddenly that story became the most wonderful piece of fiction I ever wrote. The characters were vivid and alive! The prose was poignant beyond all reckoning! I’d never, ever again write anything so fabulous as that old story that had been sitting in a filing cabinet unread for over fifteen years.

    Stewing about the loss for a couple of years, I finally accepted I would never see it again. One day last summer, I was at the friend’s house. She was finishing her eyeshadow application, so I searched around for something to read and pulled an old copy of VOGUE magazine from her bookshelf . There were some papers stuck inside. I slid them from the magazine. . .

    There was my story! I yelped and laughed and jumped around a bit. That evening, I sat down to read this glorious story. Guess what?

    It wasn’t that great.

    Lessons learned: Let the old stuff go. Make copies. Time brings perspective. Write new stuff. And maybe, just maybe, don’t wait for that MFA.

  3. Last year, that would have been unthinkable to me. I would have hugged all my old stuff close like a blankie. Not anymore. Suitcase tossed. Pretty sure that’s growth.

  4. monica wood writes:

    Oh, are you EVER singing my song. My drafts go zzzip off the hard drive. For novels, I save one ceremonial early draft. Here’s my take, which I try to impose on students, especially older students trying to rescue something they wrote 25 years ago in college:

    1. Sometimes it takes 400 pages to get to the real page one. Stories start on the real page one. Why waste your one and only life swimming around in the part where the story ISN’T?

    2. If you think you can rejoin something you wrote 25 years ago–or even seven months ago or six weeks ago–remember this: YOU ARE NO LONGER THAT WRITER. You have 25 yrs/seven months/six weeks more wisdom, experience, skill, knowledge. Use it now.

    3. Writing is an act of confidence, even when you feel like a fraud. Letting early drafts go is your way of saying, “There’s more where THAT came from.”

    4. There’s more where THAT came from.

    Happy writing, everyone. And happy Fourth! XO Monica

  5. Bill writes:

    Thanks for this, Dave.

    Anyone see the new Woody Allen movie? Hemingway and Fitzgerald figure prominently.

    The Fitzgerald story Dave promises is simply that Fitzgerald wrote to Maxwell Perkins, his editor, to thank him for his comments on a late draft of The Great Gatsby and said he was going to write his final draft from memory. From memory! That, he promised, would get all the hitches and bumps of drafting and correcting out of the way.

    Poor Hadley–Ernest was in Lausanne, Switzerland covering the peace conference in the winter of 1922 as a journalist. Hadley went to visit him and thought to bring to him all his writing, all his papers, everything writerly she could find in their Paris flat, packed it in a suitcase. He hadn’t published any fiction at that point, but had been writing stories for years. She put the suitcase on the train, went for water, and when she returned the suitcase was gone. Hem wrote to Ezra Pound about a month after the fact: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenilia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.” [From The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Carlos Baker, who wrote the big Hem biography, as well.]

    Actually, a couple of famous stories were saved because they were out in the mail.

    I have an exercise in Writing Life Stories wherein I mention this seeming disaster and suggest that writers put old work away, turn a new leaf. The exercise first came to mind because of a woman in a summer workshop who listened to my critique of her story and said, “That’s just what the teacher last summer said about this story!” Turned out she’d written it ten years back and had heard the same advice over and over, teacher after teacher, never taking it, always defensive.

    Recently, when I re-did my studio, I moved all my archives and photocopies and extra copies and published copies and etc., etc., put them all in the barn in a corner that I solemnly declared to be the Studio Annex. They’re not lost, no more than Bill and Dave’s was lost, but at least they’re not here reminding where I’ve been, when what I’m trying to do is go someplace new.


  6. Heidi Gessner writes:

    Wow. Thanks for this bad advice, Dave. I am writing a sermon for some new hospital chaplains coming on board, which tempted me to unpack some of my heavy luggage. Alas, after reading your post, I’m going to start afresh and lose the luggage! Traveling mercies….Love, your sister.

  7. John Jack writes:

    I’ve put things aside, dropped ’em in a burn barrel, abandoned them in exigent circumstances, and missed them sorely, or let things go and never looked back. I’ve known intimately for some time that some things can be overworked to the point of spoiling. Bread making, for example, overwork yeast dough and gluten fibers lose their grip and relax into a gooey mess. Overwork bisquit dough and wind up with hardtack. Underworking doesn’t do much better, but at least there’s a possibility for redemption, maybe. Nothing to lose continuing to work an underworked thing.

    I’ve got one story inspiration that’s an albatross around my neck, has been for decades. I’ve abandoned it numerous times. Millions of words and thousands of pages. A legion of false starts. At first an essay, then a nonfiction narrative, then a fiction narrative. Chaning points of view, narrators, voices, perspectives, viewpoint characters have brought me to a plateau with it. I’m not yet writer enough to write it, I realize. It’s on my test bench for testing. As I learn new writing methods, I’ll sketch it out and see if it’ll go anywhere. Not yet. Maybe in my lifetime. But time is running out.

    I say all this because I learned how and why to lose the suitcase. The why is important. I think, eat, sleep, and work writing. Every moment of my existence I mentally compose. A waking dream surfacing from the subconscious dream pressure cooker inspires a new creation or a workaround of a problematic obstacle, I used to keep a notebook on the hightstand, then a digital recorder for documenting elusive, ephemeral inspirations. Transcibing the results later. In assorted states of intoxication I’ve had some of the most profound inspirations a human can possibly have, dashed them into print only to let them cool and come to see later they’re insipid drivel.

    Anymore, I mentally test and test an inspiration. I have a waking dream, say, okay, and it speaks to the quick of my being. I test it to see if it has legs on it. If it doesn’t, I let it slide. If it does have legs on it, I let it slide. If it really has legs on it, it’ll come back again and again until I unravel it’s meaning. Once I fully realize its meaning, I can take a blunt and frank moment with it, and then maybe I can write it into the words that come flooding unbidden.