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Finding Second Life in Cast-Off Words

Flickr Creative Commons: Sara Berry

I have an obsession with metamorphosis, the transformation of an identifiable object or idea into something different and new.

On my farm, mountains of manure transform into rich, dark soil, which I spread on the fields and pastures. Have you ever smelled composting manure? Have you ever breathed in the aroma of rich, organic soil? The difference between the raw material and the final product is enough to make anyone believe in magic.

Every year I marvel as seeds I plant in that soil transform into seedlings, and the seedlings into crops.

As a writer, I transform my words all the time. I prune, tighten, expand them. I delete. I rewrite. The final versions can seem as different from the first drafts as my rich soil is from the crap it started from.

Most of the time, the words I delete disappear into the abyss of my computer, gone forever as if I had never written them. However, when I workshop a draft or share it with a friend, I sometimes print a hard copy.

The act of printing these (often terrible) words is an acknowledgment that I wrote them. I can see the sentences, smell the ink, and feel the weight of my ideas before I hand them off to my beta readers. Those pages come back to me marred with corrections, with entire paragraphs slashed through, and with notes and questions scribbled in the margins.

Years ago I started re-purposing edited hard copies of my writing in a way that honors the time I invested in those sloppy, clunky first drafts. I tear the pages up into small pieces and put them in a blender along with flower petals and herbs. Sometimes I toss blueberries in for color. I pour hot water over the scraps and blend it on high until the paper and organics reduce to a slurry that resembles an unappetizing milkshake.

All those ideas and phrases I once thought were so clever, reduced to sludge.

I pour the mixture over a screen and let the water drain through. I place a second screen on top and roll it with a rolling pin until the slop is compressed into a thin layer, which I peel away and blot with heavy paper.

I place the wet pages in the microwave and heat them on low until they dry. The process is slow and labor intensive.

One sheet at a time.

The newly transformed paper, flecked with flower petals and herbs, emerges sturdy and gorgeous. The feathery edges and warped surfaces ensure that each page is its own work of art, never to be duplicated.

This what my ideas smell like, I think, as I hold the still-warm pages to my face. Blueberries and basil and wildflowers infused with hope and fear and self-doubt.

I make note-cards and envelopes out of the new paper. I write messages to friends on these ghosts of my early drafts. Sometimes I bundle stacks of the cards and envelopes with twine and dried flowers and give the stationary itself as a gift.

Writing on my recycled paper emboldens me. Those messy sentences and phrases I rewrote or eliminated were never terrible. They were just destined to become something else. If I had never committed to writing those awkward phrases, I would not be making stationary. If I hadn’t been brave enough to print drafts to share with my betas, I would not be taking the time to run barefoot to the edge of the woods to pick wildflowers. I would not be alone in my silent kitchen with a rolling pin, wringing ink-stained water out of my own thoughts.

If I had never found the courage to write those imperfect chapters, I would not have composed the many thank you notes to friends. Maybe my sentiments of gratitude mattered to someone who received one of my cards.

I plan to embed wildflower seeds in the re-purposed versions of my most recent drafts so recipients can plant my notes in their yards or gardens. The paper and my words will breakdown in the earth, participating in the exchange of carbon and nitrogen to nourish the seeds, which will transform into something beautiful.

I love the idea of seeing a patch of flowers and thinking, “Look how lovely Chapter Fourteen turned out!”

I wish I had the patience or time to make stationary out of all the pages I generate while drafting a book. But I don’t. Casually tossing them into the recycling bin feels somehow disrespectful. Instead, I shred the remaining pages, soak them in water, and compress the soggy pulp into solid, rectangular bricks. I leave the bricks to dry in the sun, and voilà – fire logs. It’s a simple option for re-purposing the paper and an easy, chemical-free way to feed a cozy fire.

The bricks ignite quickly and burn for hours. There’s something romantic about the idea of curling up by a fire on a winter’s night and being kept warm by the heat of your own words.

As I work on my second novel, I will try not to judge my early drafts too harshly, because I know they contain seeds that will germinate into braver ideas. Their heat will comfort me when I struggle with my next revision. I will continue to write those clumsy first-draft scenes, trusting that The End is never really the end – that even my discarded words will always rise.

 Do you print hard copies of your drafts? If so, what do you do with them? Do you feel guilty printing them out just to toss them in the recycle bin? I clearly have issues with letting go of my writing and I could use some fresh ideas for repurposing those pages. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

About Julie Carrick Dalton

Julie Carrick Dalton is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her short fiction has appeared in The Charles River Review, The MacGuffin, and the anthology Turning Points: Stories About Choice and Change. As a journalist, she has published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. She is the winner of the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition, among other literary awards. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and is currently seeking a home for her first novel. Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.