The Purge: Why You Have to Clean House

I’m not the best housekeeper. If a dish is sitting on the counter or dustbunnies are galloping down the hall, I’m not too fussed; I’ll let them accumulate before I finally pick up a broom with a sigh. Life’s too short for obsessing about the little details of a tidy house, I feel.

And yet the funny thing is that I’m the exact opposite when it comes to my papers, computer files, and stories. I can’t stand having a file out of place; my desktop is in a state of minimalist splendor; I have an elaborate nesting system for stories depending on their stage of completion, and color-coded tags and neatly organized archives. My “Unfinished Stories” folder is the only one that is allowed to grow and sag, as I create a document and write a page or two of a new story idea. But even there, every now and then I feel a need to do a purge.

Staying organized and doing a file purge can be good for one’s inner state as well, I’ve found. If I have a half-dozen stories in various stages of completion or neglect, then I feel more scattered, stretched between them. I find myself wondering on any given day whether I should be devoting my energies to this one or that one. And it leaves me overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to finish even one story as long as six other enticing beginnings are out there.

Ultimately, that internal messiness allows me to procrastinate and stave off the fear and dread I feel at the prospect of completing a story. As soon as I’ve finished it, it’s a disappointment; all the good I was hoping to stuff in there has failed to come across. So I can stay in my fuzzy mental state, letting six or seven or ten balls hover in the air and never come back down.

That’s why I know a purge is good for me once in a while. It’s about stepping back and looking at what I really want to prioritize, instead of letting it disappear into computer purgatory. Here’s the procedure I try to carry out every six months or so. Want to try it?

1. First, I back up. In today’s age, nothing is ever truly lost. This gives me the confidence that it is ok to let go of little fledgling half ideas. It will be okay.

2. I open my “unfinished stories” folder and open each partial draft one by one, starting with the oldest. I read the first page with the cold, objective gaze of a stranger. Is this entertaining? Is it good? Can I remember and get back into the original excitement I felt at writing it?

3. If not, I try to be brutal with myself. If I can no longer envision where the story is going, or feel excitement about that destination, then I trash it. (Remember! It’s been backed up, if I feel existential panic later on and wish to retrieve it). I might save my best writing in a “fragments” document that I have, but otherwise, it’s gotta go.

4. I repeat for every document that is in my folder. Then I step back and appreciate the pieces I have remaining: these are pieces I’m genuinely excited about, stories that I want to finish and make great. And I enjoy the cleared mental space this action seems to create.


  1. Barbara says:

    I save everything, everything, on a flash drive. A cluttered flash drive. I need suggestions on how to weed things out, move them about to another, or maybe more than one. I don’t consider them complete until I have edited stories to within an inch of their lives, had them critiqued by my online group, a local writers’ group, or both, and rewritten. Then they are moved to a ‘completed’ flash drive. In the meantime I have more than twenty waiting, languishing there waiting for its turn for completion. Any ideas for better organization?

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