Composting and Clearing the Way

Granddaughter, Ella, in Ruth’s studio

On Monday, I return to North Carolina to begin the challenge of emptying out my mother’s home.  She lived at 5130 Oriole Drive in Wilmington, N. C. for 47 years. She is gone now, so it is up to my brother, sister-in-law, and me to begin to clear away all those objects that were a part of her long life.

She was an artist, so her studio alone could take months to go through. There are paints, brushes, canvases, papers for her collages, fabrics, books, notes, color charts, completed and uncompleted paintings, sketch books, art magazines—the list goes on.

So how does this relate to writing? If we write long enough and as diligently as my mother created her art, we too will amass piles of words. My office contains stacks of journals and old notebooks and files of stories and poems in various stages of completion. More files contain revisions—and revisions of the revisions. My computer holds documents that even the finder can’t find. I still have papers I wrote in college. Sometimes I wonder what is the point of all this.

My mother used to say, “I feel sorry for you and your brother when I’m gone. I can see you now wondering why in the world I kept all of this stuff. But I just never know what I might need.”

This is true of us writers too.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg uses composting as way to talk about this accumulation of writing. We throw all these words together and let them mix, mingle, and transform, until a new story evolves.  “We must continue to work the compost pile,” says Natalie, “enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.”

Janet Sunderland, whose prose poem (“News of My Death”) appears in the anthology When Last on the Mountain, is our guest blogger this week. In a recent note, she said, “This morning I wrote a blog post from a free writing piece I found layered into a yellow legal pad from—oh, eleven years ago or so. There are rewards for clearing and tossing.” (See her blog at

So I’m taking my writing notebook to North Carolina. It will be hard to take apart and clear out my mother’s home, but I plan to spend some time documenting my discoveries. And I do believe that something beautiful will bloom from what she left behind.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, read the next post, “Piles and Files,” about Janet’s discoveries while clearing out her office to make room for the return home of her son and his wife.

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