Phooey on Clean Slates

I very intentionally did not write a New Year’s post all rah-rah about starting over and really getting moving on your writing. It probably reveals a deep character flaw, but that kind of talk makes me feel tired, especially in January.

I love New Year’s Eve, even though I don’t go in for whopping big celebrations. For several years I’ve partied at my sister’s house, dancing with her kids and eating her annual cheese fondue supper. It’s festive, it’s fun and it’s enough. Knowing that New Year’s Eve marks the final yahoo! of the holidays is a downer if I get to thinking about it, so I try not to think about it. I also have stopped making lists of resolutions. At my sister’s wingding, we did take a few moments to write down things we’d like to see happen in the coming year, but that’s as close as I come to resolutions now.

When the new year arrives, we run outside to blow horns and bang pans to scare away the evil spirits. We listen to the echoing fireworks and car horns; sometimes there’s even a bugler playing “Auld Lang Syne” in the darkened yard of a house up the street. Then the echoes die away, and my shoulders slump a bit as I turn to face the newly arrived year. It feels so empty. January stretches out in front of me, sterile and cold as an expanse of ice or a slab at the morgue.

Some people really rally around the concept of the clean slate, the fresh start. I like to regroup, reconsider options, reorder priorities—but those all work with existing things, not starting from scratch. “Clean slate” means wiping the board clear. Sometimes there are very good things on that slate I don’t want to lose.

On “Antiques Roadshow,” the appraisers often discuss patina—a thin layer of something that builds on the surface of an object. On copper, it’s oxidation or even an applied finish. On furniture, it could be simply grime that has accumulated over time. Viewers are warned over and over not to remove the patina from an object; it results in decreased value and is equivalent to damaging a piece. Often furniture experts the Keno brothers praise the grime as proof of a piece’s age and use and as a prized aspect of the piece’s finish.

I guess when I think of a fresh start, especially when it comes to writing, I envision removing valuable patina. It’s not so much a coating as ingrained experience, seasoning, views and techniques shaped through hard work that have become a part of us. Certainly it’s good to start over—”regroup,” as I said above; and not everyone views a fresh start as discarding everything that came before.

Writers, though, especially inexperienced writers and especially on January 1, often set themselves before a blank page, so to speak, holding a starter pistol in one hand and a pen in the other. If that approach works for you, more power to you. I think a more constructive approach would be to pick several unfinished poems or poems that need revising, and ease into the new year revising projects carried over from the previous year. Even if those works are un-salvageable overall, they may yield ideas, lines or images for new, better poems.

If you’re working productively as you attack your writing resolutions for 2011, good for you! Keep writing. If you’re already feeling discouraged or unmotivated, maybe you should put away that clean slate. Get out the messy stuff you need to reorganize, rework, reconsider. Appreciate the patina.

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2 Responses to Phooey on Clean Slates

  1. Shannon B. says:

    I love the idea of a life have patina! I have to admit I’m one of the rah rah clean slate types, but I still love the idea of some good stuff lingering on the surface in the new year.

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