25 May 2016

String Too Short To Save

David Edgerley Gates

The phrase in the title above comes from a book by Donald Hall, a New England writer. The way I remember his telling the story, he was going through his late grandmother's effects, and in one of the kitchen drawers he found a small box she'd labeled String Too Short To Be Saved.

Writers collect a lot of string too short to save. Turns of phrase, or odd usage, esoteric jargon, peculiar job titles, vocabulary notes, code words and covernames. I still tear stuff out of the newspaper. For example, a passing reference to a CIA black site in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit - in the Baltimore SUN, this past Friday. I used to have boxes and boxes of old clippings, some of which I tried to organize, chronology, subject matter, at least some context or frame of reference, but I had to give up. I couldn't remember why I'd cut half of it out.

Books are different. You usually remember why you bought them. Then again, you can't always nail down exactly where you stubbed your toe on something. Omar Bradley came down with a bad cold, in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge. Homely little detail, or maybe more than that, if it clouded his judgement. But where did I see it? Must have been Antony Beevor's recent Ardennes book. I'm sure of it. I'm scouring the pages, and drawing a blank. Not a good sign, if you want to keep your facts straight.

Something sparks a train of thought. Maybe it's not a direct association, maybe it's at right angles, and the process isn't necessarily linear. As the circuits open, you move further away from your start point, and you might not be able to retrace your steps. You lose the trail of bread crumbs. Somewhere in these thickets of mixed metaphor, that original spark that switched on your lights falls by the wayside, or loses its significance. This works both forward and back, or doesn't in fact work at all. You unravel the train of thought, but not all the way back to Point A, or perhaps you happen on Point A in a different context, and you can no longer spin out the fabulous consequences. Your synapses are damp squibs.

This is perhaps related to the Ideas-versus-Execution algorithm ("Ideas are easy, execution is hard"), in the sense that there's a lot of sweat equity involved, or you might say inspiration chances to visit when you've been working for it, when you're in the zone. I was thinking more along the lines of the ethereal, as opposed to Applied Research - not solving an immediate and practical problem, but released from orbit. Whole narratives can be imagined, and with absolute clarity. Whether they ever get written or not is another story, but it wouldn't be from failure of nerve.

We're always open to accident. I don't outline, as it happens, I'm a pantser, but writers who work from outlines are just as ready to slip the leash. One habit I do have is coming up with a title, first. It helps me shape or define or feel my way into the story. I don't get working without the title, funny as that might seem, when I'm often in the dark about where the story's going or how to get there, or even what it's about. I don't work from a concept, and very rarely from the end backwards (as Conan Doyle admitted he did), but somehow, being able to give the unformed narrative a name makes it cohere for me.

Many people, and not just writers, used to keep what was called a Commonplace Book, not a diary or a journal, but a place to jot down random things that struck your fancy, like a quotation that caught your attention, or a fragment of overheard dialogue, or something otherwise borrowed. It was a kind of yard sale.

The moral is to always write stuff down. You might not remember why, or whether you had an immediate use for it, but taking note of it lodges it in your mind, and maybe some while later, when you turn it to the light, it reminds you why you bent down to pick it up.


  1. Notebooks and clippings are the writer's version of garden compost. One in a while it turns into the good stuff.

  2. It may not be as helpful to you as it's been to me, but I've found an extremely useful way to "save clippings" now that so much of what I find is online. Zotero (www.zotero.org) is "is a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and was initially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation." It allows you to instantly capture the metadata on most websites (including the author, date, site url, type of site, and so on) and also from PDFS -- or you can manually enter that information -- AND also a screen shot of the page and/or pages. You can enter a note to yourself at that instant ("check the passage in the second paragraph") and also tags so you remember what things came to mind as the reason you saved it (in your case, "possible motives" or "weird alibis" or whatever. Your personal library of saved objects is searchable in multiple ways. You can save not just print, but videos and images as well. I've used it since it came out about 10 years ago and it's a real game-changer. Now when I want to remember where I saw something, I've got it. And when I look to see what I have tagged as "1830s clothing" (for instance), items come up I had even forgotten I saved. Your library is backed up online and it's inexpensive to buy extra space if you go over the free size (which is quite large itself). Give it a spin and see what you think. It might be the digital shoebox you've been looking for. :-)

  3. Compost is a terrific comparison - thanks Janice.

  4. I have a constantly growing text file composed of pieces of string too short to save. I keep little shreds of info in it, like this:

    A movie actor is accustomed to doing things out of sequence & that don't appear to make sense; a stage or live TV actor, not so much.

    Death by cyanide poisoning usually occurs within one hour of oral consumption; lethal doses generally range from 50 to 200 mg.

    Entrapment by estoppel occurs when a government official leads a defendant to believe that their conduct is permissible under the law.


    I have no idea where I picked up most of them. Some might even have come from here.

    Thanx for a great column.

  5. A box with string too short to save… I love it.

    I hadn’t heard of a commonplace book, but I keep the computer equivalent. The nice thing about even the simples text file is that it’s searchable if only you can recall a key word or phrase. Likewise a folder with web site addresses can be very useful. A handy little Android/iPhone/Mac/Windows app called Pocket (addPocket/getPocket) at is useful for saving searches and web site pages for later viewing.

    Sometimes I start and the end and work backwards, sometimes I start in the middle. I don’t outline but upon occasion I may make extensive notes, drawings, spreadsheets, and even a database of characters. It depends.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>