How to Clear Your Clutter, De-Squirrel Your Attic and Find the Inner Architecture of Your Novel

posted April 7, 2016


We have squirrels in our house. I didn’t want to tell you this, as it creeps some people out and many of you reading this blog have actually come to my house, sat around and maybe even written in the front room with me. The squirrel in question, or at least one of them, was seen here in this room. He’s gone now–Tom shoed him out at about 4am one morning in early March. Tom thought it was a chipmunk, but we’ve since ID’d it as a flying squirrel, and those are nocturnal and colony-dwellers. They come with friends. They are SO CUTE!!

Since then, I’ve heard the tell-tale scritch-scratch almost every morning when I am in the kitchen writing between 5-6am. It’s almost comical. I hear, “knock knock” as if a woodpecker is at the wall next to me. Then something scampers across the walls to the other side of the house.

We’ve had four, count ’em, four different wildlife dudes come to the house. Dude #1 referred the whole job to Dude #2 because Dude #1 said we would always have squirrels on account of our slate roof. Dudes #3 and 4 also pointed to the roof. They said it wouldn’t matter what we did until we got rid of the roof.

The slate roof is 120 years old, is gorgeous, and is the main reason I won’t consider bumping out dormers in our attic to create more space. We need more space because of the bed situation. Remember that? I had been obsessing about how to convince Tom to let us go into debt to make our house big enough to give my parents (who visit 4 times a year) a nice queen-sized bed and en suite bathroom. Right now, they sleep in Johnny’s loft bed. They insist that it’s fine, but I know better.

Besides, speaking of debting, I as a traveling musician (25 years now) feel acutely that I want to pay back, or perhaps pay forward, the debt I owe to the countless folks who have housed Katryna and me and our various bandmates and family members over the years. I have slept in so many beautiful bedrooms over the years. I am amazed at the hospitality I have been offered. I want to provide just a semblance of this for visitors who come through my sweet and wonderful town. (Just this weekend, we got to stay with Abigail’s in-laws in Chicago, and the amazing Jill Stratton in St. Louis. Angels. Haven.)

But where to gain the space? Should I bump out the side to the east? Should I pioneer the attic?

Attic. Home of the squirrels.

Or is there some other brilliant solution that I am not able to see? I need an architect.

I got it into my head that the two great puzzles of my recent months were destined to be solved together.The other puzzle is my novel. Right now, The Big Idea is over 800 pages, and that’s with a ton of darlings killed. I mean, there were a lot of brilliant darlings I threw out, and they were seriously great darlings. I know there are more, but as soon as I highlight a passage and press the control command X button, I waver. I cut, and then I paste it back. I try to do that thing Marie Kondo says to do and close my eyes and ask, “Does it bring me joy?” But the problem with that Marie Kondo thing is that ALL of my crap brings me joy! I am not one of those hoarders who has bureaus full of ugly clothes that don’t fit. I am one of those hoarders who has closets and bureaus and bookshelves and CD shelves stuffed full of things that DO fit, that are great books, that were once CDs I played all the time. AND I LOVE THEM ALL! Just as I love all my writing, every single word.

Except when I don’t. Except when I wish for a book architect to tell me what to do. Should I make a pithy 350 page book out of my 900 page behemoth? Should I start three-quarters of the way through? Or should I make it a three volume series?

Without an architect, that is the direction I am leaning. I am still about 100 pages short of an ending. Since reading the magnificent Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (which deserve their own blog post), I am sorely tempted to publish the book as a multi-volume event, one book coming out, say, now, and the others …later.

If I am honest, I have to admit that my attic is not filled with things that bring me joy. It’s actually filled with what one would have to just call…garbage. Because that is the kind of hoarder I am: I am the kind that stuffs bureaus and shelves with good items and instead of throwing anything out, I squirrel it away to the attic and basement and barn. (Pun intended.) So my attic is indeed full of useless crap, and also things valuable only to me, like every single item my kids ever brought home from school with their handwriting on it. But also truly worthless things like one ice skate that is too small for anyone in our family to wear; like old papers I wrote in high school, or worse, old floppy disks from college years with no computer on which to open them; like huge baskets full of half-knit projects. And somehow, these things render me paralyzed when I go up to throw them out.


Plus, there are photos. Photos of the band. Photos of my first marriage. Mixed in with photos of just plain old me from my twenties. I have half a mind to throw them all out, but how can I throw out my twenties, even if I was married to someone who isn’t my kids’ father? I go up to the attic, steel myself, say, “I can do this. I know how to clean and tidy. Start in a corner and work my way methodically in a concentric circle. I know how to do this.” But then I start in the northwest corner (where the squirrels get in) and right away, I’m confronted with this scene: a white photo album–the three ring binder kind–open, with the pages half falling out. Me with brown hair. Me looking like I’m about ten years old, even though I’m twenty-three. Why did my parents let me get married then?? The pages are also covered in the dust from the house’s insulation, which the squirrels have dragged into little nests. I feel a wave of nausea and my nose starts to run and I quickly turn on my heel and leave.


I call my sister, and I cry. She says, “Of course you don’t want to do this. Who would want to do this?” She says, “You were not a bad person. You should keep those photos.”

She makes me feel better, as she always does. And then a brilliant thought comes to me. What if the way to figure out the architecture of my book is to figure out the architecture of my house? What if the way to figure out which darlings to kill will only come to me after I systematically declutter my house? Maybe instead of devoting my spring and summer to finishing The Big Idea, I should completely get rid of all my attic, basement and barn crap, organize my photos and make scrapbooks of all my kids’ papers?

“Um,” she says. “That sounds like procrastination to me.”

“No!” I shout. “I am going to do it! And I will blog about it and post photos and then maybe write a book called My Cluttery Book, My Cluttery Attic and Me!

She is on the phone, but I can feel her eyes rolling from here.

I still haven’t lifted a finger on the photos. But since we had this conversation, I have sent the first “book” off to my first reader. I have met with an architect. I hired someone to clean out the barn and someone else to organize my photos. And I sent an email this evening to a potential producer for the soundtrack to go with the novel. Oh, and there are some Have A Heart squirrel traps placed carefully around the house. There are no squirrels in them yet, but I have been up for the past two mornings between 5-6, and guess what? No one has come knocking.


The Comments

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  1. The amazing thing to me about the flying squirrel, if you’ve ever seen one up close, airborne, is that they seem to flatten out bodily and resemble more a bat. I guess that increases their ‘hang’ time.

    I am sure it was an honor for anyone who has hosted you and Katryna in your travels, that they would say (and have said) you both have given so much more with your music.

    Good luck with all the clutter, actual and literary.

  2. HI Nerissa!
    I enjoyed reading this, first delighted by your cordial relationship with the cute flying squirrel,
    and then impressed by your thoughtful ideas of proceeding. Congratulations for moving forward with your book reader, your barn clearing, your photo organizing and the architect. WOW!
    I need to de-cutter big time in my apartment from which I will move soon and where I have 2 junk rooms!

  3. Love your squirrel & attic meditations! Re flying squirrels: When Dick (my husband, for others reading this ) was little, his brother convinced him that there were also flying bears & raccoons and many other flying versions of animals. Good luck with the squirrels.
    BTW, if you haven’t heard Tom’s story about a friend who used a Have a Heart trap for a raccoon & ended up drowning the raccoon in the baathtub, get him to tell you. It has stuck in my mind all these years….

    Great kudos to you for getting the Big Idea so far that it is actually going out to your first reader! Very exciting.

    While writing the novel I’m currently workig on (at present called “How to Disappear and Never Be Found,” though that could change) I have frequent trilogy fantasies–because when your characters get interesting you are drawn to elaborate their storiesm right? Don’t know if I will,though… .

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