Organizing a Writing Project by Guest Blogger Nona Smith, author of Stuffed, Emptying the Hoarder’s Nest, A True Tale.
Nona tells the story of writing Stuffed:
I didn’t start out with the idea of writing a book, but from the get-go, I was aware we were onto a unique experience. In late November of 2010, my husband, Art, became the executor of his friend Linda’s estate. Linda was a hoarder. Not your run-of-the-mill hoarder, but a collector of unique stuff as well as plain ol’ junk.
We felt it prudent to document what we found because in addition to being the executor, Art was the only on-site heir. So I took photographs of the plethora of original artwork by a famous botanical printmaker, the rare mechanical music machines and closets of musical scrolls, tools and computers and even of the life-size teddy bear reclining in the bathtub. I also photographed the stuff that had no value: old piles of crafting supplies, a jarful of unmarked keys, moldy, outdated textbooks. I saved emails from our friend Dan who helped us clean things out, and I took notes on research we conducted while trying to ascertain the value of one collection or another.
There was so much of everything I was afraid we might lose track of the details, so I bought an accordion folder and divided it into loosely organized categories. I was in Organization Mode. Writing about this hadn’t yet occurred to me.
Each time we entered Linda’s apartment and surveyed the chaos, my stomach clenched. Every horizontal surface was littered with things, every room was jam-packed. Stuffed animals were her particular passion and they were everywhere; literally hundreds of teddy bears, rabbits, monkeys, turtles and an occasional pig filled the place to overflowing. Three other apartments in this building plus a computer repair shop, a warehouse and two houses in southern California were similarly stuffed to the rafters.
The disorder was unsettling, disturbing, and invaded my dreams. I would have liked to simply walk away from the mess. But we needed to deal with it in a methodical manner until it was all disposed of and converted into cash. In the end, it was this disorder–––and the teddy bears–––that drove me to writing. Writing became my therapy and helped me process the experience.
In order not to get crushed by the telling of the story, I decided three things. First, I wanted to introduce my readers to Linda and her husband Al, also a hoarder, who had died years earlier. I wanted them to be known as people, not simply hoarders. In addition, I wanted my audience to understand the malady called hoarding as I myself learned about it. Second, I didn’t want this tale to be depressing, so I made it a point to look for humor where I could find it. The third decision was strictly an organizational one. I chose to isolate each collection or problem and write about it as we encountered it. That accordion folder helped me follow a single story line and not drift anywhere else.
The stuffed animals, with their sad, accusatory eyes, had the first story to tell. I stuck with them until they all happily found new homes. Then I introduced our friend Dan who played a major role in assisting us with our responsibilities to this estate. Dependable, loquacious Dan weaves in and out of the tale. Whenever he turns up, there’s food involved, and I was able to make that a kind of repetitive, happy theme. He also writes funny emails, so I saved those in the appropriate accordion file sections.
If Dan is our “hero,” Mike Em is his evil counterpart. Mike Em’s story-thread involves the mechanical musical instrument collection. He comes into the story early on and he was such an abrasive person from our first encounters with him that I knew intuitively I should keep his email correspondence. It served me well when writing about him later.
And finally, I never began writing about a problem or a collection until that issue had been settled. As each thing resolved itself, I contained it in a chapter. Sometimes, one chapter spilled into two, such as finding the hidden safe, which turned out to be safes. However, knowing the story line from start to finish was a strategy I believe helped me find the humor I hoped to maintain. Occasionally that humor came from a single adjective, such as Mike Em’s “turd-colored suspenders.” Sometimes I had to search further and exaggerate a bit. But not having to worry about the story’s conclusion freed me to look for the lightness.
In the beginning, the teddy bears’ happy endings encouraged me to write on. Toward the end of our adventure, I felt compelled to tell the tale to its finish in order to honor the time we’d spent and the people who’d helped us along the way.
Note from Marlene: I read Stuffed and enjoyed every bit of it. What could be a sad story is told in an upbeat, positive way, with a satisfying ending. Well-written and entertaining.
Nona Smith writes memoir and short stories with a humorous bent that show how life’s foibles connect us to each other. She lives on the Mendocino Coast with her husband Art and two spoiled cats, Missy and Buster.
Photo by Rosalie Winesuff