What do you do with old notebooks, letters, pictures, home movies?
March 6, 2005 12:28 PM   Subscribe

What do you do with old notebooks, letters, pictures, home movies?
posted by airguitar to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I packed everything away a few years ago, and I'm going through some of it just now. Some of it is really funny, priceless pictures of people I haven't seen in years, or letters from people I really cared about, but some of it is dark, painful, stupid, or embarrassing. So I can say 'I like this; I don't like that', but it's a chore, and where do I draw the line? Am I taking whiteout to the dangling participles, overdubbing that movie with what I wish I would have said? I wish I could go back and cut my hair in some of these pictures... but seriously, I'm torn between accepting it all for what it is, trashing it, or going through somehow and finding the things I want to keep a little longer.

And that's the other bit about this, is who cares what I scribbled in a notebook ten years ago, and what do I think it should matter today or in another ten years, to me or anyone else? It's a very egotistical thing to think that my fleeting impressions, on whatever, had significance for any longer than the moment it took me to register them. Not everyone is a great writer or thinker or observer, but I think that's what being twenty is about, finding out. Giving it a go. Seeing where new ideas take you. But when you look back at thirty and decide that a lot of it was crap, what do you do with the souvenirs?

Juxtapose that, again, with what I said are priceless photographs, funny movies, letters from old loves, and some writing that wasn't all bad (There's that surprise when I read something I penned at 18 and think 'damn, I could have used that perspective last week'). Moments in time that would mostly be lost without some reminder...

I'm wondering what other people do. I've been asking around. It's an interesting question. Philosophical, really. What role does the past get to play in who we are now? Can we choose what we remember? Can I draw a line between who I am at this moment and what I did five minutes ago? Am I a different person? Have I grown? What about five years? Ten years? When can I make that distinction, should I bother, and why would I want to? Or is the distinction made without me choosing? Is it pathetic and futile to cling reflections of some better person I used to be?

And what about home movies of people who aren't friends anymore, or people I haven't talked to in years. People who died. People who don't want to remember. Do I keep these trapped moments of our heady days under wraps? Do I share them without sending out release forms to everyone involved? Do I forget it all and move on? There's a spirit of going about this that I want to get right. It's very clear sometimes, but then it blurs.

The good times are easy to re-live, but it's the gritty stuff that I waver about. Does it matter anymore? Did it ever? Are we far enough removed in time to see the unpleasant out of context and feel no part of it? Is it worth rehashing? Is it better to black it out, or is it harmless sitting there on the shelf? And--if you're given to theological speculation in the religion of your choice--does burning a notebook undo what's been done? If Santa's elves are keeping score for St. Peter anyway, isn't it a little silly to go about remaking the past into something it wasn't when they have the master tapes anyway?

One thought I had going into this was that, taken out of context, anything can stand on it's own and be something. Something new maybe. Something nice.

But, I don't know. What do you think?
posted by airguitar at 12:29 PM on March 6, 2005

seriously, this is a good book
posted by matteo at 12:36 PM on March 6, 2005

Ah, fighting the historical pack-rat impulse. A noble cause. Last year I visited my parents and threw out two thirds of my old stuff: notebooks reflecting my early religious epiphanies, twenty year old attempts at bluegrass songwriting, pained writings from teen-angst years, unre-sellable books ranging from Early Roman History to Catch More Fish with Wet Flies... It filled several garbage cans. Photos I kept - they fit in a shoebox. It felt great. I now don't walk around with the illusion that someday these will be eagerly sought after by future students of Zaelic Studies, and if that ever becomes the case - well screw 'em. I'm a man of mystery, at least as concerns my early years.

Think nomadic: how much material evidence do you really need to lug around? How many notebooks and poetry chapbooks does the average Tuareg haul across the Sahara?
posted by zaelic at 12:39 PM on March 6, 2005

for those that don't like clicking on Amazon links without knowing the title, matteo links to "The Declutter Workbook: 101 Feng Shui Steps to Transform Your Life"
posted by gluechunk at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2005

i took those old videotapes of high school antics and edited them together with excerpts of music videos and commercials from the same period to create a short DVD portrait of my high school experience. i gave copies to the friends that still are around, and everyone else is just a glimpse in the video.

i keep all the photos, but i do edit them right away when i get them back from the lab, so there aren't endless slight variations of the same things.

thankfully, i was never much of a journaler. whatever i have i do keep, and just don't look at the embarrassing stuff. i think someday i'll need that memory-trigger, and periodically i like to review how the person i am today compares with the person i was then.
posted by xo at 12:50 PM on March 6, 2005

Distill it all down to a dvd or two. You could even use Jewelboxing to package it all up nice like.
posted by jackofsaxons at 1:18 PM on March 6, 2005

I have one box. It's a good-sized box, but it will only hold so much. I go through it when I need to put something else in there to see what I'm comfortable getting rid of. Often I will give something away to someone else who will appreciate it - old letters to the original sender, school mementos to my mom, photographs framed and sent to the other people in them. If something has lost sentimental value then I chuck it.
posted by cali at 1:19 PM on March 6, 2005

My great grandfather was a (relatively) famous photographer. He kept every notebook, every negative, his day to day reciepts...we have boxes of the stuff.

And about once a year, I go through it and I piece together all the clues to his life. And I compare it to my life. Stuff that had no value to me last year may have an overwhelming amount of value to me this year. My understanding of him (and myself) grows everytime I look through his papers.

And so I keep my photographs, letters, and ephemera. So that my great grandchildren (if they want to) can get a better understanding of my life.

And if they want to just throw all the shit away once I'm dead, they're welcome to do that.
posted by ColdChef at 1:38 PM on March 6, 2005

This girl I dated in college used to send me at least one or two letters a week. Cards, love notes, anything. And I kept all of them. I had a suitcase full. And I kept them when we broke up.

On New Years Eve 2000, I burned all of these notes to show my future wife that I was able to let go of the past and move on. Made a big bonfire in the back yard and burned five years worth of letters, cards, notes and other scraps of our relationship.

And now I regret it.

Because I also lost a huge part of my history when I got rid of all the traces of her. Little stuff, like a to-do list with ten or twelve priority items may mean nothing to anyone else, but I like to remember that few months we tried to be vegetarians and old shopping lists remind me of that. Or I'll find a receipt from the first time I tried sushi. Or a picture of the two of us in Graceland.

I wish I would have kept those things, now. I've got the space.
posted by ColdChef at 1:45 PM on March 6, 2005

This reminds me that it is time to stop procrastinating and get my families Super 8 movies transferred to DVD before they completely disintegrate.
posted by fixedgear at 1:51 PM on March 6, 2005

Great advice upthread.

You have to figure out what's really important to you - good, bad, happy and sad (everyone! sing along!). Don't hold on to stuff that you "think" someone might want in the future. Your editing must be based on what you want to keep (or not). If you keep it to pass it along, you're just passing your headache on to someone else.

A little more practical advice:

- Scrapbooks are wonderful for paper-ish stuff (photographs, cards, letters, etc.). And no, you don't have to tart them all up with cutesy stuff. They don't take up a lot of room and they're easy to organize by year/decade/whatever.

- Limit your storage space. Like cali said, if you want to add something to your keepsakes, you must get rid of something else.

- Editing the past: no, no, no. What's happened has happened. White-washing is not allowed. Good or bad, it's shaped the person you are.

- If there's stuff that's not appropriate for giving away (thrift stores, etc.), open a bottle of wine and have a bonfire. Yes, really. It'll be a nice farewell to the past.
posted by deborah at 1:57 PM on March 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a shelf of old notebooks from age about 11 on, that's at my father's house. I'm (very, very) slowly working on typing them up in backdated livejournal entries. I consider these things private, so I'm not doing it to share with the entire universe, just so that wherever I am I can be connected to my life without having to lug around a big cardboard box.

As for the philosophical content of your question, I see it in an opposite way. It's important to me to be connected to my past and know where I came from and how my thoughts on various things and people have changed over the years. Maybe it's narcissistic, but I find that interesting.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:01 PM on March 6, 2005

Missed on preview:

I'm sorry that you felt you had to get rid of all that stuff, ColdChef. My husband has pictures of his ex. I have no problem with that. There was good and bad in that relationship and it's shaped the man he is today. I can't erase his past and have absolutely no desire to do so. Personally, I have a scrapbook full of cards he's given me and I'm going to continue pasting them into scrapbooks. I don't know that I'll ever look at them again, but I have them if I need them.
posted by deborah at 2:02 PM on March 6, 2005

To echo what ColdChef was saying, I have recently started putting together my family history, and the most invaluable stuff are things like letters, pictures and the like. It is all very well having a family tree with dates of birth/marriage/death, but to see the life an ancestor lived is much more interesting, and can lead to information about friends/relatives you'd otherwise never know about. So I have belatedly started to keep hold of every letter and card that is sent to me, plus occasional scraps of other stuff, such as concert tickets. I think someone might find it valuable one day.
posted by chill at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2005

I'm not sentimental and am neurotically anti-clutter. In my current personal possession, I have a hanging file folder of letters, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera with some personal meaning that covers the last 13 years of my life. The standards for entrance are high and I will go through it every couple of years and see if I still care about something that seemed deadly important when I added it. I have most of my old journals and I keep ticket stubs because they are interesting and don't take up much space.

I also have a big box of photographs that I am going to organize and prune down to a small album of photographs one of these days. Lurking in my parents' attic are boxes and boxes of my old crap that I'm sorely tempted to tell them to throw out because I don't relish the thought of sifting through all that junk. It would probably be fun for about fifteen minutes and then get really boring once the bare mediocrity of my young life became apparent.
posted by jennyb at 2:54 PM on March 6, 2005

I edit photos and keep them in a photo album. I get rid of redundant and poorly composed ones.

But I will keep my letters and journals forever. Even though I feel exactly as you do about them: they're juvenilia, they're cringeworthy at times, they don't reflect who I am now, etc.

The reason is that I became a historian, and I learned that individuals are almost never the best judges of what is worth remembering about their lives. What seems insignificant to you could have incredible meaning in the far future, let alone what those scraps of you will mean to those who love you when you're gone.

So I have some nice solid boxes, three to be exact, and in them are compactly stored my old letters, cards, and ephemera. I've got a shelf to hold my journals, just like any other books. I no longer keep a journal - I keep a sketchbook/notebook now, which is a lot less of a navel gaze -- but I save them, too, and it's amazing what creativity they spark when I page back through them.

So my counsel would be: have patience and understanding with yourself. Accept your life and these peices of it. But if it's in your way, edit the less important stuff and sock everything else away in neat, out-of-sight storage. But for heaven's sake - please keep your letters and journals.
posted by Miko at 2:57 PM on March 6, 2005

I have piles of old journals, ephemera, letters, and so on that I used to keep neatly in file folders but are now shoved every which way in boxes mixed in with other crap. I've been carting this shit around for years without looking at it because it's too damn painful to sit and sort through. I finally started going through the boxes last year and was able to throw out a lot of stupid stuff (college papers, I don't know what) but the personal writings I couldn't touch, can hardly look at.

I decided to give myself permission that when I turn 30 I can go have a big fire and burn it all. I think I have to let it rot a little while longer just to make sure that I really don't want it hanging around. Maybe I'll make that breakthrough before then, but it's good to have a deadline. Maybe I'll be able to take a week with a bottle of Maker's Mark, sit and weed out what little bits are worth keeping, but I'm not going to force myself to do it if I can't, because there is nothing there so necessary to retain that it's worth more pain on my part.

As the years go on and the further I get from it, the past is a burden on my mind and soul and I can feel it weighing me down, holding me back from moving forward. I don't have many positive memories. I don't want reminders of who I was or what I did. And the idea of my descendents going through and reading it.... well, anyone doing that.... ugh. My husband has very few possessions and very little of his past. He says what he needs to remember, he will, and everything else is unimportant. I envy him his freedom.

I think it really depends on your personality. I've spent too much of my life looking backwards, letting who I was define who I am now. I don't want to be that person anymore. The purging I've been slowly doing since I've had my son - old clothes, old books, etc. - has been so liberating, I can't imagine why I didn't start doing this sooner.
posted by Melinika at 3:18 PM on March 6, 2005

Toss a match. Time spent in the past is a waste of now, which is where you will always have to live.
posted by dong_resin at 4:47 PM on March 6, 2005

I keep it all, and I do so for me. As others have said, I need the perspective of the past to help me understand where I am now -- I need to check periodically to make sure I'm not slipping into the icky thought patterns of my sophomore year of college, for example. I need to remember what it felt like to be single. I need to remember people I no longer see very often. And there are ideas in old grad school papers that I can still pick up and work with now. I think by writing, and I have a crappy memory, so I sometimes have to look back and realize that I've had the same realizations over and over before I can begin to do anything about them.

My parents are very anti-clutter -- they had photo albums but almost nothing else, and I wish they had kept more. I wanted to see their high school book reports and prom pictures.

And finally, some of my stuff is just awesomely hilarious. Consider one entry from my eighth grade diary:

January 5

Dear Diary –

I’m bored!! There’s nothing to do around here! I ? Warrant so much. Other bands are so obsessed w/ looks + stuff, they don’t really have time 4 music. My neighbor Alisun says Jani Lane is ugly, but I think he’s so hot! But what can U expect from someone who thinks Vanilla Ice is a babe? Sigh. I ? the songs I Saw Red + Cherry Pie!

I’m sneaking downstairs to watch Saturday Night Live!


So, yeah, there's some ego involved too. Even if that ego just wants to treasure the fact that I was a total spazz.

The bonfire is not for me. But I'm curious to learn what you decide to do -- this is a great question.
posted by climalene at 4:58 PM on March 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Ack -- hearts work on preview, but not in the final post? For ? above, read [heart].
posted by climalene at 5:13 PM on March 6, 2005

I say digitize it all. Scan all that clutter into a hard drive, where you can tag it, search it, and back it up with little effort and no real physical space. You can copy it for a friend or a child, and take it with you in a purse or luggage if you want. Hard drive storage is cheap, and keep a copy offsite.

I'm in the process of doing just this- scanning all my stuff at ridiculously high resolution and putting it all onto HDD and DVD and CD. I think it's worth the effort. Seems like a better idea than just trashing stuff outright.... a jpg can't clutter your closet, but it can provide insight after those old receipts and notes have long faded.
posted by fake at 5:56 PM on March 6, 2005

Recycle bin, garbage can, bitbucket, and bitbucket respectively. When I moved last year, I discovered myself adrift in a sea of worthless ephemera that had at best temporal meaning. I hated how that felt, and am now extremely hamfisted about shitcanning everything that I don't have a concrete reason to save.

Some of the raw data I throw into the much-lauded Notational Velocity and backup to a server once in a while, but by and large, most pieces of paper wind up recycled in pretty short order.

I suppose it helps that I have little to no emotional attachment to things like pictures or movies. I'm quite content with my memories of moments gone by, and rarely need to bring something tangible with me.
posted by majick at 6:12 PM on March 6, 2005

I keep it. All of it. Yes, I am a major packrat. But it helps me remember some of the good times, and also I can see just how far I've come since my younger years.

I just found my junior high school diary and reread it. In one entry I wrote that if I could go back in time and relive something, I'd go back to the sixth grade class picnic, because it was the best day of my life. Almost 20 years later and I didn't even remember that we had a sixth grade class picnic, much less that it was the best day of my life. It's little things like that that make those things worth keeping.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:24 PM on March 6, 2005

I'm with SisterHavana. I'm a total packrat and while I wish I had more space and that my closets weren't crammed to the gills with boxes of journals and pictures and letters and random bits of stuff, the idea of burning it makes my skin crawl. This is me in those boxes, even if I rarely look inside them. When I do, especially when I look at old journals, I am transported to the past in a really visceral way. It's truly time travel. I can suddenly be 15 again - and no, it's not a warm and fuzzy feeling, usually, because 15 sucked - but it's fascinating. And my memory is appalling, so most of this stuff is brand new to me. I've had that sixth grade class picnic experience a hundred times: wow, I'd forgotten that trip, that party, that victory, that defeat, that at-the-time transformative experience.
I had an apartment fire years ago and a journal I kept meticulously during the best year of my life was ruined by water. It was so precious to me that I spent days puzzling over the smeared ink, trying to recopy it. That remains one of my most precious posessions, even if half the pages were unrecoverable.
I'm intrigued, though, by the idea upthread of scanning a lot of this stuff in. But is a CD full of scanned pictures as durable as paper? I've heard maybe not.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:55 AM on March 7, 2005

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