Rummage

by Robert Moulthrop

“The church is having a rummage sale.” That would be my grandmother, who would follow up with “Here, have a rummage through this box of stuff and see what we can take over.” So, rummage was both a thing to do, and the thing itself. Dig through the box and find something unwanted that was something that would turn out to be something someone else wanted. And invariably would come the moment when she said, “No, not that. I want to keep that. Reminds me of the time when…” The time when she went to the beach with her sister, or when my grandfather took her on a date, or when my mother was born. Rummage as treasure.

Such a great word: Rummage rummage rummage rummage. Do you have any rummage today? I bet you do. I found some of my own, and it’s been an exciting internal journey.

What better time than our current pandemic quarantine to have a bit of a rummage through one’s writerly past? A sweet and thoughtful look through the scraps of old ideas, pieces begun and abandoned, thought fragments, prompts. Early on, when I tried to write something every day, I wanted always to have something to write, no excuses. So I made an “Idea” file. But then there was my journal; and the scraps of paper napkins; and the diligently started notebooks (abandoned for a torn off corner of a paper tablecloth). Not to mention (dating myself) old newspaper clippings. I’ve never before had a problem with what to write, but now, without the social interactions, with friends reduced to pixels, and with mere existence taking up lots of head space, I need a prompt or two, need something that’s not “news” or “information” or “sensation.” At a time like this, I need my past.

And now there’s time. And the file on my computer (journal; ideas) and the paper file on my desk (ideas, and actual titles of things), and I’m able to look at pieces of my past, shards from some unique piece of work that only barely got started. And I can be my own beady editorial eye and see that, YES, I see what I was trying to do and YES, it looks like it would be both fun and worthwhile to get out my writer’s scalpel and see whether these four paragraphs contain enough of the germ of an idea for a story. Or not. I happened on a few words written yonks ago, three paragraphs based on neighbors when I was a child. Hmmmm. And I cut and pasted, began a dive, worked it over a couple of days, and came up with 1,800 words that seemed to be a story. And it’s now out for a few editors at a few journals, whose judgment I await.

There’s a clear joy in looking at one’s past writing self and thinking, “not bad,” or at least “not cringe-worthy.” Because there will be enough of that, too. There’s also the wonder of “I remember, but I don’t remember writing this. But it’s there, so I guess I did.” And there’s that writer’s joy when you can “Save As,” with the story title, and the word “Final.” With full knowledge that it is. For the moment.


Robert Moulthrop, a playwright and fiction writer, has presented writing workshops at our Pearl S. Buck Writing Center.  His short fiction has been published in Tahoma Literary Review, Reed, Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, and many other journals and magazines. His plays have won awards for writing and performance at the New York International Fringe Festival; received festival production by Short + Sweet Sydney, The Gallery Players, and NYU; and received developmental readings with theaters throughout the United States. He lives and works in New York City.

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