What would you take to the basement?

tornadoTechnically, tornado season in my home state of Georgia runs from March until June. If you’ve ever lived in the Southeast, you know the reality feels more like January to October. It seems that every-other week, we’re hearing the sirens and watching the local news for indications that it’s time to hit the basement. We had exactly that experience tonight: my husband screeched into the driveway on two tires so we could bundle the kids and a fresh bag of Taco Bell down the basement, minutes ahead of the scary-dark sky.

This is far more fun in our new house, where we have a real basement with actual walls and a couch and TV. We had a picnic and the boys played while the storm passed far overhead, quickly dissipating into nothing. Our old house (where we lived until just a couple of weeks ago) had only a partial basement, which was unfinished and had windows on all sides, so our “refuge” was a tiny utility closet with a concrete floor covered in dead bugs and a couple of 200-year old plastic air fresheners on the walls. The last time we all had to go down there, we all crammed into the closet with me crouching over the baby in his car seat, trying to make his big brother as comfortable as possible in a half-unfolded camp chair while their dad and I ducked under the rough wooden shelves, listening to the weather on our phones and anxiously awaiting our release.

Whether you’re cramped in a utility closet or relaxing in subterranean luxury, however, the basic thought is the same during a potential tornado: “If we had to, we could start over. As long as we have each other, whatever gets obliterated upstairs doesn’t matter.” The danger forces you to huddle together and acknowledge, even for just a few minutes, what the most important components of your life really are. It’s not the clothes or the knick-knacks or the TV. It’s not even the books or the photos. It’s the people you love. Everything else can be replaced or at least survived.

Later, with the storm passed, I began to think tonight about how this concept can also apply to writing. I’ve been struggling with my current WIP: not knowing how to grow it from what I’ve already written, dealing with the vague sense that some things are not quite right, but hesitant to blindly butcher it…. You’ve been there.

So tonight I thought, “If I had to rescue just the bare essentials of this book, what would I keep?” Rather than trying to decide what to cut, I began to think about what to take to the proverbial basement. What about this work is so essential that I could start over with only those pieces? My plan is, in a new document, to jot down only those elements the story cannot live without, and ditch (at least temporarily) everything else. Of course it’s hard, just like starting over without the contents of my family’s home and closets would be hard.

But sometimes a fresh start can lead to great, new things – and teach you what is most valuable in the process. Sometimes forcing yourself to live without the elements you’ve accumulated over time leaves you space to write something even better, even truer to the story’s essentials. And in my experience, if you know what’s essential, anything is possible.