Toss It Or Keep It? The Pros And Cons Of Hanging On To Old Work

old work should you keep it

Your fingerpainting from 1st grade. That award-winning poem from high school. The photo project you got an A- in freshman year of college.

All of these things your parents may want to hold onto forever, but what about the rest of that less-than-stellar creative work that you have stuck in a drawer somewhere? Should that finally be tossed or does it serve a purpose?

Artists have had some wildly different ideas on what to do with their art that isn’t quite up to their standards. Author Don Delillo supposedly keeps every page he writes for a book, feeling it represents the true novel, while Georges Rouault was so unhappy with 300 of his paintings that he destroyed all of them.

It is a very personal choice, but let’s look at the pros and cons:


All Killer No Filler

It’s true that when the work is gone, you will never have to worry about someone seeing how the sausage gets made. For a lot of people, like Stanley Kubrick, nuking everything that doesn’t make it into the final project keeps people focused on the project. When they only see what you allow them, then it’s all highlight reel all the time.

No Risk of Embarrassment

The dirty secrets of how bad you actually are may then be revealed if anyone sees this stuff, and you will be outed as a fraud. Sure, you did a few neat things, but that is a molehill of good compared to the mountain of garbage that you slaved away on for years and years.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Once all those missteps and bad ideas are erased, you can look to the future without all those albatrosses hanging around your neck.


No Thanks for the Memories

While the work itself may be bad, these are mementos that, unlike maybe anything else in your life, can remind you of times from your past you wouldn’t mind holding onto. If that means stuffing away a terrible poem, that seems like a reasonable sacrifice.

A Slave to Emotions

There are a lot of reasons people get rid of their work, but often it’s an uncontrollable frustration or depression or something that makes you lash out on the poor, harmless work. Artists are terrible about looking at their art objectively, and when destruction is involved, that is a very dangerous time to depend on your own critical eye.

When it’s Gone it’s Gone

There is no reanimating all that work, and while you can always think about finally trashing it, when you make our move, that bell is not being unrung.

Remember that Franz Kafka asked his friend to destroy all of his work after his death; had his friend listened, a literary pioneer would have been lost forever. On the other end, Vladimir Nabokov called for his son to burn the note cards which contained “The Original of Laura,” a novel-in-progress he didn’t finish. After disobeying his wishes, his son published the cards and many critics reacted harshly, deeming the notes pretty bad. In other words, Nabokov was probably right that his work would have been better laid in the trash.

Kafka and Nabokov are lofty names on both sides of the debate, but the answer to our question probably lies in the middle: there is no point to be precious with all your work, but if you do decide to clean that drawer out, be a little more forgiving with what you find.

Shane Mehling FOLLOW >

Shane Mehling is a freelance writer and editor who plays in noiserock bands.