Everything Old Is New Again by Deborah Noyes
I once read an article about an eight-year-old girl who had made friends with a crow. The crow would bring her things, shiny things: a paper clip, a rusted hinge, a blue Lego piece. I felt a kinship with that crow.
I’ll own it: I’m odd. Or my interests are. And like the crow, I collect things, at least in passing. Feathers and owl pellets, shells and stones, old postcards and love letters, scratched vinyl records, and books with beautiful endpapers. There’s a cabinet of curiosities in my skull.
A frustrated curator, I’m drawn to almost any self-possessed thing that’s been around a while and keeps its secrets. To discover or recover objects and ideas, sort them into categories, and share them in new forms, seems to be what I do best—or at least what I most love to do. For a long time I collected quotes. Making music playlists is an old pastime (so old that I remember laboring over cassette comp tapes). Traditional ballads, which have been collected and handed down—mostly orally—through the ages, are a big inspiration, and I’m learning to play traditional Irish and Scottish music, fiddle tunes repackaged any number of ways over decades and centuries that still hold their basic form.
Incidentally, I bought my fiddle at a flea market for fifty bucks. It had belonged to a young music student named Laura from Lake Forest, Illinois. Her name and address were neatly printed on the blue Naugahyde case with Sharpie. Every time I play, I feel a kinship with Laura and wonder whether she gave up music or just graduated to a better instrument. Maybe she leads a string quartet. Maybe she’s the rage in Japan. But now she resonates in me, as sound waves resonate in a violin. We’re part of the same song, the same story.
Collections often formed the core of my reading growing up. Some of my favorite books were collections: Mother Goose rhymes when I was tiny, fairy tales of all kinds a bit later. D’aulaire’s Greek Myths leaps to mind—I read that book to tatters. I gravitated toward fantasy as an older reader and, like fans today, tucked in when I found the right series, waiting breathlessly for the next book. I still read and enjoy short-story collections, sometimes more than novels, which is what led me to edit several young-adult anthologies, so I could collect stories by writers I admired into themed volumes. My own new book, We Are All His Creatures—like an earlier one, The Ghosts of Kerfol—walks and talks like a novel but is really linked stories… a collection.
Collecting is key to my writing process. When I work on a book, fiction or nonfiction, the first thing I do is deep research. I fill folders—digital and paper—with articles and what used to be called clippings. I start a massive Pinterest file of pictures. Long before I begin to distill material into a draft, I saturate my brain and flood my senses. The folders, a faint shade of order, keep me sane.
Back to objects for a minute. My very favorite thing to collect is old photographs: tintypes and cabinet cards. I’m as much a visual as a word person and went through a collage-making phase. I’d scan old pictures and layer them into new ones, and for years I prowled flea markets and antique stores feeding this habit. The germ of my Barnum book was a cabinet card of General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) and his wife Lavinia Warren that I found in an antique store in Northampton, Massachusetts. I knew enough about P.T. Barnum to recognize the Strattons, and I couldn’t stop looking at that picture and wondering about their lives.
When you hang out in the nineteenth century a lot, as I do, and have certain arcane interests—the history of zoos, magic, vaudeville, the circus, spirit photography, hoaxes, anything—P.T. Barnum’s name comes up… a lot. He was a show and circus man, of course, “the greatest,” but he was lots of other things too, a politician, a celebrity-making machine, and above all… a collector. He collected everything from wax figures to exotic animals to people. Yes, he collected people—what the press called “living curiosities,” giants, Little People, bearded ladies, and tattooed men—real people like the Strattons.
My visual folder for this project eventually got so big that I asked my publisher if we could include a few images in the final book.
Like many hunters and gatherers, I have a short attention span, and collections are replaced by other collections. I now see my old mindless acquisition, fruitless cataloging and arranging for its own sake, as another brand of consumerism. It’s a static game that leads to clutter, a place for dust to settle. I’m learning to live with fewer objects and more white and green space, but inside my brain can still resemble a brown-hued antique store piled with dusty treasure.
“Beauty should be shared,” wrote one of my favorite artists, Joseph Cornell, “for it enhances our joys.” So like the crow, I’ve learned to share my collections or hand them forward in some way or another, changed but still resonant, recognizable.
Reduce, reuse, recycle. To save beautiful things from obscurity and then give them away—could this be essence of creativity? Both the gathering and the letting go?
One last bird story. Years ago I found an abandoned nest in the woods. It had been stitched through with a once-red girl’s hair ribbon. Caked with dried mud, it was a useful ribbon, a reused ribbon. Birds are terrific collectors, and I like to think that if they can no longer use or reuse a thing, they give it away—like the crow—and this is a good, sustainable life.
Deborah Noyes writes for young readers and adults. Her fiction and nonfiction books include The Ghosts of Kerfol; Tooth and Claw: The Dinosaur Wars; The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Conversing with the Dead; and Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter Nellie Bly. She has two new books releasing this year: We Are All His Creatures (Candlewick Press/March) and A Hopeful Heart: Louisa May Alcott Before Little Women (Schwartz & Wade/October).