On an evening in July 2014, along with my brother and another hundred perspiring attendees, I crowded into one of the few remaining indie bookstores in my hometown. We weren’t there for a rock star novelist, I’m sorry to say, but rather for two non-fiction writers. I’d been reading their blog for a few months and their message was already having a positive impact on my writing (and larger life). I was eager for an in-person reinforcement.
Have you heard of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists? They are two contemporary leaders in the — surprise! — minimalist movement.
To be clear, I’m not speaking of minimalist literature, which is a form of stripped-down prose made popular by authors such as Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but rather a lifestyle in which one aims for a mindful pattern of consumption so that you’re not trading valuable time and energy for possessions you don’t prize.
Nor am I claiming to be a poster child for the minimalist movement. (As if.) But I was and remain at a point in my life where the message was welcome and necessary if I was to keep on writing fiction.
How can minimalism help in the writing life?
1. It can help recover writing time.
I live in an aging, middle class neighborhood and my cul de sac contains ten homes, housing approximately twenty-three people. We weathered a winter storm two weeks ago, yet if I stand at my front window, I can count eleven cars which have yet to be cleared of snow. That’s eleven vehicles which have been superfluous for fourteen days, and which weren’t protected from the elements because their logical homes — the double garages abutting each house — are stuffed with boxes of surplus possessions. (Only two of the ten homes in our neighborhood can park vehicles in their garage.)
I’m not judging my neighbors. They are kind, mature adults who have the right to make their own financial decisions and bear the results.
Also, I’ve participated in the same pattern of over-acquisition. My present weakness is books and kitchen supplies, and in a past, dramatic example, we over-consumed with the travel-trailer which nearly killed us.
But I’m sure you can appreciate that each vehicle represents a huge investment: time spent to earn the money so they could spend time to shop for the car, so they could spend time on its maintenance and cleaning. When a vehicle outlives its use, they’ll spend time to dispose of it properly.
Minimalism simply invites us to recover our time by eliminating unnecessary purchases upfront or, once we’ve acquired objects, to pare them down to what we truly need and mindfully desire, thereby reducing the time we waste on the latter part of the consumption cycle.
Personally, it’s a message I need to hear repeated at this time of year as we make decisions about gift-giving and receiving. Rather than saddling our family with time-stealing objects, we’re aiming to give them experiences, such as attending a movie or play together.
2. It can help recover writing energy:
Once I adopted a sparer aesthetic, I discovered an interesting thing: more willpower to begin writing, which is at least 60% of my internal battle. According to this article, I’m not unusual. (There are other simple measures to boost willpower, meaning that the same things which help you write will help you stay slimmer over the holidays.)
What does a minimalist aesthetic in writing look like? Well, for me this has meant:
- A gradual decluttering of my home: My office is located in a multi-purpose room which houses spillover dried goods from the pantry, the household printer, supplies for sewing and household repair, Christmas wrap, financial papers, etc. In order to reclaim my office and diminish visible clutter, I’ve needed to downsize the possessions in the rest of my home and simplify my office’s function.
- A gradual decluttering of my writing: This is a big change for me, but I’ve become a serial monogamist by deciding to take one piece of long-form fiction to completion rather than flirting with multiple projects. The simplification is relieving, to be honest, because of the mental effort involved in juggling so many characters, plot layers, etc. (How do people manage bigamy? So exhausting!) As a welcome consequence, I believe I can see difference in what I’m writing — it’s deeper, bolder, unreservedly better even if scarier to write.
- At the end of the day, I turn my monitor off and push it to the back of the desk, then place my paper and pen at the front, poised for immediate work in the morning. Perhaps it’s the conditioning of my childhood writing, but it helps to begin the day with the simplicity of hand-held tools and a cleared desk.
- I’ve diminished my online commitments by decreasing the frequency of my participation in certain groups, cutting some out altogether.
- I’ve worked to cut down inbox clutter by getting rid of subscriptions, moving others to Feedly.
- I’ve become choosier about the writing articles I’ll save for “someday”. Likewise, I won’t be purchasing any new craft books unless I’ve made a big dent in my current pile. (Have you noticed how your mind wants to equate the act of purchasing a book with the act of understanding the material, thereby providing you with a fleeting sense of accomplishment? No? Just me? Regardless, it’s a form of mindless consumption which wearies me when I look at all the craft material I’ve acquired yet haven’t used.)
- Cutting down my personal library by donating non-keeper paper books to the library or Goodwill. Deleting non-keeper ebooks from my ereader.
- I’m trying to make a TBR fiction list rather than a pile, though this is an ongoing challenge.
- Diminishing the number of browser tabs I have open at any one time.
- When I use the computer, writing within a “cleaner” page (i.e. using the Scrivener full-screen app, which allows an experience similar to that of Zen Pen).
As a result of my efforts:
- I feel more peaceful, competent.
- I’m writing more frequently, better, deeper — in part because I’m making better writing decisions. I’m better at killing my darlings because of the immediate, tangible example of how clinging to the past engenders more work and mental fatigue than committing to a change.
- Another personal thing — and I hesitate to mention it because I’m NOT trying to be evangelical so much as transparent — but I feel the same kind of relief from cognitive dissonance as I did when I became vegetarian for health reasons alone, then realized how much it had troubled me to eat meat. I had no idea how much the cumulative weight of my possessions was troubling me until I felt the freedom of owning less.
Because minimalism is so counter-culture and can be tailored to fit your personal taste, it’s helpful to have a variety of role models:
- The Minimalists — an enjoyable couple of authors to listen to if they tour your city.
- Leo Baubata’s Zen Habits — Time Magazine voted this the best blog in the world at one point.
- Joshua Becker’s Becoming Minimalist
- Courtney Carver’s Be More with Less — tips from a minimalist mom.
- Mr. Money Mustache — combines minimalist aesthetic with tips on frugality and financial independence.
Now what about you, Unboxeders? Have you adopted a minimalist aesthetic in your writing life? If you did, what were the results? Have you downsized your life in order to free-up more writing time? Did it work? If the philosophy of minimalism doesn’t appeal to you, why not?