Minimalism and the Writer

     There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…..and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

     To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.

     The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

     –Thomas Merton


A little scrap of paper bearing the above quote has been hanging around my house for about twelve years now–first in a folder, next on the fridge, and finally on a board in my writing room. I love this quote, because I need it. I need it to remind me of what I tend to do versus what I want to do.

At first, I kept it squirreled away–a little snippet of wisdom I’d stumbled upon, something to mull over for later. But as the demands of motherhood, writing, work and community pulled at me from every side, I taped it to the fridge where my eyes would at least brush across it every day.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been on a journey towards a more minimalist lifestyle, which for me means eliminating the superfluous in order to better experience and enjoy what’s truly important. It’s not so much about “getting rid of” as it is about “making room for.” Inspired by my previous part-time job as a professional organizer, and goaded on by the piles of stuff I encountered in clients’ homes, I began with the physical stuff, purging items that were broken or unneeded. I moved on to ridding the house of duplicate (triplicate? quadruplicate?) items, and then rolled up my sleeves and got really serious. I started reading The Minimalists’ blog, and played their Minimalist Game. Multiple times. And the process of decluttering became a little addictive.

But that’s the easy part. What comes next is harder–getting rid of not just the physical clutter, but the time-clutter–the activities that eat away at my energy, my good humor, that make me feel frazzled without replenishing me. They’re all good and worthy things, but I had to face the realization that I couldn’t do them all and do any of them well. I couldn’t do them all and be a good writer, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend.

The mental clutter is still more difficult, and I haven’t really found a good solution for that one. I’m hoping it will come in time, over many cups of tea consumed in many sun-squares on a cushion on the wood floor. I don’t think I can push this one.

So lately, I’ve been considering what minimalism might mean for my writing. The first thing that springs to mind is Hemingway. Hemingway and I have a sort of prickly relationship. We don’t speak much, and when we meet at parties, we sort of eye each other dubiously, and then he has another drink and I start looking around for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I don’t know yet what minimalism–or essentialism, which I sometimes prefer–means for my prose. Novel writing can feel like the polar opposite of minimalism, a truth of which I’m reminded every time I compose a query letter or hammer out a plot synopsis. What I do know is that I’m no Hemingway, and I don’t want to be. But I need to figure out what my “essential” is.

I just had to log out of Pandora. My quiet, contemplative tea-drinking music was too distracting. I can’t write with music, and this makes me feel like a right old codger, but it’s the truth. I love music too much to be coherent while I’m absorbing it. I can’t even carry on an intelligent conversation, as my husband can attest, while a song I love is playing. This interruption just now has brought a tiny epiphany–maybe the essentialism doesn’t have to be in the prose itself. Though I do want to strive for cleaner, stronger prose, maybe I need to think more about the practice and less about the words themselves. Maybe, for me, the minimalism is in what’s around me. I do know that I’ve had more ideas and gotten more excited about more stories since I’ve gotten rid of more distractions. I’ve read more books, and thought about my reading more.

A few days ago, I started a Twitter account (I know, I’m a dinosaur), and its constant flow of alluring information has got me thinking–about how to keep things simple, how to live an uncluttered life, how not to get sucked down all the rabbit holes (so many rabbit holes! so shiny!! so pretty!!!). I think that maybe, for me, minimalist writing will be more about process than product–making the time to write, clearing away the distractions (bye, bunnies!).

And maybe I just need to stop overthinking all this already and, for the love of F. Scott, just freaking write something.

May your weekend be full of all good things, and no clutter.


11 thoughts on “Minimalism and the Writer

  1. Great post. As a student, I can relate to how minimalism affects writing. Not so much effect into the final product, but more on the process of downsizing the environment, leaving what’s necessary to focus on writing. The only effect I see on the result is how minimalism ensures that you’re not beating around the bush in your writing. 😀

  2. I feel like I clutter myself with ambitions more than anything else. There is so much I want to do – to start – to finish – to learn – to try. I have to urge myself to a slower pace and to prioritize one thing at a time.

    It sometimes works.

    1. Well-said! I love that phrase–“clutter myself with ambitions.” It’s so easy to do, and we’re supposed to have ambitions, but it really is difficult to strike a balance and make room for the priorities.

  3. Brenna, I can’t write with music either. I love music so much that I become absorbed in it. I am also a recent Twitterer (if there is such a thing) and I had to learn to back off because it can get overwhelming. I think of Twitter like a stream, where lots of colourful fish are swimming by. By the time I grab one of them, many others have gone out of sight. And I just have to let them go. I dip my hand in once in a while for the joy of discovery. 🙂

    1. Oh, Sue, that is a perfect analogy for Twitter! All the pretty little Twitterfish…..:) And I’m glad I’m not the only non-writer-to-music out there. I start feeling so very uncool when I read acknowledgments in which authors thank the bands they love.

      1. Oh, I can’t do ANYTHING to music!! I am either enjoying music, or I want silence. Period. I don’t think my brain multitasks at all.

        1. Apparently recent studies have shown that multitasking is actually not a thing. It’s really just distracted flipping back and forth between stuff and is actually a lot less efficient than sustained focus. So we’re good. 😉

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