My family and I have gone through some major downsizing over the last 10 years, as much by choice as by circumstance. We realized we had reached the point of super-saturation of stuff when our big house in a small town was crammed with needless stuff.
In preparation for a move to Indianapolis, we filled a 4 cubic yard dumpster three times with unusable stuff. I donated more than 600 books to my local library. And we gave away toys and children’s clothes by the carload. It was all stuff we had been hanging on to, but never really needed. As we moved to Indianapolis, we used more than 60 feet of moving truck, taking several different trips, and still had too much stuff. After four more years of paring and weeding, we could get almost everything into a single 24 foot truck.
It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom, but we could get rid of a whole lot more.
As we de-crapified our lives, we started thinking like minimalists, trying to get by with the least amount of stuff we could.
One myth people have about minimalism is that it means going without. A minimalist washes dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher. A minimalist owns four dishes, instead of 12 full place settings, plus a set of china. A minimalist has very little furniture, and their rooms are nearly empty.
That’s not minimalism. That’s spartan living. There’s a difference.
A minimalist doesn’t have very much stuff, but they make sure that what they have does the most and is the best they get.
For example, a minimalist will have gotten rid of their 600 books, but kept their very favorite ones in all the world. A minimalist will have 12 place settings, but they’ll skip the china, and they’ll have something that can stand up to a lot of abuse, but still looks nice. A minimalist will own a dishwasher, but it will be the best one they can afford so they don’t have to buy a new one every three years. A minimalist will have give up VHS tapes for DVDs, and then give up DVDs for Netflix and their local library, or burn their favorite DVDs to a 2 TB hard drive.
What Does That Have to Do With Writing?
Just like a minimalist chooses the things that mean the most to him or her, minimalist writers choose the best words laden with the deepest, richest meaning they can find.
For example, a minimalist will have a small bookshelf to hold 100 books of his favorite books. And it will be made from a sturdy oak or cherry wood. It will not be made out of pressed sawdust that sags when you put more than 30 books on it.
The minimalist writer will also use the best words to describe that bookshelf.
He stared at his collection of well-thumbed books lining the heavy oak bookcase, now in its third generation of owner. The man ran his hands along the sides, feeling the tool marks from where his grandfather had hand sawn and planed the boards as a young man, building it from the farm’s oak trees. The heavy case was over 80 years old, and still showed no signs of sagging, unlike her pressed sawdust shelves that tilted precariously against the apartment wall.
If you read closely, you can see a few important facts that we were able to convey with just one or two words.
- His grandfather lived in a time before power tools and owned a farm. The fact that he built it when he was younger means that he was pretty handy.
- The fact that the bookcase hasn’t sagged despite being 80 years old also speaks to the strength of the wood, as well as the grandfather’s skills with tools.
- The current owner of the bookcase, “he,” reads a lot of the same books over and over. “Well-thumbed” was your clue. He also doesn’t own that many of them, since he can fit them all on one bookcase.
- Chances are, the man is very selective about his books. We can surmise that he reads high0quality books. Why? He appreciates the quality of the shelves, and he fills them with books he reads over and over. So you know it’s not filled with paperback versions of “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” What’s in it, we don’t know. We could add a further clue if we used a phrase like “leather-bound” or “old,” but we also don’t want to cram too much into the description.
- He is also in a relationship. You see this in the mention of “her shelves.” He’s either married or living with her, since her shelves are in his apartment.
- The two are either fairly young, they live in a big city, or they can’t afford a house. Presumably we’ll find out later.
We could have written that passage with nearly five times as many words — describing the condition of the books in a few sentences, talking about the quality of construction, or describing how his girlfriend’s crappy bookshelf should be considered a hazardous area.
But we can convey the same feelings, finding even deeper ones, by writing like a minimalist and picking the words that mean the most.
Photo credit: jonathanpberger (Flickr, Creative Commons