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March 28, 2011

How To Cut The Crap From Your Life…And Your Writing

I enjoyed Marylee Fairbanks’ poignant piece about purging her life of unnecessary items. When I saw her follow up post, I also wanted to participate in getting rid of one thing a day for 24 days. But I’ve been doing this for the past year, and I’m pretty much down to the good stuff.

Minimalism is in. The idea of having just enough stuff to fill a backpack so you can jet at any time is romantic and inspiring. Anyone who has ever moved (read: everyone) sighs with longing at the thought of never again hiring a moving van, or swathing china in yards of newsprint. But objects can bring joy, if used judiciously.

In this way, both writing and ownership are similar. As I have developed my writing skills, I’ve struggled with cutting my long form pieces into something digestible. My journalism professors and now my new editor hack into my 2,000-word essays, deleting whole paragraphs, and the result is so much better than the original. But they’ve never cut down my stories to a paragraph – the equivalent of a backpack.

You start with facts that are essential to the story: my sheets which I lovingly iron before I place them on the bed, and my pillows. My fluffy white towels that I wrap around me after a shower. My toothpaste and toothbrush, my deodorant, and shampoo and conditioner. Pans and pots in the kitchen, and t-shirts and jeans in my closet, comfy flats, a wallet, and reusable bag. It’s the bare minimum I need.

But facts aren’t enough, no matter what Ev Bogue says. The bare facts and the bare minimum of stuff isn’t clear or truthful. It need context, descriptions, background, history, opinions: my books, both fiction and non-fiction. My laptop and camera. My yoga mat and my blanket on which I meditate. My vintage and new cookbooks, and the New York Times that I read daily. The context of my life involves some pens and pencils, and the journal that my boyfriend gave me when we first started dating.

But even that isn’t enough. Because a story with facts and context isn’t compelling – it needs adjectives, descriptors, and set scenes to bring it beauty: the numbered prints I bought from an artist near Aix-en-Provence. The plants I cultivate on my windowsill and the little orange vintage watering with which I water them. My tea kettle and mug. Red lipstick. A collection of well-made and beautiful pieces of clothing that I wear often and with pride, a small collection of necklaces and earrings which elicit compliments whenever I wear them, and a few colorful scarves. Personalized stationery on heavy stock on which I write notes to my two grandmothers.

So those are the components of a well-done story, and a well-done life. But what isn’t necessary? What is the chaff that I have separated in the past year? Gifts from well-meaning relatives and friends that I didn’t actually like. Pictures from a cluttered cork board from events that I didn’t want to remember. Books I would never read again, clothing I rarely wore, Tiffany jewelry I couldn’t bring myself to put on. Tchotchkes that cluttered my dresser. Old drugstore makeup. Memento’s from my ex-boyfriend, twenty copies of the school magazine I ran, an old mink collar that was my mother’s (I hope she doesn’t read this). Shoes that hurt my feet. Foreign currency, and those little things filling my drawers that seem useful that I never actually used. A bag full of scrapbooking materials. I recycled, trashed, consigned and gave them away, and my life gained meaning from the things that remained.

I continue to edit. Today I tossed a bottle of toxic nail polish, yesterday, an ugly old Longchamp bag. I fix things that break. I keep things clean. I arrange. Whenever I think I am done with a story, I keep looking, fixing errors, correcting grammar, continuing to excise unnecessary words. I replace cliched phrases with more carefully chosen ones, like how I replaced several cheap Forever 21 tops with one cashmere sweater.

Many of the people who write on Elephant Journal are good writers, but some are not. Their strengths lie in their intelligence and wisdom, but they have trouble communicating in a compelling way. If you are one of those people, remember this: you can grow attached to your own words, even though they are meaningless. Cut, edit, discard, until you get to the meat of what you are trying to say. Go through your things and keep the stuff that makes your life better and happy. Then what you have to say – and your life – will be more beautiful and meaningful.

(P.S. This article started at 870 words. Now it is 793. It could probably be shorter.)

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Alden Wicker

Alden Wicker is a freelance journalist and founder of EcoCult.com, a blog about all things sustainable in New York City and beyond. She also writes about electronic music, personal finance, and yoga for publications such as Well + Good, Refinery29, LearnVest, Huffington Post and Narratively.