Plastic bags breed in the dark. They do! That’s the only possible explanation. Plastic bags, paper sacks, wire hangers, and junk mail are running a breeding farm and they’re using stray socks for food. Clutter attracts more clutter. On the path toward minimalism, we can turn this around, recognizing and removing entire categories of clutter all at once.
My husband and I made a radical lifestyle change in spring of 2017. We sold our car and downsized into a tiny seaside apartment. Not only that: we did it all in eleven days! An unbelievably cool job offer and the chance to live at the beach made the transition irresistible. At the same time, dropping half our living space (again) in such a short time period made for some tough choices.
No garage = no garage stuff, no extra storage, no “indecision zone”
No car = nothing that requires a car to carry it around
No yard = no gardening tools, mower, etc.
We didn’t have to decide on individual items like, say, an empty plastic herb pot from planting basil starts. Everything from Category: Gardening went to a charity rummage sale.
Policies, not decisions!
One way to start a clutter chain reaction is to look at categories of items, like we did. Here are some examples:
All clothes that require dry cleaning
All plastic kitchen items
All kitchen items that are not dishwasher-safe
Anything stored in a cardboard box
All magazines older than three months
All clothes that don’t fit today
Anything that is cracked, stained, or broken
All expired foods and pharmaceuticals
Anything being stored on a countertop due to lack of space
Another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to work in the time dimension. WHEN are you using this stuff? If it isn’t an item of daily use, like your keys, it’s up for legitimate scrutiny.
Anything you used in the past but haven’t touched in a year
Anything you have never used but are convinced you might, possibly, one day, maybe
Anything linked to a past event that is only saved as memorabilia
Anything that only gets used in rare circumstances, such as holidays
Yet another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to evaluate based on storage. Where are these things being stored? Would the space be used more effectively to store something else? Could the space be used for an activity that can’t be done while it’s currently full of clutter? Would the space look more attractive and satisfying if it was simply kept clear?
Tops of appliances
The front of the refrigerator
A clutter chain reaction based on storage can continue on and on for quite a while. For instance, when I gave away all my crafting stuff, it freed up the giant plastic tubs I had been storing it in. Those tubs were then available for other stuff. I bought two plastic tubs sometime around 1995, and I can’t remember how many times I reused them over twenty years. I don’t have them anymore; they were too big to fit anywhere in our one closet, and there’s nothing left that I would have stored in them anyway.
The clutter chain reaction I’m working on right now involves an old bookcase. I’ve been annoyed with it since the day I bought it home from IKEA, because apparently the outer surfaces rubbed together during transport and abraded away the finish. It was clearly my fault, so I kept it, but that bookcase is a clutter magnet and it clashes with every other piece of furniture we own.
I can hear the anguished cries now: “Wait. HOW can you get rid of a BOOKCASE? Can I have it???”
I’ve been working on releasing hard copies of books, and I’ve downsized about 80% of my collection over the past five years. We move quite a lot, and I’m tired of packing, hauling, and unpacking so many heavy boxes. Also, I have a dumb tendency to buy books and then not read them because I’m busy reading library books I checked out for free. Once I read a book, I’m done with it. The exception is reference books such as cookbooks, and I’ve been digitizing those, scanning the few relevant pages or replacing them with e-books. I’m not obligated to keep a two-pound book that I bought just because I like three recipes in it. The author already has my money. Obviously, when I finish downsizing all of my books, I will no longer need the bookcase.
What happens when the bookcase goes out the door? I have a free space in the room. There is no longer a misfit, different in style and color from our other stuff. The other furniture looks more coordinated. There’s one less thing to dust, or, rather, one less large thing that contained a hundred smaller things. Most importantly, there’s no longer a clutter magnet in the form of shelf space, a series of flat surfaces that tends to magnetically attract mail, receipts, and random objects.
Thinking of clutter in terms of categories is an almost mystical secret tool for getting rid of it. Clutter doesn’t even have to be evaluated in terms of dozens of small categories. We can ask ourselves much simpler questions. The best question of all is, In the category of Items That Improve My Life Experience Every Single Day, does this thing fit?
It’s possible I have a problem. A little one. I’m getting ready to upgrade my electronics, and in the process, I’m realizing that there’s an awful lot to migrate between devices.
...sorry, where was I? I just stopped to download another ebook I had on hold. Oh, yes! Information hoarding! Let’s see some metrics.
6,152 photos and 56 videos at 5.81 GB
14 ebooks checked out and 42 on hold
A wish list of 1,693 books between five libraries
20 audio books at 12.16 GB
795 podcast episodes at 35.89 GB (I played through an entire episode while counting)
574 bookmarked articles
69 open tabs
The most interesting thing about this list is that it’s all basically imaginary. Well, everything we think we have to do, use, consume, read, or otherwise perform is imaginary. It’s in our heads. I’m not going to cease to exist if I skip a podcast episode. The point is that my information hoarding does not take up any more physical space than the confines of my phone. It doesn’t weigh any more just because I’m using over 100 GB of data. It doesn’t cost any more, either. As far as indulgences go, it’s pretty tame.
Information hoarding usually does take up space, and quite a significant amount. I started realizing this when I started digitizing everything. It occurred to me that almost everything I own can be digitized:
Movies, TV shows, and workout programs
Business cards and address books
Check registers, bank statements, receipts, all other financial info
Keepsakes and mementos in photographic form
Almost all office supplies
All I really need is basic furniture, clothing, housewares, cleansers, and a week’s worth of groceries. Oh, and some power outlets, of course.
My chronically disorganized clients struggle with information management more than anything else. It starts with the junk mail. My clients “scoop and stuff” on a regular basis. They’ll have boxes full of plastic grocery bags, and at least 80% of the contents of the bags will be junk mail and those stupid coupon newspapers. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that about 20% of the contents of those bags consists of truly important, urgent mail and papers. It’s hard to find the important stuff when it’s surrounded by junk that should never have been brought through the door. The junk mail is disinformation, actively detracting from the value of the good stuff.
Indecision is a huge part of chronic disorganization and hoarding. My people have a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to go to social functions or accept invitations. Due to this, they’ll keep all the invitations, calendars, flyers, and other papers on their bulletin boards, or scattered on the countertops, until the date has passed. They won’t realize that these notifications can be discarded once they’re obsolete, because those papers will have already been buried under a snowdrift of new paper.
The junk mail and pending invitations are unintentional information hoarding. It’s the intentional stuff that’s particularly stubborn.
Magazines. If you carry all your old magazines out to the recycling bin and dump them tonight, PM me and I’ll feature you in an article. Photos please! My people refuse to get rid of old magazines, whether they’ve read them or not. For some random reason, old magazines are perceived to be the most valuable type of object. They’re heavy, they’re half-full of advertisements, nobody ever reads them, and they smell like mildew. WHY do you people love them so much?? You can get them at the library or online anyway! That’s especially true of that particular yellow geography magazine, the complete archives of which are available in full color on their website.
Books. Lord love a duck. I read at least as much as the next person, but I don’t see why we need to keep so many physical books around. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get any credit for owning it. If you have read it, then you don’t need it anymore. I say this just to taunt people, because I know how sacrosanct the books are. You don’t have any free shelf space, there are probably books piled all over your bedside table, and yet you’ll never be satisfied and you’ll always think you can fit another sack of books into your house. Have it your way.
Old notebooks. People freak out about their old school notes, even if they haven’t touched them since graduation and they’ll never read through them again. I just scanned all mine and recycled them years ago. On the rare occasions when I feel inspired to pop open one of those files, I’m mostly embarrassed at my relative ignorance and poor writing skills. I got my degree in history, and I’ve read far more about history since graduation than I ever did beforehand. Education is the beginning, not the end. It’s just supposed to be training for a life of learning. I think most of us keep our school notes because that’s our identity. When we’re not challenged in our jobs, when we’re not satisfied in our careers, we cling to that time when we felt supported in our intellectual self-image. It’s easy to figure out how to get good grades, but not so easy to figure out how to take initiative and shape a professional career.
Recipes. I’m worse about this than most people and I’ll freely admit it. I’ve been digitizing my recipe collection for five years. I just checked, and I have... over 18,000 recipes in my collection. There are still half a dozen cookbooks to go, too. Am I ever going to feel like I have enough? No, I’m sure I won’t. This is true even though I have enough recipes to cook three new meals a day for 92 years. I’ll just clone myself 91 times, and then each of us can cook three new meals a day for a year. How many more recipes will we have collected by the end of the year, if each clone also likes to save recipes?
To-do lists. List makers! Why do we add stuff to our lists just to cross it off? If we love crossing things off of lists so much, why do we always wind up with old lists with incomplete tasks on them?
Little notes. Buying a smartphone changed my life. I started recording all my random little notes into my phone instead of writing them on paper. Gradually, as I started to trust the system, I started recording more of my old notes and digitizing them, too. My desk used to be constantly covered with stacks of notes, plus several inboxes and sorting mechanisms. Now I don’t have a desk at all; it all lives in my pocket.
There’s a manuscript in our fireproof safe. It’s an obsolete version of my novel-in-progress. I think I’ve gone through at least three major plot shakeups since then. I don’t even work on paper anymore! It’s only still in there through entropy.
I have over 100 GBs of information hoarded on my phone. If this existed in physical form, I’d be in trouble. Fortunately, through consistent effort, I’ve managed to keep it all down to one file box that measures 11”x15” and three shelves of books measuring 55 inches.
I’m trying to reframe my information hoarding in two ways. One: How likely am I to need this information? Do I want it for active reference, for future entertainment, or am I keeping it due to inertia, FoMO, or pure anxiety? Two: How long will it take to consume this information? How many hours of podcasts are these? If I read fifty pages an hour on average, how long will it take me to read through this stack of books? What’s my track record of actually reading through these queues? Does the list stay about the same, or has it consistently been growing longer?
The thing about information is that it doesn’t exist until we have it processed into our brains. I mean, just because I have internet access doesn’t mean I’ve memorized the entire internet. It was already humanly impossible to look at every photograph ever taken or click through every page of every website twenty years ago. More is uploaded in a single day than we could ever hope to skim in a lifetime. We have to let go of the idea that we can somehow “keep up” with everything. We can’t watch every video, listen to every song, read every article and every book, or watch every movie. We can’t even do it if we cut out all the other categories completely and focus on just one.
Far better would be to see it all as a massive buffet. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. I’LL NEVER BE BORED! Pay attention now, Future Me, because we’re going to have to chillax about all of this. It’s okay not to read every single thing. It’s okay because every time we finish reading something, there’s something else waiting. Our favorite artists will put out more books and albums and shows in more formats. If we aren’t ever going to get through this playlist or all of these bookmarks, we can at least slow down the rate at which we add more.
Ryan Holiday has done it again. The title of Perennial Seller is almost meta, almost a joke, because this book is guaranteed to be, indeed, a perennial seller. Holiday is an accomplished prose stylist, and this book ranks right up there with classic writing manuals such as How Fiction Works. It’s also a good idea to listen to anything the author has to say about marketing, considering that he has had several best-sellers with hundreds of thousands of copies sold.
The main premise of Perennial Seller is that if a work is well-crafted and aimed at a specific audience, it has the potential to sell even better in following years than it did when it was first released. Creatives who begin with the intention of making something that will still be relevant ten years from now will be more successful than those who want instant fame and fortune.
Half of the book focuses on what goes into producing a perennial seller; the other half focuses on the importance of marketing. Holiday emphasizes that this does not mean one should spend half of one’s time on marketing. Rather, many authors and other artists want to wave away the necessity of marketing. Isn’t it unfair to your potential audience to deprive them of a chance to hear about your work? Think of your lonely fans, staring at the ceiling and sighing, wishing they had something as cool as your book/album/comic/whatever to entertain them. You can delegate if you don’t want to do it yourself, but you can’t get out of the necessity of marketing, no matter your opinion of that trade. Holiday himself began as a marketing phenom, and this book will educate you and most likely change your mind.
Perennial Seller has a broad range of examples of talented people whose works became perennial sellers. This includes everyone from the band Iron Maiden to the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Considering Holiday’s published work on Stoicism, one might almost expect the list to include more of the classics (by which I mean, Classics), so it’s fascinating to see how many obscure corners of pop culture are hiding perennially successful artists. This is a great read, suitable for long-term study, and essential for those who want to produce an artistic legacy.
Guess what? I made a workbook! For today only, I’m doing a special promotion. You can get the workbook and a little something extra, something that will not be available to future purchasers. At the end of this post, I’m also making an announcement.
Here are the details:
The workbook includes over fifty pages of text, quizzes, and exercises about space clearing, minimalism, and getting organized. It comes as a PDF.
As a bonus, I’ll include five coloring book pages, hand-drawn by me. If this goes well, I’ll consider putting out an actual coloring book at a later date.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that I’m trying to reach a fundraising goal for my charity: water campaign and it’s about to expire.
If you would like to order my Curate Your Stuff workbook and get the today-only bonus coloring book pages, please donate $25 through my charity:water page. Then go to my Contact page and send me an email, and I’ll reply with the PDFs attached. They’ll go out on Saturday. (If you have already been so kind as to support my campaign, ping me and I’ll send you your copies).
If you donate $50 or more, I will give you, in addition to the workbook and the coloring book pages, a free photo consult on any one room of your home. (You send me photos of a problem area and I send back my written recommendations). This is not a service that I offer to the general public, and the offer will not be repeated.
100% of donations to charity: water go to actual clean water projects. Funds for administration are raised through another branch. Note that this means I am donating my work today and I won’t receive a penny, because that’s how I roll.
Now, it’s time for the announcement!
If we reach my charity: water goal before the campaign expires, I will commit to launch my new podcast in October 2017. Otherwise I’ll be all sad and stuff, and it probably won’t happen until next year.
The other thing is that the workbook won’t be available for download for a while after today. I have to set up the website to support file downloads and accept payments, which is part of my plans for a general overhaul of the blog. That will happen at some point before the end of the year.
Thank you for hearing me out. Also, thank you, Dear Reader, for visiting me today.
I need something to read and I need it immediately. I’m wandering around the aisles of Barnes & Noble, our closest physical bookstore, and I’m desperate. We’re going camping for a week. I love camping, but I’m feeling really emotional about not having backup ebooks, electrical power, or wifi. Anything I’m going to read is going to have to be on paper. Paper! I ask of you! Bulky, heavy, and incapable of being reloaded. The only thing a physical book does better than an electronic book is insect control. There’s another problem: I’ve basically read everything already.
What I’m looking for is what I call a BFB, or Big Fat Book. I can generally read a 250- or 300-page book in a day. I want something in the 600- to 800-page range that a) has a great reputation and b) has not already been feverishly consumed by Past Me. Past Me is extremely selfish about hogging all the good books.
I look at a table, thoughtfully labeled “Must-Reads.” I have read all but two books on the table, both of which are in the 180- to 200-page range. I’d stand here and read them right now, but I’m still in search of something for our trip.
I go to my husband, who is carrying a fantastic large book that I have, um, already read. He can tell I’m panicking. “What do I do after I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS?”
“That won’t happen.”
“I kind of think it already HAS happened!”
I start methodically winding through the aisles of Fiction/Literature, looking at everything thick, and big, and complicated like trig. Several of these books I read as ebooks, and I was a bit staggered to see how long they are. You could build a nice little igloo out of these things. There are some sentimental moments, moments when I see something I loved reading, and I want to shake Past Me for not waiting just a little longer. I’m promising Future Me that I won’t read any more BFB’s during daily life; I’ll save them for times when I need to read something in-tents.
I wind up with a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. This cheeses me off a little, because I know it’s available as an ebook. I somehow restrain myself from opening it on the bus ride home.
There is nowhere to put this one-pound, inch-thick paperback book when we get home to our 680-square-foot apartment. Well, technically there are several very inconvenient places to put it, such as on the bed, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table. That would last for possibly as long as two hours. Why not put it on a bookshelf?
Well, um, you see, about that…
I’ve been consciously trying to divest myself of books for the past four years of our marriage. We move a lot, we’ve been downsizing, and books are really inconvenient (autocorrect suggests ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘inconsistent,’ the latter of which is demonstrably false because I have consistently always had too many books). I’ve sold some and donated some and given some away. They just keep getting in!
There are two types of book hoarders: the type who keep everything after they read it, and the type who accumulate unread books, often on the bedside table. I have no bedside table, so my unread books are in the bookshelves. Once I’ve read something, it goes into a box, to be evacuated as soon as possible. Right now, I’ve got this double-parking situation going on. It looks terrible and it’s driving me crazy. I’d get rid of them right now, except for the sad fact that these books aren’t available digitally. Can someone explain to me how this is even possible? With all of the spam email in the world, there is obviously plenty of text available.
The question being raised here is, if my house is so full of unread books, why can’t I simply bring one of them on our camping trip?
What are you implying? That I can just grab any old book that happens to be there, and just… just start reading it? Right now? Pfffft.
By number and mass, most of “our” books are my husband’s aerospace and robotics engineering textbooks. If you think I’m bad, look at him. I can’t even understand the titles of most of his books; I thought “Theory of Wing Sections” was an ornithology book, and by gum, it should be.
My books almost entirely consist of cookbooks; fitness reference manuals; business reference books; foreign language dictionaries; birding guides; and, yes, two novels I haven’t read yet, one in the 1000-page range and the other in two volumes at 2500+ pages. I can almost hear them chanting “NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!”
I had this idea of printing classic, pre-copyright books in tiny font on biodegradable toilet paper. Then you could take it backpacking, read it, and use it (AS KINDLING, OF COURSE) bit by bit. It is stunning to me that nobody is doing this, but possibly because someone typed Moby-Dick onto TP and it took four rolls. If someone could please take this on, I will be your first customer.
Most book lovers want to be surrounded by books at all times. We like to look at them and carry them around and surreptitiously smell them. Books are how we recognize one another. Although, how can I be friends with someone who is reading on the bus and refusing to hold the book at such an angle that I can clearly read the spine or cover? Come on! Inquiring minds want to know! We go to each other’s homes and turn our heads sideways, looking at each other’s shelves and noting which books we have in common. This doesn’t really work at my house. I’ve moved 28 times since 1993 and I’ve read over 4500 books in my life so far. If you want to know what I read, follow me on Goodreads or LibraryThing because I ain’t carrying those cartons up and down stairs just to satisfy your curiosity. This is my other invention: a custom poster with thumbnail icons of my top 500 favorite books. I can tape it to my wall, like, THERE! I just saved 300 pounds and half a moving van, while avoiding a herniated disc, and you can still find out that we both like Harry Potter. Like that was ever a question. You won’t even have to turn your head sideways.
One day there will be some kind of tiny device that stores books in a skin patch or something. It will run on body heat or the kinetic power generated by my pacing back and forth in a bookstore, assuming they still exist. I’ll be able to read just by staring at the palm of my hand and watching the text projected out of a ring or watch. And I won’t be able to use it because I will already have read everything.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
I can't remember a time when my life didn't revolve around books. There's a picture of me at a family gathering, sitting alone on the couch with an oversized book in my lap, at the tender age of two. My mom used to drop whatever she was doing to read to me, because I would interrupt her with a book in my hand. Often I would ask her to read the same book again. We read The Party That Grew four times in a row one day. When I was seven, I tried to teach myself to read one book with each eye. Not much has changed; I just checked my phone and I am carrying no fewer than six audiobooks, forty-one e-books (with sixteen more on my tablet), and about a thousand news articles. Not to mention a physical library book. I hope books aren't the very meaning and substance of my life, but it's starting to look that way.
I'm not an introvert, but I play one on TV. I'm a shy extrovert, and I'm awkward in many social settings. I like meeting people and being in groups as long as I feel like I understand the group dynamic. I absolutely understand the innate preference for the company of a good book rather than some random stranger. The known versus the unknown. The comfort of sitting in the GO AWAY I'M READING bubble. The inherent attraction of the book itself. The book, I can choose. The stranger, not so much. I don't have to read annoying books, but I do sometimes have to interact with annoying people.
What I've started to realize is that everything I love about books is something to love about other people, as well. Unimpressive cover art may be hiding a fascinating story underneath. I might be swept away by a story that didn't seem all that interesting at first. This may be my first encounter with a singular voice unlike any I've known before. I'm going to learn something I never knew. For a short while, I can slip into another perspective and learn about life from another point of view.
Books are each the unique product of another human being's experience. This was brought home to me recently on a plane flight. The woman next to me asked me what I did, and when I told her I was a writer, she immediately asked me if I knew any ghostwriters. "That's the question of someone with a story to tell," I said. Sure enough, she had, and if she sold it, it could be a blockbuster. She had grown up in the world of boxing, had a picture of herself as a young girl with Muhammad Ali, knew some mafia figures, had traveled all around the world, and now judged dog shows. I asked her if she had ever ridden a camel, as a random guess, and she said yes! To think, my plan for that flight had been to finish a true crime book I was reading. Nothing whatsoever about my seat-mate's external appearance would have led me to guess any of the wild stories she carried inside.
Reading is like listening. We passively sit back and absorb the story, asking only that it hold our attention. Listening can be like reading. We can actively seek out a listening experience, anticipating that it will be interesting and worth our time. Maybe it will be fascinating. Maybe it will be so totally absorbing that we forget the passage of time. Maybe listening to this story can change our lives.
As a budding novelist, I've started to see listening to strangers as a supremely valuable opportunity. The better I get at my quest to be a world-class listener, the better I get at drawing great stories from unlikely sources. I'm not a naturally confident networker. I'd far, far rather stand at the sidelines and observe the proceedings. What I've started to try to do is to see myself as a rescuer of fellow shy people. If I see someone else who looks as uncomfortable as I feel, I will go over and try to break the ice. As long as we're both stuck there, we can spend a few minutes together. Maybe we can each get a book recommendation out of the conversation. Maybe this person is one of the roughly forty percent of introverts in our society, and a one-on-one conversation would be preferable to trying to mingle with a dozen strangers. Maybe this fellow shy person is an extrovert like me, who only needs a bit of encouragement to open up. Maybe we have all sorts of things in common, and maybe we can make friends.
When I say that books are people, I mean that they are mere artifacts of another human mind. Getting to know a book is inextricably linked to getting to know another person's perspective and manner of expression. Anything we can enjoy from reading can also be extracted from conversation, with enough imagination and skill. What I'm really saying is that people are books, waiting to be discovered and read attentively.
People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
The paradox in the bounty of this world is that the more options we have, the more deprived we feel. We're overwhelmed by decisions. No matter what we pick, no matter how we choose to spend our time, there's always something else we could be doing or experiencing. I notice this from time to time when a group of my out-of-state friends goes out for karaoke, and the reason I know about it is that they keep popping on Facebook while sitting at the table together. Seriously, you guys, look up and wave at each other. I can tell you right now that you're having more fun than the rest of us. Although you might not be if I were there, since I'd be compelled to sing...
FoMO plays a big part in our emotional attachment to stuff. The first thing we think when we consider getting rid of something is: What if I NEED IT? I'd be MISSING OUT. Not only would I not have this precious thing I have to talk myself into keeping, but I'd also lose the money I spent on it. There are three problems with this.
Sunk cost fallacy. The money is already gone whether the item gets used or not. We never account for what it costs to keep things, in space, rent, maintenance and cleaning time, mental bandwidth, or emotional depth.
Utility. We don't have to come up with reasons to keep obviously useful things, like a toothbrush or a spoon. The minute we find ourselves turning into an item's defense attorney, it's a dead giveaway that we don't actually need it.
Abundance. We have plenty of stuff already, and when we fixate on the potential loss of any one of these items, we forget our attachment to the rest of it.
I've been working on my sense of Fear of Missing Out in regard to books, articles, and podcasts. My book wish list is still over a thousand items, although I've finally gotten my article bookmarks below six hundred. Apparently I have eleven gigs of podcasts loaded on my phone right now (and eight audio books). I am finally starting to realize that not only will I never "catch up," I wouldn't really want to. To read everything on my list would occupy me for the next four years, and that would mean four years without reading anything new. My fixation on Past Self's reading choices is depriving Future Self of fresh new possibilities. To pace myself and read at a rate that would keep me "caught up" would require me to cut back on time I spend doing other things, like sleeping or telling my parrot her bedtime story.
Another way to look at this is that I am blessed with total abundance in my reading and listening options.
We're never going to run out! Over three hundred thousand new books are published in the US every year, and that doesn't include other English-speaking countries. I get a warm and gooey feeling when I think of all my favorite living authors who are doubtless working on fabulous new titles right now. Stephen King is probably still typing assiduously as this posts. (I often picture him at his morning labors as I try to reach his daily word count quota). That doesn't even begin to touch how many blogs, vlogs, journal articles, podcasts, movies, and music videos are constantly being released. Multiple lifetimes wouldn't be enough to experience all of it, even without taking breaks to actually absorb any of it.
This is the origin of sleep procrastination. We can't bear to pull away from the ceaseless flow of entertainment and information. Arianna Huffington broke her cheekbone when she passed out from chronic exhaustion. It didn't surprise me, as a close friend of mine has fallen asleep and hit his face on his desk multiple times. He's trying to watch All the Music Videos. The music FoMO is distracting from what should be a case of sleep FoMO. We replace our actual dreams with electronic simulacra of dreams.
All objects are stand-ins for experiences. A book is just an expensive chunk of firewood when we remove the potential reading experience. Clothing is about the experience of protection from the elements, discount sunblock, and of course a style statement. We become attached to objects because we like the feeling of looking at them, interacting with them, using them, or merely having them. Sometimes we don't even care about any of that, because we really just like the experience of shopping for them. Sometimes we really only want them as conversation pieces, or ways to connect with other people.
We can try to tap into an experience of abundance, using the exact same data that lead us to the feeling of scarcity and missing out. There will always be MORE waiting out there in the world: people who aren't currently in the room with us, countries we aren't currently visiting, music we aren't currently hearing, cuisines we aren't currently tasting. We can only be in one place at a time, and that is: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.
As I look into my closet, I can replace the thought that "I don't have anything to wear" with the thought that "I would look dorky if I wore everything in here at the same time."
As I look at my groaning bookshelves, I can replace the thought that "I should be able to read one book with each eye" with the thought that "I should call my grandma and tell her what I just said to myself."
As I learn that my friends are out partying without me, I can replace the thought that "they're having fun without me" with the thought that "I love that they're having fun together," and also that "I'll be sound asleep hours before they're ready to leave, not because I am boring but because my inner eyelids are a beautiful and well-kept secret."
I appreciate the experience of having few clothes, all of which fit me today, all of which are fairly current, and all of which are reasonably flattering. Certainly more so than a peeling full-body sunburn.
I appreciate the awareness that I am constantly surrounded by a broad selection of reading material, and that the majority of the world's knowledge is available at my fingertips, lurking in my pockets, waiting to be butt-dialed so Siri can tell me, "That wasn't very nice," when I wasn't even talking to her.
I appreciate that there are people who love me, people whom I can visit when I pass through their city, people who will return my texts, and also that I love sleeping a lot.
The real experiences we're missing are very much emotional states. We're missing out on the feeling of being well-rested and composed. We're missing out on the feeling of being thrillingly alive, energetic, strong, and running through the forest like a (pretty slow) deer. We're missing out on the feeling of being fully alert, in tune, and absorbed in listening to someone at the speed of love. We're missing out on the feeling of contentment.
What a fabulous world, so full of animals we've never seen, sea floors that have never been mapped, archaeological artifacts waiting to be discovered, medical innovations currently being tested (as though correcting color blindness weren't enough), works waiting for translation, and of course, fascinating new friends to meet. How can we fear we're missing out on anything when we're surrounded by so much more than we could ever hope to sample?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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