Bare Bones: choosing what’s essential in writing and in life

Bare Bones: The basic elements or essentials

MAINE 2011 008I had a 1600 word essay that I wanted to turn into a 1000 word essay in order for it to fit into a specific magazine. Cutting out more than a third of a piece of writing may sound a bit daunting to some, but I loved the challenge of this. It took me a fair amount of time and effort for sure, but I really, really wanted this piece in this particular publication, so it was well worth it. The fun of it was that I had to make every word count. I don’t always do this in my writing, so it was good practice. I had to cut large chunks out of the essay, parts that I originally thought belonged there. Thirty eight percent of the essay had to go, to be exact. I cut out words, then whole paragraphs, picking and choosing what could be sacrificed, what was essential and what was just fluff. In other words, I had to get down to the bare bones and this required deciding: what are the bare bones? What is essential?

And this is what I love about simplifying. It’s a creative privilege, a designing of one’s own life, getting to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s something I have not mastered, and will not ever truly master. Ah, but the lofty goal, the striving toward, no matter how many times I fall short, makes me happy. To only keep what we use or love, buy what we need; to only think about what serves us well and only eat what is good for us. To only say what we mean. What simply amazing results this could all have.

This paring down of the essay was something I could do, completely and successfully. I had a definite limit- 1000 words- and the result I was going for was clear-to have this piece published. It was work and art and love and simplifying, all for a useful purpose. To write what I mean and mean what I write.

When I was finished, although there were parts missing, left unsaid, I realized that I actually liked it better than before. What I had originally thought was essential, wasn’t. It was shorter, more concise and somehow a bit more powerful, in my opinion. I haven’t heard from the editor yet, so I can’t truly claim victory over this task, but I am satisfied. I did the best I could, and said the most I can say with the fewest number of words.

Which reminds me of a line I recently read on Theo Pauline Nestor’s blog. She quoted Vivian Gornick, regarding writing memoir: ‘ It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.’

Living is art, and we get to pick what our bare bones are. When the essential gets buried in too much fluff, we have to go digging to find it. And when we strive to keep the essential front and center, dusted off and cared for, unencumbered by the extraneous, that is its own reward.

Random musings of monkey mind

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.  –Henry David Thoreau

In her book, The Artists Way, Julia Cameron recommends writing morning pages in order to cleanse the mind of extraneous thoughts before attempting to write anything of substance. For more on Cameron’s morning pages:

I find that the morning pages tool, along with meditating, does the trick. And I need these tools, because without them, I have what Buddha described as monkey mind– when the mind is filled with thoughts that are like drunken monkeys, chattering on endlessly, clamoring for attention. For many, some of these irksome thoughts are fear based, or questions about the future, or a replaying of the past. But often, they are just the pesky little thoughts that keep returning, or worse yet, multiplying.

Today, just this once, I am giving the drunken monkeys space on the page. I am telling myself that after this purge of random musings, I will get back to the business of writing.  If you read on, you must forgive the  insignificance of most of these ponderings.  It is after all, the result of monkey mind.

*Why isn’t it expected that horse owners will clean up after their pets?  It is unacceptable for dog owners to let their dogs excrete all over a public road without cleaning up after them, but horses can make a huge mess, even while walking through a residential neighborhood, and that’s okay. Why is that? Is it just better for the environment? Or maybe someone does come around and clean it up. I just don’t know.

*Why is it so hard to find jeans that actually sit at the waist?  I don’t want jeans that sit at the hip, or just below the waist.  I want the waist to be at the waist. I don’t have an aversion to fashion. I love clothes. I understand there are trends. But please, give me back my jeans.  I just want jeans that have a waist at the waist.

*Sour dough bread is one of the only breads left that is actually good for you. Why is is so hard to find at my local grocery stores?  I am thrilled that I can find quinoa and chia seeds almost everywhere now. Why must I hunt down a loaf of sour dough bread? Do I really have to go to California to find it? Or Wegmans?

*And while I’m on the subject of inadequate grocery stores, how am I supposed to reach the top shelves? At five feet one inch tall, I have resorted to climbing the shelves like Spiderman to reach an item. More than once. Sometimes another patron kindly reaches the thing for me, but more often I’ve shimmied up the shelving, risking things tumbling down. Risking myself tumbling down. Sometimes it feels dangerous. Is it assumed we are all tall enough to reach the top shelf? Because we’re not. Not all of us.

*Why do I keep having the OCD thought that I’ve left my dog out in the cold whenever I leave the house?  I know some people have the more common fear of leaving the stove on. But every time I’ve left my house this winter, I think back to when I last saw the dog. Did I let him in after letting him out? Was he on his bed? In the kitchen? Occasionally, I’ve turned back around and checked. He’s always inside. When I don’t turn around and check, I let my mind go as far as wondering how I will explain to my family that I’ve accidentally killed the dog. This random thought is disturbing.  I need to fix this one.

cre•a•tiv•i•ty : the ability to make new things or think of new ideas

The topic of creativity fascinates me. It is majestic and universal.  Everyone has an inner creative genius.  People who assert that they are not creative just need to broaden their view of what creativity is. We are all creating, all the time.  We create homes, families, businesses, our own lives.  We solve problems and build things and create software and movies and meals and thoughts.   And of course, there is painting and dancing, writing and making music.

In my favorite book on creativity, the War of Art, author Steven Pressfield writes about the importance of some routine and order when trying to create professionally.  I love what he has to say about the serious artist:  “He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.”  So the Muse may enter and not soil her gown. I read through his book a second time just to get to that passage again. Creativity comes through the empty spaces, the open heart, the uncluttered mind and room.  It is in this space that we can get creatively messy.

Pressfield spends a good portion of his book describing the perils of resistance.  Whenever we intend to embark on something innovative or artistic, or even simply attempt to create a new and healthy habit, resistance can rear its ugly head. The author even goes as far as to say that yielding to resistance deforms the spirit.

Our options for distraction, or creative resistance, are nearly limitless and can slay our creativity before we ever have the chance to explore it.  Reaching for distraction can be a knee jerk reaction to any kind of discomfort, from boredom to depression. It numbs our fears and enables  us to procrastinate. But to not entertain our resistance, to dive into the stillness and poke around, is to invite the extraordinary. In the void, we stand a chance of churning out something new.  Maybe it won’t happen that moment or that day, but eventually it will burst through as an idea, a creative urge, the solution to a problem, fresh and stunning.