Critical Eyes

Jessie: On retreat in Maine.

Lately, I’ve been feeling restless. Life has been changing for my family, mostly for the good, but it makes me see my world with a different view. Especially my physical environment. I’ve been looking at my possessions with a critical eye and wondering which of them I’d keep if I were to move into a home one third the size of my current one. Which things really are the best choices for my changing life?

When my first child was a baby, my husband and I bought a big, old colonial home in a tiny village and set about renovating it. We were on a meager budget and it took a long time to accomplish all we set out to do. More children joined the family and all the rooms became full to bursting. Twenty-two years later the house is mostly renovated. Two of the kids are out on their own and the house feels overstuffed and very quiet. The space and tranquility have given me a chance to ask myself how much of what has accumulated is what I want to take into the next twenty years. I’ve come to recognize there are many things that don’t make the cut.

The question has fascinated me and has felt strangely familiar. Unitl I realized that the process is surprisingly like revising a novel. I tend to write bloated first drafts with a shocking excess of words. I meander and sauter and rarely get straight to the point in the early work. But under all the layers of what isn’t needed, or even wanted, is the truth of the story. By turning a critical eye to the work, I am able to excavate and lift up only that which best serves what I am trying to accomplish. I enjoy that part of the writing process. I love unearthing treasures from amongst the rubble.

It seems writing has permeated all aspects of my life, even my decorating. That same critical eye now can’t stand bloat in my possessions. It doesn’t want unneeded things in my physical world any more than it likes unnecessary words in my work. I wasn’t expecting it, but I am grateful. As a matter of fact, I think I’m going to go revise my laundry room right now!

Readers, do you find a need to change your physical environment as your life circumstances alter? Writers, does your work leak into the rest of your life in surprising ways?

21 Thoughts

  1. I love this, Jessie. My first drafts are the opposite of yours – too scant by half. But I still have extra words in there, fluff that needs stripping out. We just finished renovating the last room in our house, the guest room. Right now it’s spare and simple and lovely in its uncluttered state. I’m looking forward to shifting guest bedding and all my sewing stuff from my office into the shelves and closet there – so I can unclutter my office!

  2. Yes! The other way that writing and house rearranging are alike is the “bring one new chair into a room and the entire house becomes a project” phenomenon. A new character entered the work and it’s back to the beginning (again). We need the chair because half our guests wind up leaning on the sofa when we have a party…I need that guy for added tension…right? But maybe not…Thanks for the post!

    1. I completely understand, GK. It is so easy to end up with the extra chair or the extra character. I am not sure which is more difficult to eliminate!

  3. There is too much clutter in my basement but it’s easy to ignore. My first drafts are spare, the layers — reactions, description, time, and setting — are added in following drafts. Maybe that isn’t so different than my house after all!

    1. That sounds like one of my difficulties: delayed decisions. Things in the barn or the sewing room that I have no clear answer about. Paperwork that needs sorting all seem like they should be left until later. The rest of the house can be in good shape but there are always those lurking heaps in cupboards etc…

  4. An excellent analogy and right on target for me. Thanks for saying it so well. At this very moment I am revising ( and revising and revising) a first draft, and slowly cleaning out two large linen closets, in the moments I need to leave the desk chair and move and stretch. I found sheets we bought when we got married, and a set from a daughter’s first real bed after the crib. As I am now a grandmother, and not a young one, you can imagine how many years this is. If I ever finish the other one, (and the WIP!), I might tackle the bookcases. That should take me through my next book or two or more!

  5. I so hear you! My husband and I had an abused Victorian that we spent 15 years working on (mostly correcting prior owners’ mistakes), then moved to another one, although this one is in slightly better condition. But at some point you have to decide where you want to put your energy. Clearly writing comes first, and the rest should serve that in one way or another.

    It was a revelation to buy a small plain cottage and realize how little was really necessary. First question to the realtor: where’s the broadband? Apart from that, light, heat, running water, and a table to work on. Peace and silence, and a nice view. Interesting people to talk to if you want, but they won’t intrude. Good food, good music, plenty of history, all nearby if you get restless (or the words just aren’t coming).

    Now if only I can get ride of all that “stuff” in my Massachusetts house!

  6. I just collect things and never edit them out of my life. With an 850 sq foot condo and a roommate, you can imagine how that is going at this point. I need to do something about that, but it just isn’t happening because there’s always some new book to read, and that is so much more fun.

    1. Distractions are everywhere!

      I used to collect lots of sorts of things but now I mostly collect ideas for new novels. It takes up a good bit of space in my head but my physical environment is much less cluttered. So far, I love the change!

  7. I am in a constant state of revision, so I know exactly what you mean! Something that has worked for me is to start with one drawer/closet/space in one room, and tackle one drawer or small area every day. Empty it, then review each and every item. Vacuum or wipe out the empty space as appropriate. Only put back what is going to stay there. Everything else has to be put somewhere else where it belongs, thrown away, or donated. If you can get the throw aways/donations out of your house that same day, the work will build on itself faster. The next day, do one more drawer or space in the same room. The beauty of this system is that (1) The project is not overwhelming, and can be finished quickly, giving you a feeling of accomplishment; (2) It doesn’t turn into a situation where you empty an entire closet onto the floor and then get all depressed/scared at how long it’s going to take, so you run for the Ben & Jerry’s and Poldark episodes on demand; and (3) Unless it’s really stuffed to the gills, you will finish most rooms within a week. The only other rule (other than to keep going) is you can’t put stuff from other spaces into the newly cleared spaces (unless it truly belongs there, like the hairdryer that’s in the bedroom really belongs in the bathroom). I’ve been through my entire house this way, and it’s time to do it again. However, I never have tackled my basement, which you are now making me think would be a great winter project and would actually solve some storage issues I have in the main part of the house…

  8. My sister-in-law once said that we spend the first half of our lives accumulating things and the second half getting rid of them. I think she is right on. I love the feeling of lightness after getting rid of something I really didn’t want or need anymore. I’m not a professional writer, but when I do write, I tend to write too much and have to edit like crazy. Remember in grade school when we groaned about having to write a whole page about a topic! By college, I hated when I had to limit a paper to ten pages.

  9. Oh Jessie, perhaps you have a loving and grateful friend that could help you stay on track with that arduous task. I was told once by a genius of a woman, that you need three piles. One for Keep, one for Give And one for Toss. If you hesitate, it is not for the keep pile. Feel free to use this in your endeavors.
    I am writing this on a bus at 11:46 pm.. the last leg of a long journey. See how much your readers care?

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