the art of simplicity: figuring out the meaning of your novel, your wardrobe, your life

 

 

My life is my message. — Gandhi

I’m moving to a new house come October, which requires a reckoning of the stuff in the old house. I am tired of stuff and want to own less of it.

I’m also reworking the logline for my novel-in-progress, THE DECADENTS. I’m preparing for the push to finish, and feeling slightly lost. The middle section can do that to you.

I want a stronger sense of the throughline of the book – that golden thread of story – and there seems no better way to do that than the hellish practice of writing a damn logline.

A strong logline is elegant. You have to reduce your novel to what it’s truly about (which you can’t do if you don’t know, and it’s way too easy not to know). You have to get at the soul, the essence, the meaning of the thing.

I was thinking about how you could apply this to your brand — or your identity — or even your life.

It’s the need to remove “the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak,” as a guy named Hans Hoffmann once put it.

According to The Pareto Principle — the 80/20 Rule — it’s twenty percent of anything that is responsible for eighty percent of everything (if you pardon my very loose paraphrasing). Twenty percent of the things on your To Do list have the power to move your life forward. Eighty percent of the visible progress towards your goal happens in the last twenty percent of the time it takes to reach it (and vice versa). You wear twenty percent of the clothes in your closet. Etcetera. (This isn’t exact, of course; the point is that most things in life are unevenly distributed. Like you didn’t know this already.)

The challenge is to recognize the magical 20 percent that defines and advances us, and then to nurture it with focused attention so that it may grow.

But how do you know that you’re making the right choices and taking away the right, unnecessary things?

And what will be left when you do?

2

I had a long, lingering lunch with my writing coach at Restaurant in the Sunset Marquis, my favorite hotel in Los Angeles thanks to its rock’n’roll history and the sprawling oasis of its inner pathways and courtyards.

We talked about the primary elements of my novel. It’s a complicated psychosexual thriller featuring multiple characters, entangled relationships. I told my coach, whose name is Rachel, how I want to streamline and simplify.

Please note that I don’t want the story to be simple.

I want it to be elegant.

I was thinking of John Maeda’s first law of simplicity, which he refers to as S.H.E.:

Shrink

Remove everything you can to make the object as small and light as possible.

Hide

Find clever ways to conceal the remaining complexity, so that what isn’t simple still seems simple and is easy and lovely to use. Your computer interface, those icons that you click, would be an excellent example of this.

Embody

In order for something small and light and deceptively simple to convey value, so that we will still take it seriously, it needs to embody quality: fine craftsmanship, luxurious (but sensible) materials, beautiful design.

My novel involves what appears to be a multiple personality disorder, a reincarnation, and a murder from twenty years ago that is cycling around to happen again.

“But the core of the novel is the love triangle,” Rachel declared.

I’m not sure that this was my intention when I began the novel, but Rachel was right. We talked about the three characters: Cat, Gabe and Mason. Gabe is supposed to be the protagonist, but something wasn’t working. And as I talked this out with Rachel, as we got at the essence of the novel, the problem became suddenly, blindingly obvious:

Gabe doesn’t have enough to lose.

Cat has a lot to lose. Mason has a lot to lose.

But Gabe?

“His career,” Rachel said. “He could risk his career. That’s important to him.”

It was a good suggestion, but I can’t just appreciate something from the head; I have to feel it in my body; and ‘risking career’ wasn’t doing it for me.

Rachel said, “What if he had a child?”

Those words invoked a little surge of excitement. I could feel the emotional stakes of the novel rising, rising, even if I wasn’t sure how.

I just knew that the voice of the novel was whispering me in that direction.

The necessary was starting to speak.


at the Sunset Marquis

3

I like how Guy Kawasaki talks about making the kind of product that turns customers into evangelists.

In order to create that buzz, that word-of-mouth, you have to make the product so great that it compels people to tell others about it. The product and the marketing become one. The thing markets itself.

So simple!

Yet not!

Guy breaks down ‘greatness’ into D.I.C.E.E:

Deep. A great product is deep. Its creators have anticipated what you’ll need …As your demands get more sophisticated, you discover that you don’t need a different product.

• Indulgent. A great product is a luxury. It makes you feel special when you buy it. It’s not the least common denominator, cheapest solution in sight.

• Complete. A great product is more than a physical thing. ..A great product has a great total user experience—sometimes despite the company that produces it.

• Elegant. A great product has an elegant user interface. Things work the way you’d think they would. A great product doesn’t fight you—it enhances you….

• Emotive. A great product incites you to action. It is so deep, indulgent, complete, and elegant that it compels you to tell other people about it. …You’re bringing the good news to help others, not yourself.

I’m intrigued by D.I.C.E.E., how I could apply these ideas not just to my writing but my life.

If I could eliminate the distraction, if I could say no to everything that doesn’t elicit a “Hell yeah!” kind of response, if I could give away or donate or sell books and clothes and furniture and possibly a car. If I was more careful about what I allow into my life – whether it’s a thing, a project or a relationship – so that I can harness my resources and go deep, indulgent, complete.

Before any of this is possible, though, you have to make choices.

If you want to go deep, you can’t go broad. You have to narrow in.

Cal Newport writes in his blog and his book that the secret to real success as a student is becoming a superstar at one thing instead of good at a few things or competent at many. Not only does the cultivation of superstardom set you apart from the pack, it can actually leave you more time to put toward other things (including the purposeful ‘wandering around’ so necessary for creative and personal breakthroughs).

This resonates with my own experience. By the time I graduated high school I’d established an impressively uneven academic record. I was an A student in certain subjects and a C student in others. I didn’t have a long list of extra-curriculars – I think drama club was the extent of it. I was learning tae kwon do. I was a fast and accurate typist.

Yet somehow I landed a partial four-year scholarship to one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

At the time I – and others – thought it to be some kind of fluke, but now I can look back and recognize that I had three huge advantages: I knew from an early age what I liked to do and was good at (readin’ and writin’), I had an obsessive nature ( I was readin’ and writin’ all the time) and lacked a dramatic social life (there was little to interfere with the readin’ and writin’). (The dramatic social life would come years later.) While other kids partied or hung out at the mall, I wrote a series of novel-length manuscripts. At graduation, my high school invented a new award to recognize my writing. I had skipped a lot of classes, underachieved in certain areas (*cough*mathscience*cough*) but in this one zone I had put in enough hours to become, within that particular context, a freaking rockstar.

So why don’t more people do this? Why, for that matter, didn’t I continue to do this as I got older?

Choice is difficult.

Choice feels risky.

Putting-all-your-eggs-into-one-basket kind of risky.

I remember an eye-opening moment shortly after my ex-husband had filed for divorce and a friend of mine was commenting – kindly – on the general state of my life: “The problem is,” she said, “you’re not making choices.”

Choice involves decisions which involve a decision-making process which involves thinking and evaluating and then a commitment. All of this is work, and although the brain is a wondrous thing, it’s also lazy (if our ancestors took naps in the cave instead of wandering outside and getting eaten, you can maybe see the evolutionary advantages of this).

But – as Michael Ellsberg points out in his fascinating, forthcoming book about self-educated millionaires – the words ‘decision’ and ‘decide’ stem from the roots ‘cise’ and ‘cide’: to cut off and to kill.

Making a decision involves cutting off – killing – other possibilities.

We don’t like to do that.

We like to think we have options.

Options are a lot like things: on some level we think that more must equal better. Safer. We find a comfort in keeping them around. We’re afraid to give them away because one day we might need them.

But not deciding is of course a decision, and it involves, I think, a surrender of power, an abdication of responsibility to ourselves. We give up our power over our stuff and let our stuff own us: it clutters up space and prevents other, better things from moving in. We remain indecisive, we refuse to make the plunge to go deep and complete, because diving into one pool demands a rejection of all the others.

And then we feel dissatisfied and ache to do something Meaningful if we could only figure out what that is, almost as if we’re expecting it to be revealed while we’re sitting in a restaurant eating a cheeseburger (imagine a waiter coming up to you and saying, “Here’s your fries, dude, and here….is the MEANING of YOUR LIFE!!!!…Oh, and the check.”).

This, of course, rarely happens.

4

I once had the ability to buy a lot of very expensive clothing, and I made a lot of very expensive mistakes. I wanted to develop a signature style but had no idea how to do it, other than to buy something and hope that it suited me (only to realize, months or years later when looking at a photograph, that it didn’t).

Finally I learned that the ability to know what to wear is all about knowing what not to wear. Style starts with a cool eye, an objective assessment of your body, and a sense of how you want to tell yourself to the world.

I’m lean – at least when I’m working out properly – but I’m also curvy. I’ve always liked the gamine thing, the Kate Moss heroin-chic waif thing (I’m not proud of this, but there you have it), but that requires a hiplessness that will forever be beyond me. I might like those boxy Chanel jackets – at least when paired with boots and ripped jeans – but thanks to my broad shoulders and narrow waist they make me look like a square with legs. And although my legs seem long, I’ve learned to elongate them so that they seem longer than they actually are in proportion to my long-waisted torso.

My body is my logline.

Trends may come and trends may go — and then come back again — but the proportions of my body remain the same. Learning how to dress that body has taught me what to say no to, what to reject out of hand, so that I may focus on playing up my strengths and minimizing my weaknesses. It gives me the confidence to go through my closet on a regular basis and ruthlessly edit its contents (a.k.a. “throwing shit out”). It gives me a set of ‘rules’, a framework, in which to make choices.

It gives me a perspective.

Which allows me to know what to take away.

5

In painting they talk about negative space: the empty space around and between the thing that defines the thing itself. (An example of this would be the shape a cartoon character makes when it runs through a door.) Negative space can form its own interesting shape, sometimes more artistic than the thing it is defining. But it requires a shift in perspective: our focus on the subject must shift instead to what surrounds it.

From the something to the nothing.

The nothing is everything we choose not to do, everything we say no to…which enables us to say yes to something else.

This, points out Steve Jobs, is what focus is.

Focus isn’t about the yes.

It’s about all the no’s.

It’s not about the great idea.

It’s about all the good ideas you reject – sending out into the nothing – so that you can properly execute the idea you truly love.

6

There’s an episode of MILLIONAIRE MATCHMAKER where Patti Stanger (she’s hilarious) confronts a fortysomething wealthy divorcee who declares herself to be “an actress, a model, a television hostess and a life coach.” Patty declares her to be a woman with an identity crisis and throws up her hands in exasperation. “Pick one!” she barks.

Our choices — or lack of them — define who we are.

They demonstrate our priorities. They reveal what’s important to us (versus what we claim is important to us). Over time, our choices tell the story about our lives; they give that story a meaning. It might be vague and muddled and all over the place – or it might be

Deep. Indulgent. Complete. Elegant. Emotive.

It might be a word-of-mouth kind of life: a life that makes an impact, contributes, and inspires others.

You can own your life, or it can own you.

Whether you’re creating a novel, a painting, or a life, you can work from the outside in or from the inside out. You can make deliberate and mindful choices, everyday, and absorb what these choices tell you about yourself. Over time, if you’re paying close attention, a shape will emerge: the shape of the meaning of you.

Or you can decide what you want your life to be about, and shape your choices to build out that meaning.

I think what happens is a mixture of both: you take enough stuff away until you can see and hear what might have been buried underneath all this time. You discover, or uncover, or recover your meaning even as you go about the process of creating it. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure out what we’re creating; we have to pause, and step back, and search for a working logline in order to get oriented again. We reveal the necessary even as the necessary reveals itself to us; and then, over time, the necessary reveals us.

We create, and are created.

What matters is that we give the necessary the space to speak.

What matters is that we are listening.

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Jul 31, 2011
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18 comments · Add Yours

Congrats on the move Justine! And what a wonderful post – it’s like being inside the mind of an artist – staring at a block of marble with chisel in hand, or a blank canvas with a bucket full of paint colors – 99% of which are wrong. It is those choices where the art happens. Thank you for this.

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Yes! So many good points wonderfully connected.

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This article really resonated with me and I found myself clipping several bits to Evernote and thinking “I’ll need to re-read this” many times. I love how you bring out that it’s the choices and those we decide not to make that will help us push forward. I’m about to go on a year-long adventure which will hopefully give me enough creative space and thinking time to figure out what it is that I want to focus on in this day and time of amazing options. Thank you for this.

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Very timely post Justine. Your words of “fucus” are especially relevant to some issues I’m dealing with right now. Thanks, as always, e

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Oh dear god, I meant “focus” of course. Didn’t catch the typo in time!

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A very well timed piece for where I am at. I’ve grown up in a generation that collected “labels”. It wasn’t enough to “just” be a mother, manager, business owner, artist, wife, philanthropist; you had to be them all. I have never been a fan of collecting (my mother is a mild hoarder), and so tossing out a few labels is very appealing.

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Thanks: your essay helps with my own work on focus — for both for my sprawling story in progress, and cluttered-with-too-many-options life.

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Blog title + Serendipitous click = EXACTLY what I needed to hear today…You know your life is is a country western song on crack when having cancer has been the easiest part of your year. Superimpose a surreal divorce (starring my ONLINE friend as the “other woman”) and having to abandon a home I treasured, with neighbors like family, for an anonymous life in an apartment complex. Living on food stamps, I’ve become yet another member of the disenfranchised looking for work. I’ve become that cliched middle-aged divorcee that I thought only happened to other women–suddenly single after three decades as someone’s wife. For more than a year I’ve worn anger as a second skin, moisturized it, kept it soft and supple, reluctant to let it slough off. At first I needed all that righteous fury to get me to make choices. But the side effect? Paralysis. Pain. Depression. And my favorite? Loss of concentration. Can’t write worth squat–guess the muse is sick of living in a burning building. Nothing sadder than a story languishing in your brain matter. Logic dictates that I let it all go and concentrate on what I want to build for myself, but where’s the freakin’ “new life” blueprint? Thought many times that I just couldn’t do this, and seriously considered jumping off planet. But then something always seems to come along to make me think about why I should continue to stay and fight..Your words have been that ‘something’ for me today, and in my long-winded way, I just wanted to say THANKS..I mean it….

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Yowch, Justine! Damn. You just grab the torch and shone it straight into my eyes.

As I read this I ran through the list of 15 different jobs I’ve done in the last 5 years; the 7 different fields of study I’ve started and stopped – and instead of saying “Well, I’m a Renaissance person who is interested in a thousand things” I had to stop and say “Yowch, I’m not making decisions that create the me I desire. I’m just bouncing around on the jumping castle of life…”

Focus always sounded like a sacrifice not worth the trade-off of my freedom. But after your words today I’m not so sure. Thanks, x.

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Fantastic post. The words of wisdom I have come to expect from your insightful blog!

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You’ve got real balls to post that pic, lady. (Sorry—couldn’t resist.)

I identify w/ the taking responsibility for one’s self stuff. Took me YEARS and many therapy sessions to figure that out. It seems clear cut, but as someone who was taught not to believe in myself, I had difficulty getting it through my noggin. Now I truly understand my life is up to me.

I struggle w/ the logline thing, though. Hollywood came up w/ the idea you have to boil your film/novel down to one sentence, and I don’t trust those bastards. I’m not saying intent and focus aren’t important, but I doubt Fitzgerald, Dickens, Hemingway etc did this before beginning a book. And they still told great stories. To me (and for all I know you’re more than one draft into ‘The Decadents), that stuff comes after the first draft, when I go over the story and find out what it’s about. When I sit down to write, for the most part I know what the story IS (though this too can change during the writing), but not what it’s about. I guess it’s the difference between instinct and intention. My writing first comes from instinct, and is later honed by intention. This could be simply because I’m still a struggling amateur. If I wrote more, I could come to a place where more intention is involved from the beginning.

Anyway, I’m rambling. As always, thanks for giving me stuff to think about.

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Justine, you strike close to something that Jack Dorsey has mentioned in his talks to his team at Square and Twitter, and that is the topic of friction. His purpose is to make products that are as frictionless as possible – meaning, products that are easy to use, beautiful, elegant, and purposeful. This is the train of thought that I use in much of my life and work, including design, writing, speaking, and yes – even how I dress.

Lovely post. RTing.

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Justine, that blog post was jus what I needed. I more than like this post, it spoke to my insides.
I am the person who can not say no, who does not choose and ends having others make the choices for me.
It is important to be reminded of what we need to do, that we have to simplify and cut out things from our lifes.
I am not moving house, but I am changing my room and it’s full of “stuff” that I want and need to get rid of.
I love your blog, I love this post, but most importantly I really like your writing style and the things that you write about.
When did you start writing, and in your opinion how can you tell if you are any good at it and should invest in it?

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Well, you just said pretty much everything I’ve been thinking and feeling for the past few weeks. I usually shy away from exceeding long posts like this on most blogs I read, but this one kept my attention.

Now I have a lot more to think about! LOL

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I so understand what you’re going through. Loglines, oh my. So sweet when you get it right, so nice to be able to say exactly what your novel is about and see a blush of excitement on the listener’s face. Yet so difficult to do. Funny that you should mention clothes–that we wear only about 20 percent of what we own. I think, in my case, it’s less. I took my summer clothes out of storage and put my winter clothes away. What a task. Hated it. Hated that I had so many clothes that I didn’t wear. Hated it that I couldn’t part with most of them, though I didn’t wear them. I never would have made the connection to writing and paring down to the core of the story. Good post. You’ve got a great thing going with your blog. I’m a fan.

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@Erica Ianetta I think once a woman steps outside the whole marriage-narrative there just *isn’t* any ‘new life blueprint’ (I was looking for one myself). Fight the good fight, it is worth it.

@Marcela I started writing young — I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was 14 or so — and I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who told me I was good, so I continued. If you have the hunger, the itch, to write — not just to be some fantasy version of a writer, but to actually write — then you should invest in it because from what I can tell that itch never ever goes away, and the people I’ve seen who put it aside only to pick it up again twenty years later always seem to regret the lost time.

@Jeff P. I hear what you’re saying, but you think Dickens and Shakespeare never had to answer the “What is it about?” question from friends and strangers? In the end, you do what feels right.

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Justine, thanks for replying to the comment, and answering my question
Sincerely
Marcela

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Thank you so much for this post. I have such a hard time with focus and streamlining and closing off possibilities. I’m the kind of person who wants to keep as many options open as I can, yet I’m finding that if I don’t just choose one path and go as far as it’ll take me, I’ll be stuck at the crossroads forever. So I really needed to read this, and many of your points really resonated with me. Thank you.

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