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