Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Great Writers Declutter?

on June 19, 2012
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My cat prevents me from fully decluttering the living room!

According to Jeff Goins in his Great Writers series, Day 11 is time to declutter.

Decluttering is not one of my favourite pursuits – or indeed one of my favourite words. I seem to be a naturally messy person – I leave my possessions in all sorts of places but am always able to lay my hands on whatever I need within a minute or two (or slightly longer if the pile of stuff I know it’s in has grown to larger than usual proportions). By contrast, if things are put “away” I can’t always find them. Sometimes this is because I don’t even know where the “away” is for the particular item I trying to locate (I was a school governor for 3 years. Every time I was getting ready to go to a meeting I would start searching for the documents I needed so I could prepare, and Southern Daddy would always appear part way through my hunt and hand me the appropriate paperwork. About 2 years into my term of office I finally asked him where he was getting them from. “Your governor file,” he replied. “Where I always put them when I find them on the sofa or the table.” When I told him I didn’t have a governor file he took me into the dining room and took down a cardboard magazine file filled with all the paperwork I’d accumulated since I’d been elected).

At university I went through a stage of neatness. It began when I realised that my living quarters amounted to only one room and that I only had the possessions I absolutely needed (because I couldn’t transport them by train from home, and couldn’t afford to buy them in Durham), so everything should really be able to have a home. I duly assigned places for all my things and formed a habit of putting everything away immediately after I’d used it. It was good, for a while, but then I started to become obsessive. I knew that everything had a home, and I became unable to bear seeing anything in any other place. One day I had made myself a toasted sandwich for lunch. I lifted the sandwich onto a plate, wiped down the toastie machine and coiled the flex carefully to store away under my desk so I wouldn’t have to look at it while I ate. I then proceeded to put my sandwich onto a tissue on my desk so I could wash up and put away the plate. It was only as I picked up the sandwich again that I realised the ridiculousness of what I”d done.

From that time on I forced myself to tolerate a certain amount of untidiness as an antidote to the really rather extreme person I’d become. Of course, that escalated in time and eventually – about the time we bought our first house, and both sets of parents descended within weeks to drop off the belongings they’d suddenly decided they could no longer house – I lost control again. Then we had children and our original clutter disappeared under a sea of new clutter.

About a year ago, as I’ve mentioned before, I decided Something Needed To Be Done and, with the help of our lovely friend Sally, we spent a week removing extraneous junk from our house, cleaning the newly-exposed depths and re-homing the things we wanted to keep in beautiful new boxes (some of ours are stripy but they don’t make them any more). We went to IKEA a LOT that week. Since then things have not remained exactly the same but in general are much better and it leaves us free to pursue new projects such as clearing out the linen cupboard, which I did yesterday. The charity collection people who left a bag in our letterbox and are coming back tomorrow are going to get a big surprise, as I’ve filled their bag along with 6 others. But as I’ve said, I’d rather be doing something else with my time and often even quite pressing decluttering is left undone for long periods.

And now I find I have to do more of it! Good writing, says Jeff, requires two kinds: getting your tools in order and getting rid of non-essentials. I have to remove the junk from around where I write, in order to give myself a clear focus, then I have to remove the junk from inside my writing, in order to give it a clear focus.

My challenge today is to spend some time clearing my work space. This I have done – I’ve removed all the post from the sofas and put away the remote controls. I’ve even sewn a new badge onto the Butterfly’s Rainbows shirt, so that it’s not sitting around reminding me to do it any more. My living room is the serene retreat I like it to be and I can think about my writing without distractions (an idea of the comforting surroundings can be gleaned from the otherwise completely irrelevant photo at the top of this post – the cat definitely enjoys it when we create space!)

Part 2 is more difficult. I have to “cut [my] writing down to its purest essence”, converting longer pieces into shorter, more direct versions. What I want to know is: Why?

When I blog, I tend to share my train of thought. I don’t want it to be boring or confusing (and I really hope it’s not), but the way I write is very similar to the way I talk. We’re raconteurs, my family (I’ve been told it’s because we’re Northern). Sometimes we ramble. My dad’s favourite kind of joke is the Shaggy Dog Story, the longer and more involved the better, often with a relatively weak pay-off when he finally reaches it, although it doesn’t matter because the way he tells them always makes you laugh anyway. But when we tell you a story, you get the Whole Story. (I would absolutely love, at this point, to show you a scene from Victoria Wood’s sitcom dinnerladies which illustrates this point perfectly, but I’d have to link to half the episode which is a bit much. OK, it’s here if you want to see it, I’m sure you’ll spot the bit I mean. And sorry for the swearing.) So I’m not sure how I can strip down my blog posts without stripping myself out of it.

As for my fictional writing, I think I do do this to a certain extent. I regularly work through a few pages, culling half-sentences and extra phrases until it says exactly what I mean to say. Jeff’s advice is:

Erase all the lazy words and phrases, which fluff up your writing but add nothing to the content.

Kill ‘em, kill ‘em all.

And I’d wholeheartedly agree. But then he continues:

These fancy turns of phrase and flowery pieces of prose are getting in the way. Distracting the reader from what you really want to say. And frankly, you don’t have time for them

… to which I say: What if fancy turns of phrase and flowery pieces of prose are your writing? What if that’s what you do? I’m a words person and I like using them. Lots of them, in all shapes and sizes. I like reading them, too – I love it when prose borders on poetry and a writer uses 10 words when 1 would have done perfectly well. Isn’t that the beauty of the English language as it has grown and developed – that we now have dozens of ways of saying a simple thing, and our speech and literature are the richer for it?

It’s not that I can’t condense my writing. Plenty of times – at university, especially, but even sometimes nowadays – a situation calls for something pithy and direct and I rise to the challenge.

But plenty of occasions don’t require that, so on those occasions I won’t do it! Is that OK?

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2 responses to “Great Writers Declutter?

  1. Alice says:

    Yes! I think that is OK!

    I’ve been trying to remember that when people read what I write they are reading the ‘finished’ thing – they have no idea what is missing that I’ve edited. The key is that our words should give clarity to our thoughts – sometimes that means culling, sometimes it means elucidating. I’ve noticed that often when I chop out a sentence or a paragraph, nothing is really lost!

    It’s a bit like our homes isn’t it? Some people need things to be sparse, some people need it to be ‘lived in’, but the important thing is that however our house is it should be welcoming and inviting. The same is true of our writing. Xxx

    • northmum says:

      What a wonderful way of summing it up 🙂 Seeking clarity is our aim, rather than deliberately squeezing everything down to the minimum possible word count! I do hope my words are as comfortable and inviting to others as they are to me though!

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