Seven Ways to De-clutter Your Writing...and Your Life

Coffee stains? It doubles as a coaster!

Coffee stains? It doubles as a coaster!

A few weeks ago, I borrowed a friend’s copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.  Ms Kondo’s basic philosophy is, “Does this spark joy? If not, get rid of it,” and her book is a best-seller.

Don't even ask me about this "before" picture

Don't even ask me about this "before" picture

Reader, I became obsessed. Within ½ hour of starting the book, I cleared a day on my calendar to follow the author (known as KonMari)’s cleaning-out steps.  The next morning, 4 days before my planned marathon of holding all my clothes and asking “does this spark joy?” I had already taken a pair of pants that had needed altering for two years to the tailors, changed a light bulb in my eleven-foot ceiling, and my super dropped by my apartment to see if there were any tasks I needed help with.  That last one bears repeating. My super stopped by my apartment and voluntarily offered to help with stuff.  Had I stepped into in alternate universe?

I was beginning to see results in my life and I hadn’t even started de-cluttering. By the time I had touched, discarded, or put back and folded every item of clothing I owned and most of my household items as well, asking myself about each one, “Does this spark joy?” my life was on a roll.  And because I work with writers and artists for a living, I was seeing results in my professional life, too, that I think are worth sharing. I’ve broken down what I learned into a few tips I hope are helpful.

#1, perhaps my most daring tip) For a period of time, try writing only what you want to. Or only working on something because you enjoy it. After tidying up my apartment with the KonMari method, I decided that I was going to spend 3 months saying “no” to work that didn’t turn me on—I figured I couldn’t go broke that fast. And the first thing that happened was I declined a lucrative editing job on a long novel, because the author’s expectations of how much I could do for him seemed unrealistic. I just told the truth, “Two rounds of revising your novel won’t make this ready for publication.”   And then…two better jobs came my way in a day.  Coincidence? Sure, maybe.  But try it.

KonMari step one: pile ALL your tops on the floor.

KonMari step one: pile ALL your tops on the floor.

#2)  You’re the only person who knows whether something means enough to you to keep going with it.  There are times to reach out to others for feedback, absolutely. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s going to have to sit with the character and write about him or her, or keep going with that novel that you no longer feel invested in.  Don’t be so eager for others’ opinions that you ask everyone what they think about every line in your picture book, and don’t ask neighbors and friends if they like your book idea.  Ask yourself.

 

# 3) Go ahead and be your own deliciously odd, quirky self.   KonMari actually anthropomorphizes stuff.  She writes “I pointed to a client’s balled up socks. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?’” I’ve spent years telling picture book authors to drop the anthropomorphizing, but when Marie Kondo does it, it works. Because she’s just expressing herself, being true to who she is.

 

I was struggling here. I made a big "not sure" pile for awhile.

I was struggling here. I made a big "not sure" pile for awhile.

#4) Trust yourself, but follow instructions. I decided to do Konmari’s process exactly the way she describes it, step by step, beginning by piling all my tops on the floor, and going through my clothes in the exact order she says.  Why? Because she’s the expert, and I wanted results. I sat with her book by my side when I started so I could refer to it. Ask yourself, have you gotten any smart professional advice you know you are resisting? You might want to take a second look.  Or is there a true expert around who can help you where you’re stuck? (There are a lot of freelance editors with good publishing credentials around. Check us out.)

 

Well worn, but with original art by a two-time Caldecott Honor artist! Mulling this one still...

Well worn, but with original art by a two-time Caldecott Honor artist! Mulling this one still...

#5) You don’t have to do it all perfectly, just be in the game.  It’s ok to be stuck, it’s ok to be unsure. I am still trying to figure out what to do with these worn out and much loved pajamas with hand-made appliqués from Melissa Sweet.   And it’s a long story, but I took this armadillo purse back out of my pile of stuff to donate and now I stare at it each day. It does not spark joy. So why can’t I get it go?

This little fella was in my "to donate" bag, then I took him out. Still not sure what to do

This little fella was in my "to donate" bag, then I took him out. Still not sure what to do

My tops, after KonMari

My tops, after KonMari

#6) What can you just let go of? Any partial manuscripts or exercises on your to do list that you can just throw away or cross off forever?  Anything you’ve been working away on that just isn’t getting there? It’s ok. Thank it for what it has taught you, and say goodbye.

#7)  The opposite: what can you do that you’ve been putting off that will get you over a hump? I had two broken windows fixed, I got my draperies cleaned, I had a hole in my floor repaired.  Any little tasks you’ve been meaning to get to forever? An agent you want to query, a synopsis you want to tweak, for example? Things start move forward, I’m finding, when you get these things done.

Bonus Tip) Be kind to yourself, appreciate your process and what you have learned. It was easy, when getting rid of a pile of clothes, some of which I had never worn, to criticize myself, to regret the money spent, etc.  But I just tried to think of it as all part of my past, something that got me here, and to stay focused on where I am now and where I am going.

AFTER.  (I'm a NYer, I have a lot of black. Don't judge!)

AFTER.  (I'm a NYer, I have a lot of black. Don't judge!)

The final word? When you get rid of stuff around you that isn’t sparking joy, other things in your life become clearer, too.  And that’s not a bad thing for a writer.