Why writers need the art of minimums
Part 1: between the superfluous and the indispensable
You can be anyone, but you can’t be everything. You can make choices, but you can’t do it all.
‘Everything’ is one of the most insidious myths of our time. Doing it all and having it all dangled before us at every turn. Adverts are rife on every social media platform, on TV and as spam emails. Branding potentially covers everything from underwear to the food we eat. In Western societies it’s estimated we see from 4,000 to 10,000 adverts or brand labels each day, particularly if we spend time online, watching TV or buy any pre-packaged food.
And if this doesn’t make us want to drown our life in stuff or eat our way through a mountain of junk food, there are always social media influencers whose apparently perfect lives tell us that who we are is pitiful in comparison. In this arena, comparison really is odious.
Consumerism is based on lack. You can never have enough, do enough, be enough. It goes hand in hand with living at a frenetic pace in order to get, do and be more. And it wipes out simple joys and pleasures as we become ever more exhausted and disillusioned.
None of this is conducive to a creative life. Instead, we have to learn the art of saying no. The art of paring back, not on deep pleasure, but on shallow froth. The art of choosing what nurtures.
‘What needs less?’ is a key question of change. To transform life so that it is more connected, more deeply abundant, more full of creativity, we need to make choices and those choices often involve letting go of what is superfluous, what isn’t nurturing our creative soul.
These are not the fake and superficial choices between brands and distractions, but the choices to do the deep work that requires letting go of all that prevents us being a different story.
On the surface we may need to let go of distractions. But deeper down we will have to let go of all kinds of limiting assumptions and delusions. As Wendell Berry puts it in The Hidden Wound:
As Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable.
Writing about the farm labourers he grew up with as the child of farm-owners, Berry remembers a man (Nick) with a particular ability to maintain a life rich in pleasure in the midst of hardship. Berry doesn’t romanticise poverty and there is certainly a complex and unjust history of class and privelege based on race behind Nick’s story. But, recognising that his perspective is subjective and based on childhood memory, Berry writes about how Nick became one of his teachers and:
ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.
He also acknowledges that the facts of Nick’s life were harsh:
And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated,and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. […] And… Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity.
To take pleasure in using the mind, Berry reflects, is
the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces.
The customs of necessity
Berry is right not to romaniticise the poverty or hardships of Nick’s life. Mastering the customs of necessity and taking pleasure in the daily rituals of a life well-lived and a life of thought, are no mean feats in any life and to do it in the face of a harsh existence is inspirational. But that can never justify oppression.
What Berry learnt was not that it’s okay to exploit people because they can still find ways to be happy, but rather a deep perspective on how much control a resilient and humane person can take in the most unlikely of circumstances.
As the pandemic goes on and we hear more about a second wave, many of us may be feeling overwhelmed and hemmed in by the ‘facts’. And yet most of us will have many more choices than Nick and can exercise even more choices by discerning what is superfluous and what is indispensible in our own lives.
[…] This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures […] I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances. […]
As writers, we don’t have time for the superfluous. This is not to say we have no time for fun and play, for family and love, for taking time to deeply relax. These are not superfluities.
But for competing with someone else’s salary or lifestyle? For amassing more stuff than we can ever use? For giving our creative time to mindless internet browsing or social media? Not so much.
What needs less?
The last word to Wendell Berry:
Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.