Friday, February 3, 2012

Musings of a Minimalist

I am not a packrat. Okay, let me try that again. I am not a packrat, except when it comes to books. I never have been, never will be. As I look back over the years, there are things I wish I'd kept for their sentimental value, but for the most part I'm not sorry that I regularly cull my possessions.

If you walked into my home, you'd see immediately that I'm a minimalist. The rooms in my house aren't cluttered. My walls aren't cluttered. The furniture in every room is evenly centered, aligned, arranged to everything else in that room, and kept as neat as possible at all times. Pictures are centered on the wall and straightened on a regular basis. I call that good housekeeping; my kids call it anal (although both our daughters are just like me now. Ha! I love it!).

A funny aside to this revealing info about me: My daughter Mindy's mother-in-law is the exact opposite of me. The 100-year-old Victorian home she and her husband have lived in for more than 40 years is chock-full of collectibles and ... stuff, from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms. There's a path that leads from the kitchen and goes through the dining room, into the living room, to the front door. Every other inch of floor space is filled up, and there's hardly an inch of wall space left to hang another picture or Gone With the Wind collectible plate. They were in town visiting Mindy & Corey when Jayden, now 5, was about 2. We all took a drive to Sutter Creek, a quaint little town in the foothills known for its antique shops. We entered the first little shop, which was wall-to-wall merchandise with little room for walking. Jayden took one look around and said, "Grandma? Is this your house?" I couldn't stop laughing.

I'm also a minimalist when it comes to talking. I know people who use 1,000 words to my one, and it boggles my mind that someone could talk that much. Boggles. My. Mind. I'm not the best conversationalist, but I am a good listener, I will say that. I'm not anti-social by any means. I just tend to be quiet.

So it's not surprising that I'm also a minimalist when it comes to my writing. I tend to write novels with just a handful of characters, and only a few plot lines. I'm always impressed with complex novels and wish I could pull off that kind of writing, but my story worlds tend to be small and anything but epic. Maybe that's because I so love to become emotionally intimate with my characters. I want to get inside their heads. Literally. I tend to write in first person, and especially love first person, present tense. In order to pull that off, there's a lot of internal dialogue on my pages. I find that reflective of me, internal dialogue going on inside my head all the time. I'm sure that's true of most writers.

The novel I'm reading now, And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, is one of those epics I could never see myself writing. It's historical fiction and spans six decades, with a large enough cast of characters that a family tree or two would have been helpful in keeping everyone straight after the 2nd or 3rd generation. It's typically NOT the type of novel I read, because I much prefer contemporary to historical. But it was on my TBR list for the longest time (not sure how it got there). It took me months to locate it. Finally, my library was able to borrow it from another library so with that much effort I felt obligated to read the almost 1,200 page behemoth. I have about 100 pages to go, and I have loved every word. I plan to write a review about it before long.

What matters most to me in the novels I read, no matter the genre, is being able to truly connect with one or more of the characters. It's so much more important to me than the plot. That doesn't mean I must be able to empathize with a character's situation. I may never experience anything like what they're going through -- for instance, Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy. But I want to be able to draw near just the same. Like Debbie, I'm a fan of Stein on Writing (read her She Reads post on Everyday People). I remember reading the quote Debbie cites as I made my way through his book the first time: "I have seen talented writers hurt their chances of publication because they persist in writing about 'perfectly ordinary people' ... characters who are seemingly no different from the run of people we meet who do not seem in any way distinctive." I took exception with it. Because most novels I read and enjoy are stories about perfectly ordinary people ... who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, doing extraordinary things. I think of characters like Turtle in Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home, Ginny Young in Elizabeth Berg's What We Keep, Dara Brogan in Katy Popa's exceptional To Dance in the Desert. Ordinary people, caught in extraordinary circumstances. How else could I relate to them if that weren't so?

Reading preferences are so subjective that is seems rash to make such a sweeping statement as Stein's. I actually thought it arrogant, though that one statement doesn't alter my opinion of Stein on Writing. It's one of those books I read, re-read and refer back to as I write. But as my daughter Deanne would say, I chew the meat and spit out the bones, and there's a lot of good meat within its pages.

So what about you? If you're a writer, are you minimalist or epic when it comes to your story world? As a reader, which do you prefer? What matters most to you about the novels you read?


BK said...

Minimalist tendencies affect me too. Primary ways are I often do not use enough description and I'm very minimal on dialogue, b/c I don't like chattering myself (plus my characters are usually male so they're not going to be jabberboxes as a rule.)

Anonymous said...

O, this is a wonderful thought Sharon.
I enjoy both types of literature immensely...though I think it depends what stage of life I am in as to what I enjoy reading in a lie season.
For instance...right now, my life is chocked full of caring for my 10 m.o. baby girl; which means not a lot of social interaction with people. I am one of those annoying people who has about 5-10 books being read at the same time and of all the books I have started right now, the three I found/find myself going back to (two are finished now) were "Kisses From Katie" by Katie Davis...which is non-fiction...but it's a life STORY...and "The Hobbit" and "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien. All three of these books display many characters (though Mr. Tolkien is, of course, in a genre all his own for the depth of his historical goodness, amazing!). For me, these were so nutritional for my social self because I'm lacking every-day connections. So getting lost in these stories somehow feeds that need for now in a time when I need to stay closer to home.
When I was out in the work-world and spending my days around a lot of people (and subsequently a lot of life drama), I craved books like Patti Hill's Garden Gate Series or Ann of Green Gables by Lucy Maud or Christy by Catherine Marshall...all a little more focused on one character in particular.
I've found both to be very important to me at different seasons of life. Though I must say, when it comes to book choices for's mostly about a great story. The depth/number of characters in that story depends more on the season of life...but the vital importance of a great story never changes for me...though maybe that's a no-brainer for all readers! :)

Patti Hill said...

What I'm learning about populating my stories is that each one must have a purpose for being there. They have a job to do, mostly, in some way, to oppose the hero. In other words, I'm trying to practice a little population control in my WIP. Your post was just the nudge back on track I needed. Thanks, Sharon!

Anonymous said...

BK, it sounds like your writing strikes a good balance.

Ashten, oh yes, there are seasons of life, and they affect what we desire/enjoy in the way of literature. May I say, the season you are in right now is so precious. Enjoy every minute of your sweet baby girl. Don't rush anything. Don't be anxious for her first step, her first word, her first anything. Enjoy every single moment you have with her.

Patti, you're so right. Each character must have a specific part to play in a novel. Otherwise, he/she is like a puzzle piece in the wrong puzzle box!

Lori Benton said...

I think in all aspects except writing, you and I could be soul mates. I'm a minimalist when it comes to possessions (except books) and speaking, too.

But my novels? I wouldn't want to attempt something as epic as a 6 generational, 1200 page historical, but my historicals (my favorite type of novel) are more epic than my life will ever be, and peopled with far more characters than I'd be comfortable having buzzing about me on a daily basis. But I completely agree with you on the necessity of bonding emotionally with one or two main characters, even though I don't write in first person usually. That emotional connection, that getting inside the head of, is still a huge part of the writing process for me. In fact, it's what enables me to persevere through the process of novel creating. When I stop and think about how hard it is, I could easily be overwhelmed. But here I am doing it again because I've fallen in love with Reginald, and Lydia. I expect I'll fall in love with Anna and William soon too.

Another odd thing is, minimalist that I am with the spoken word, my writing tends to be dense and over written during the first few drafts. I'm constantly pruning it back.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Truly being able to connect with one or more characters is high up on my list too. I'm not out to change the world, but to create a dynamic character that readers long to embrace (and perhaps sometimes slap).
~ Wendy

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Okay, maybe I'm out to change the world a little. ;)
~ Wendy

Laura S. said...

Interesting post! My mom is a minimalist so I grew up with good habits of cleaning out unnecessary things and only purchasing something if you really love it and will use/wear it often. And I'm a total neat freak! I suppose I'm a minimalist in my writing. I don't know how epic writers keep it all straight though! You'd definitely have to be organized and somewhat neat to do so. I admire those who write epics very much and it would be amazing to write one some day.

I love reading all kinds of stories and enjoy reading about a small cast of characters over a short time and also a large cast of characters over a long period of time.

I read And Ladies of the Club and it was long but it was good. I'm glad you're enjoying it!

A few other of my favorite epics are The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough; The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher; Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; The Pillars of the Earth and World without End by Ken Follett; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; and Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo.

Anonymous said...

O Sharon, wise words indeed! I most certainly am not in ANY such hurry. Quite frankly...I wish I could just slow time down a few notches...she has brought us such joy! Thank you for that sweet reminder and affirmation :).

Bonnie Grove said...

I've been to your home, Sharon, and it is exactly as you describe it--and gorgeous too. You may be a minimalist, but the things you surround yourself with are beautiful and perfect.

I don't know if I could describe my writing in relation to my small home which is busy and cluttered with things I can't identify (usually things my children have dragged in) and my walls are nearly alive with paintings, prints, word art, wall art of every kind, hand made cupboards (Steve made them) without doors so I can look at the dishes on the shelf. Hmm.

Then again......

A writer friend of mine, upon reading an excerpt of a novel I wrote asked, "How do you say so much with so few words? How do you do that?"

My writing is like yours, Sharon, in that I focus hard on a handful of characters (my latest novel, A GIRL NAMED FISH has the most characters of any novel I've attempted), and get to know them deeply. I don't necessarily mean to do this, but what tends to happen is I start thinking about certain themes, and then a larger than life character shows up and steals the show.

Great article, Sharon!

Anonymous said...

Laura, I love The Shell Seekers and anything by Rosamunde Pilcher.

Bonnie, thank you, my friend. May I give a huge promo for A Girl Named Fish? I can't wait for it to be published so everyone else can read it!