I've always been a list person. Traditionally I’ve had multiple lists, a notebook full of them-for different work projects, business tasks, and home and personal chores. This system worked great until my mom died, the ultimate loss in a long string of them. One day I woke up and discovered that I was drowning in my lists! They just weren’t working for me anymore. All they were doing was overwhelming me and making me feel inadequate and incompetent.
I sat down and tried to figure out what was going on. I decided the problem was that there never seemed to be any end in sight. I would complete 10-20 tasks each day but the next day there would be even more items to add to it. Seemed like the best I could do was tread water. I needed to feel like I was making some progress towards my long-term goals again.
The first thing I noticed was that I could tell the moment I opened my eyes what type of day I was going to have. In the beginning there was only one. We’ll call it a “rescue dog day” (thank you Martha Beck). That’s the kind of day where you have to be extra gentle with yourself. Kind and encouraging I decided that, on those days, characterized by extreme disorganization and a high level of distraction, I would limit my list to three very basic things-one for my health, one for work, and the last one for personal or home. I knew I needed some type of stress-relieving exercise (bonus if the real rescue dog came too!), something that would help me control the chaos, real or imagined, in my environment, and to make some headway on my writing goals.
Simple right? It was totally manageable. As long as I could cross everything off that tiny list I was good. The next day might be better, but if it wasn’t I’d just make another three-item list. Eventually I’d get there. The funny thing is, it worked! With space for only three things, I had to really think about what was most important to me each day. I needed to prioritize instead of just assuming I had to do it all. Amazingly, I found that each successful day led to an improvement in my overall mood rather than causing me to dwell on how much time I felt like I wasted. I learned that I didn’t have to do all the work all the time. That it was okay to delegate or just let certain things go. That sometimes "good enough” was acceptable.
What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. Lots of times we overwhelm readers with the sheer quantity of our verbiage, just as surely as I drowned myself in my endless lists. Why say something in five words if you can say it in twenty-right? We think we have so many meaningful messages to share but that’s not always what readers want. Sometimes simplicity, giving them the bare minimum and letting them figure it out or allowing their fertile imaginations to fill in the blanks, makes for a much more enjoyable literary experience.
My son, the creative writer, clued me in on this the other day. He told me not to get hung up on physically describing the people in a story. Whaaaat? He explained that often the reader forms a mental picture of certain characters from their actions or dialogue. They find it jarring when the author takes it upon themselves to throw their own descriptions in halfway through the book. He was right of course! Choose and use your words with care and you’ll be much happier, as a writer and a human being.