Thursday, December 31, 2009


I spent yesterday trying to manage some of the clutter in my house. I cleaned out my daughter's dress-up chest, built a closet for her American Girl Doll clothes, cleared my dresser of some outdated family photos, put books on shelves in my sons' room, took out all the recyclables from Christmas, and loaded the car with bags and boxes of 'stuff' for Goodwill.

If you were to walk into my house, however, you'd wonder if I'd done anything at all. I do not live a clutter-free life, and I don't want to. But I don't want to be weighed down by excess either.

We had friends years ago who invited us over for dinner one evening. They had lived in Pittsburgh longer than we had at that time, so I was surprised to walk into their house to find stark white walls with no paintings or pictures, bookshelves with only a few books, no knick-knacks of any sort, no throw blankets or pillows on their sofas, clear counters, clear tables, sparse furnishings, and only one small box of toys in their daughters' room. The wife, I learned, hated clutter of any sort, so her family lived as minimalists in the most extreme sense imaginable to me.

In contrast, a neighbor of ours at that time lived in a house that was a fire hazard. We'd visit her--a recent widow--and have to literally (and by that, I mean this is not an exaggeration) follow a maze from the front door to the sitting room, laid out by piles and piles of newspapers and magazines. Then we'd sit and talk with her, but I was so distracted by the array of old glasses and plates and lamps and candles that I can't even tell you what we ever talked about.

My father was also a collector, but his collections always made sense to me: antique guns, rare books, old farming tools, wooden kitchen utensils. They fit his personality and fit together in a cohesive way. As such, my parents' home never felt cluttered to me: it felt alive.

I've been working on revisions for my young adult novel and have been thinking a lot about clutter. I know I tend toward collecting lines and paragraphs and even scenes that aren't really necessary, like items from my neighbor's house: old news clippings that fascinated me, a candy dish I found in a junk shop, a small painting that looks pretty but is out of place. But if I keep them around, they're something for people to trip and stumble over as they're trying to get to the heart of the story--something to distract them from the point of the visit.

But if I get rid of too much, I run the risk of housing my story in stark white walls that won't feel warm and welcoming to the reader. The foundation will be there--the roof, the floors, the necessary furniture--but I'll leave nothing for the guests to lay across their laps in the evening, nothing intriguing for them to wonder about when conversation dies down, and nothing to make them want to return again and again.

What I want in my own book and in the books I read is the right collection of curios. I want the ones that help tell the story rather than detract from it. I want the ones that are as much a part of that story as my dad's 19th-century medical instruments were a part of his story.


Shankar said...

Interesting dilemma you have there, one that I share. I'm always wondering what I should buy so that it is with me long-term, and what I require in the short term. This problem is exacerbated by my constant moving around the globe. I apply the economics concept of "opportunity cost" to spending money, and it helps to some degree.

Holly Franz said...

I think creative people need a bit of clutter to exist. Life's more interesting with stuff around. And books cluttered with details are more interesting to read. Cluttered bookshelves are more fun to browse.