The cloth napkin rule
A few years ago, my wife and I bought two large packs of cloth napkins from Crate and Barrel. (This may not seem like the most promising beginning for a post on a writing blog, but bear with me.) I was inspired by a passage from The Ecotopian Encyclopedia, also known as Living Cheaply With Style, by the legendary Berkeley author and simple living guru Ernest Callenbach, who writes:
You probably use paper napkins, like most Americans these days, and you have probably never thought about it much. If you have, you’ve probably felt that your grandparents’ system (cloth napkins that have to be washed and ironed all the time) is far too much trouble and probably more expensive anyway. You may say that even though you really like cloth napkins.
After crunching the numbers, however, Callenbach concludes that cloth napkins are actually cheaper, over time, than their paper equivalents, even if you assume that they wear out after a year or so—which, in my experience, is wildly conservative, especially if you only use each one for a day or two per week. He concludes with the more general point that it’s important, when making consumer decisions, to consider real costs over time. And his analysis was compelling enough that I decided to try it out for myself.
In the years since, these humble napkins have turned out to be one of those seemingly minor purchases that have improved my quality of life in small but profound ways. They’re environmentally friendly, of course, and after almost four years, they show no signs of wear, so they’ve already saved us a decent amount of money. Cleaning them is a cinch—we have enough so that we can pull a new pair out of the sideboard every couple of days, and we just throw them in the laundry each week with the rest of our clothes. Best of all, they’re a pleasure to use, and they often get compliments from guests, who seem impressed that my wife and I use them with every meal. The more I think about it, though, the more surprised I am that not everyone does the same thing. Life rarely offers us choices that are all upside and no downside, so we should grab them whenever we can, even if we’re talking about something very simple. (That said, I’d recommend buying napkins with a polyester/cotton blend, like these, which require minimal care. Pure cotton or linen napkins wrinkle easily, and if you feel obliged to iron them before every use, you’re missing the point.)
And these napkins embody a larger lesson that I’ve tried to honor in most other aspects of my life. I’ve spoken before about the attractions of simplicity, and although I can’t call myself a true adherent of simple living, I’ve tried to incorporate its principles into my routine whenever possible. I do this for reasons of the purest self-interest. It became very clear, early on, that the odds of my becoming a writer, and of surviving on the proceeds, were much higher if I could make my life as simple in its external details as possible. And what I’ve repeatedly learned is that the virtues of simplicity, frugality, environmental soundness, and quality of life are all bound together. A solution that works along one parameter is likely to work along the others as well, and if it doesn’t, there’s probably another that does. Living within your means, spending your money on experiences and access to ideas, seeking a lifestyle that will leave you with time to do the things you care about—these were the most pragmatic goals I could imagine. I don’t idealize the simple life for its own sake; I’m not an ascetic or a particularly committed environmentalist. I’m just trying, selfishly, to write all day. But the end result, oddly enough, has turned out to have emergent virtues that I couldn’t have anticipated when I began.
The same is true of my writing. In case it isn’t obvious, I like telling complicated stories, but I’ve also felt compelled to enforce simplicity elsewhere in my work: I strive to write clean prose, I place a premium on clarity and economy, and I cut every story as much as possible. And I’ve found that these qualities, which are desirable in their own sake, also have unexpected benefits. A story that reads cleanly from one sentence to the next is capable of sustaining greater complexity on the levels of plot and structure, which is what I enjoy the most; concision, and a fixed word count, forces me to drill down to what matters and make sure that each paragraph pulls its weight. The test, as always, is a practical one. Cloth napkins wouldn’t be worth buying if they weren’t nice to use, and none of the writing skills I’ve spent so much time developing would be meaningful if readers didn’t enjoy the result. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be a tradeoff, here or anywhere else. Simplicity in writing is a lot like simplicity in other parts of life, including the dinner table: simplicity, economy, and responsibility to others are really just different words for the same thing, and the true test is whether it makes you happy. If it does, the rest will usually follow.