Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘voluntary simplicity

The cloth napkin rule

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My cloth napkins

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.)

Ernest Callenbach

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.

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

The starving author’s guide to money

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Money,” as Malcolm Cowley said, “is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.” In particular, the lack of money is generally the central problem of most writers’ lives, at least in the years it takes to establish anything resembling a career. Even more frustrating is the fact, confirmed by my own experience, that it’s incredibly hard to produce a publishable novel if you aren’t writing full-time. This contradiction, between the reality of present financial constraints and the dream of being able to write six or more hours a day, is one that nearly every writer has faced. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every financial decision you make, from the moment you first decide to write for a living, needs to be directed toward establishing a life where that kind of freedom is possible. Because money is really just a proxy for more important things, like freedom, flexibility, and time.

The first, essential step, then, is to scale one’s life to the appropriate level, which is easier for some than for others. E.B. White pointed out that Thoreau’s great experiment was only possible for someone who was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” and this remains true today: if you’re single and in your early twenties, it’s going to be easier for you to simplify your life than if you’re married with a couple of kids. But any life can benefit from some degree of simplification, and voluntary simplicity—or even what used to be called, less fashionably, voluntary poverty—remains the best position from which to embark upon a writing career. These days, simplicity has been variously defined, sometimes in incongruously complicated ways, but for an artist, it merely involves giving up some comfort in exchange for freedom and time. And time, more than anything else, is what a writer needs.

Of course, the specifics of simplifying one’s life will vary radically from person to person. For me, in the years leading up to my decision to quit my job, it meant relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn, scaling back on luxuries like new books, and, above all, in saving. This isn’t the place for a detailed lecture on frugality or investing—for that, I’d recommend Ernest Callenbach’s Living Cheaply With Style and the sage advice on Bogleheads.org—but it’s worth noting that budgets generally don’t work as well as an automatic savings plan: you increase the percentage that you put into savings, even if it’s a small amount at first, and learn to live with a reduced income each month. Make it unconscious, with a portion of each month’s paycheck deposited directly into a savings account before you can touch it, and structure your life around the remainder. Andrew Tobias put it best, in The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

The immediate objective, then, while working toward the larger goal of writing for a living, is to pay down debt and create a cushion of savings to weather the inherent uncertainty of a writer’s life. Dean Koontz has advised writers to have a cushion of at least six to nine months’ personal expenses before attempting to write full-time, but I personally think that the number is much higher—at least a year, maybe more. That may seem like an insurmountable amount at a time when the average savings rate in the United States is 4.5%, but it’s much easier when you’ve scaled back your expenses beforehand. Spiritual considerations aside, on a purely practical level, a simple external life is more likely to grant you the kind of internal life that you need. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Small moves over a period of years are more effective than a sudden plunge into the unknown. And when the time comes to take that final step, you’ll be ready.

Disclaimer: I’m not a financial professional. This advice is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice specific to your situation. (If Thoreau were alive today, his publisher would make him say the same thing.)

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

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