A revised and updated version of this essay can be found in A Minimalist Abroad: Essays on Finding Happiness, now available at Amazon!
To properly tell the story of A Minimalist Abroad, I need to begin with a clear statement of intent. To achieve the desired outcome I need you, the reader, to understand what this is about. I also need something that I can refer to, in order to insure that I stay true to my own purpose and don’t drift off topic too often or too far. But hat form should this declaration take? A manifesto sounds too militant and aggressively scary. A mission statement feels too formal and corporate. The best solution, I think, is to simply show you my magna carta.
What Is A Magna Carta?
The term “magna carta” was coined by Chris Baty, writing instructor and founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Before you begin writing a novel, he advises, make two lists. On the first list, write down everything you look for in a novel, the things that you enjoy reading. If you’re writing in a specific genre, list the things about that genre that excite you. That list is your first magna carta. For the second list, write down everything you dislike and don’t enjoy reading. Types of characters, plot elements, settings, things you think have been done to death and are just tired of seeing. That list is your second magna carta. When you sit down to craft your novel, do the things on the first list and avoid the things on the second list.
I use magna cartas for all sorts of projects, not only for writing. The concept requires a little adaptation, but it does work for nearly anything. If you’re planning a dinner party, for example, you might write down a list of things you enjoy cooking and why (it’s what you like you eat, you have experience with that type of cuisine, the ingredients are readily available and affordable) and things you don’t like cooking and the reasons why not (it’s time consuming, it’s messy, you’re allergic to ubiquitous ingredients). From these lists, you plan your menu. If you’re decorating your home, you might make a list of colors, styles, and patterns you like, and ones you don’t. For non-fiction writing, it might be a list of topics or approaches to topics that you enjoy reading, and topics that have already been covered definitively and angles that have already been used to the point of cliche. Magna cartas are incredibly simple, yet incredibly versatile.
When I was deciding the shape that I wanted A Minimalist Abroad to take, I brainstormed my good and bad magna cartas. What did I want to say about minimalism? What anecdotes from my own life did I want to use as examples to illustrate specific points? What areas did I not want to venture into, either because I don’t feel qualified to write about them or because I don’t personally find to be that useful? Since I already had those concepts down, all I’ve needed to do is clean them up and polish them a bit so they’re presentable for public consumption.
The Minimalist Abroad Magna Carta I
Here are the things that I want to accomplish in sharing the story of my journey into minimalism with you.
I want to talk honestly about real life. There is no theory here, no advice from an armchair quarterback. I want to tell you about problems I have actually encountered, experiences I have really had, and ways that I have genuinely used minimalism to get the outcomes I wanted in my life.
I want to provide people with practical and useful information. The best life lessons are flexible enough to be applied to a variety of situations. The magna carta concept is an example; it’s not just for writing novels, as I explained above. I may cite a specific use of a tool or a concept as an example, but I don’t like getting bogged down with useless minutiae. I don’t want to write just to see my own words in front of me; I want readers to get something helpful out of it.
I want to connect with people on similar journeys. I am not the only person who has had these sorts of experiences, or who have found value and had their life positively impacted by minimalism. In addition to connecting with people seeking solutions to their problems, I want to reach people who already understand what I’m talking about, and who may even give me some new insights.
I want to better understand my own journey. A lifetime of journaling and public speaking has taught me that having to put things into words and explain concepts to other people helps me to better understand things myself. While I often have epiphanies that hey, I actually know what I’m talking about, more often than not I realize that I don’t have total clarity around things, and that I still have a lot to learn. A Minimalist Abroad is as much about reaching inward as reaching outward.
I want to find my tribe. My ideal outcome is to help build a community of like-minded individuals, where we can all learn from one another and help each other. I want my writing to spark conversations between people, including those looking for answers and those who have solutions other than the ones I presented.
The Minimalist Abroad Magna Carta II
Here are the things that I don’t plan to cover in A Minimalist Abroad, either because I either don’t find them useful or because so much as been written about them that there’s nothing new to say. That doesn’t mean I won’t be willing to cover these topics if I do find a connection or have something original to contribute.
I don’t want to write soulless “listicles”. If you ever see me posting things like “4 Awesome Ways To Clean Your Toilet – #3 Changed My Life Forever!” I expect you to immediately hold an intervention for me and suggest to me wife that she should start getting the commitment papers ready.
I don’t want to resort to overused buzzwords. You won’t catch me going on and on about mindfulness or decluttering or other fancy synonyms for “simplify”. We’re not here to immanentize the eschaton or reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. I even have some level of discomfort with the word “minimalist,” but I’ll cover that more in depth later.
I don’t want to come across as pompous and superior. I’m not better than people who aren’t minimalists. It’s not about that. It’s about trying to find easier ways to achieve and maintain the sort of life you want. What works for me may or may not work for you, just as what worked for other people sometimes worked for me and sometimes didn’t. I can offer suggestions, but I can’t tell you how to live your life and I certainly won’t judge you for the decisions you make.
I don’t want to do things just because “experts” say I should. I will try new trends and fads if there seems to be some kernel of truth or a potential solution to a problem I’m having, but I won’t do anything just to be one of the cool kids. I also think taking popular new solutions and wandering around looking for problems to fix with them is counterproductive and a huge waste of time.
I don’t want to talk about clutter. Don’t buy things you don’t need, get rid of things you don’t use, put things away when you’re not using them. Use common sense and don’t be lazy or slovenly. Pretty baskets are pretty and container porn is fun to look at sometimes. There. My work is done and we needn’t speak of it again.
I don’t want to talk about health and fitness. Eat less things that are bad for you and more things that are good for you. Take a walk once in a while. There are no miracle solutions, do the necessary amount of work. Use common sense and take care of your body. There. Another topic we need never speak of again.
I don’t want to talk about money or business. Never spend money you don’t have on things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like. Apply critical thinking skills and behave responsibly. And that’s another topic we don’t have to cover in depth going forward.
I don’t want to talk about grocery shopping and food. Buy fresh, healthy food, don’t keep crap with tons of sugar and preservatives in the house, and learn how to cook. Trade recipes with friends, find a cooking site that you like and try new things. The bargains in the grocery stores near you are not the bargains in the grocery stores near me, so think and act locally.