I was stuck, splayed out on my couch, struggling to write my first post for NaNoWriMo—3 days late.
Then I read a passage that said more by writing less. The lean passage gave me an idea perfect for my first NaNoWriMo post, as well as my personal website’s short reflections.
In the passage, McPhee describes structuring a piece by ordering notecards with the story’s elements on a large plywood plank:
Finally, I found myself looking back and forth between two cards. One said “Alpinist”. The other said “Upset Rapid.” “Alpinist” could go anywhere. “Upset Rapid” had to be where it belonged in the journey on the river. I put the two cards side by side, “Upset Rapid” to the left.
After the last sentence, he doesn’t say where the “Alpinist” card goes. But we already know. Yet, if I wrote this paragraph, I know I would have said I placed the other card to the right side.
Right foot, left foot. Red fish, blue fish. It feels too natural to think of omitting. Though the second description is needless, it’s so tempting to lean on out of doubt. Will the reader understand?
This little omission lit up my writing nerdery. To me, it’s more than lean communication; his omission is an artful nuance. Micro-art. Inspiration.
By giving us less, only what we need to know, he makes our brain fill in the gap. We’ve all heard about our brain’s hankering for making up filler for missing parts—to satisfy our need to know, to keep us sane. Textbooks discuss the phenomenon ad nauseum when you study psychology or marketing (me).
McPhee’s omission fired up my creative mind without disrupting my focus. I saw more value in omitting words than I had before—to inspire people to think creatively, to think critically, without trying. All by cutting the right stuff.
It reminded me of two of my idols who used omission to simplify their work and inspire their fans:
1. Kurt Cobain
Nirvana’s music felt unfit to follow the guitar soloing glam rock ensembles of the 80’s, who preached more drugs, more sex, and more rock resulted in paradise (they proved themselves wrong in the end). Popular 80’s rock couldn’t get enough jewelry, makeup, and obscure clothing. They liked clutter and excess.
Kurt Cobain was poor before grunge success. His clothes reflected how little he had: they were out-of-style, frayed, and reworn. His lyrics reflected his lack of stuff—his verses were sentence fragments that expressed core emotions, very unlike the long-winded, shallow ballads from a decade earlier. He even repeated lines instead of writing more, like a chant or mantra. The guitar’s chord progressions were simple. Usually, the solos, if any, copied his vocal melody.
There wasn’t much to the musical group’s compositions, but the emotional effect on fans was astronomical. This stripped-down style dialed down metal music’s popularity for a while, and the ever-mutating, ever-iterating genre of alternative rock was born.
Then everyone started forming bands.
2. Steve Jobs
He built Apple on the idea of making life simpler with a computer, making the one-to-one relationship between one man and one computer easy.
He omitted distractions to live out a simplistic lifestyle: sometimes he’d only eat one kind of vegetable for every meal, he wore the same brand of black turtleneck every day, he often walked barefoot, and he always pried off the license plates on any car he owned.
His omissions in his personal life bled into Apple’s core. The company worked similarly, opening consumers eyes to why simple design makes tools more useful.
Then everyone started forming startups.
Humans seem to love what these guys did (and followed suit) because we love simplicity. But we can only simplify through omission.
There’s opportunity in finding more needless things to omit
Omission opens a door for our creative minds. By giving only the necessary scraps (in writing, in a painting, in a keynote, in conversation), we can prompt more critical thinking in the heads of who would otherwise be mere spectators. Instead of watching with idle minds, they can engage.
Writers, and artists of all kinds, make better pieces by omitting needless things. But they also make new artists by leaving room for other people’s automated creativity to kick in. From there, people can trust their brain’s innate system to create new ideas, new solutions, even new worlds.