Facing Literary Impermanence With Marie Kondo

Tidying-up guru Marie Kondo is trending this winter since her new show started on Netflix. Thrift shops are reportedly experiencing a surge in donations of books, clothes, and household items that no longer “spark joy” for their owners. Meanwhile, social media debates are raging about Kondo’s out-of-context quote about owning only 30 books, while feminist Twitter agrees that it’s also time to de-accession men who don’t help with the housework. (Episode 1 husband, we’re looking at you.)

They say that if you want to get your house clean, start writing a novel. Well, it’s true. But I must protest that my KonMari fever is no mere procrastination tactic. Editing my life builds the same skills I need for mastering the clutter in my imagination. Am I listening to my intuition about what excites me–regardless of what I think I should own, or write, or do? Can I recognize that my relationship with something has ended, but still honor it? If I dare to prioritize my own joy, what obligations or substitute pleasures must I eliminate, while living in a way that’s sustainable and responsible toward others?

KonMari isn’t minimalism. Book Twitter’s outrage notwithstanding, she’s not prescriptive about what you should own. It’s a compassionate but decisive self-assessment of who you are now and what you want to carry forward into the future.

So, for me, “Tidying Up” came along at the perfect time for major life changes. If I’m no longer a woman, a Christian, or a size 12, what’s left is…still quite a lot of stuff, but a lot less than before.

Last month I mailed seven large boxes of literary journals to a poet who was collecting donations for prisoners in California, and gave two more crates of theology books to the used bookstore down the street in exchange for $20 and a coffee-table book about Lego sculptures for Shane. Letting go of books is unsettling for writers, because we don’t want to contemplate the undeniable fact that someone else is looking at our book, deciding it doesn’t spark joy, and chucking it into a donation box. Book Twitter’s dirty little secret: We don’t care that Marie is purging our shelves, we fear that she’s purging someone else’s shelves of us.

But here’s the thing: There is no co-dependent caretaking contract for books, just as that contract is never enforceable in personal relationships. “Go to other people’s funerals so they’ll come to yours” is a good joke but bad advice. Keeping Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology or the 2005 print run of Iowa Review, out of obligation or pity for the obscure authors therein, does not affect whether anyone reads Two Natures. (And really, that’s not why you should read it.) There’s no heavenly point system, as in “The Good Place” sitcom, where angels tally up my literary acts of compassion to reward me with posthumous fame.

My ongoing KonMari home-edit makes me face my unconscious belief in this co-dependent bargain, and repeatedly recognize its empty promises. This frees me (somewhat) to ignore the inner critic in my writing brain, who incessantly tells me that my novel-in-progress is too niche, intellectual, and sad. Binch, that’s my brand.

I can’t stress enough how gratitude is an essential piece of KonMari. My internal younger selves feel shamed by my rejection of things that were central to their identity, from radical orthodoxy to floral-print dresses. Before I can let those possessions go, I have to thank them, and by extension the psychological parts of me who owned them, and give all of us permission to change. Then I have to understand how the process triggers memories of being raised by a narcissist (and an unworn-clothes-hoarder!) who didn’t allow me to have any preferences different from hers. It would have been unthinkable, in my mother’s household, to refuse something just because I didn’t like it. I either had to endure wearing/eating/doing it, or decide if I cared enough to make a documented federal case that it was Objectively Bad.

So I fired her.

Tidying up, I’ve discovered, is always about so much more than possessions. Eminem knows how I feel:

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