The story is told that William Strunk, the author of what later became a classic guide to grammar and style, The Elements of Style, once entered the classroom at Cornell, opened his briefcase, drew out his notes, and looked up at his expectant students. After a dramatic pause for effect, he loudly said “Omit needless words!” He paused, and then he said it again: “Omit needless words!” He paused, and then said it again. Then he placed his notes back in his briefcase, closed it, and taking it in hand walked out of the classroom. Class dismissed. I guess he had made his point, not only by what he said but by what he did.
In another classic work, On Writing Well, William Zinsser makes the same point, albeit in a few more words. He says “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?” Reading these exhortations, I’ve always marveled at their broader application, the excesses and surplusage of my life, not just my words.
I just lifted a stack of 40 cards sitting on my bookshelf that expressed sympathy on the death of my mother nearly four years ago. I wondered if I should throw them out. Yet as I read them, I could not. They are still doing a good work in my heart, reminding me of the treasure of family and friends, of my mother’s qualities, and of how to express sympathy in such a way that the recipient is ministered to. The best of these cards are neither rote nor dutiful, but heartfelt and particular. Even those who did not know my mother had read an obituary or knew of her and could say something specific. Virtually all reminded me of the hope of new life and reunion. I’ll keep them. They are still doing a good work.
But I suspect that not all of my possessions are doing any new work. Some are faddish (like the CD I had to have to complete my collection of all of The Byrds recordings) or the beautiful book without a soul. Or maybe it’s a vain dream that I hold onto that is doing me no good (Am I really going to be a rock ’n roll star?), or an interest that is not needful (like Beatles trivia). “Omit,” says Strunk. “Simplify, simplify,” says Zinsser. But it hurts. Pruning hurts. Yet a pruned life flourishes.
I did throw away 50 ink pens of various persuasions. That was easy. I kept the wind-up toy dog. Don't judge me.