Every few years I play this game with myself: If I were on a deserted island, and could have with me only twelve objects for the rest of my life, what would they be?
No, no one else is around and unlikely that they will be.
Food and drink are not necessary – essential nourishment is supplied. (But you might choose a cup from which to drink the fresh water from the spring, if that matters to you.)
No electricity or other energy – so leave your laptop and car at home. They won’t work.
What interests me as I look back over the four decades or so that I’ve done this exercise (my friends and I used to play it as teenagers) is how little my twelve objects have changed over the years. They have always included my guitar, a limitless supply of pencils and paper, certain books (these have changed), a blanket, clothes, and so forth.
For those of you who haven’t played it, the game proceeds like this: If you could only have 11 things with you for the rest of your life, what would they be? 10? 9? 8? And so forth.
When you get down to the last four or five, there’s something almost frantic about this simplifying process. All the initial playfulness is gone. What matters the most, really? As teenagers we took this question terribly seriously. I still do, even now, when it’s a solitary meditation. By the time I can only have two items, I’m almost in agony.
What would you keep with you, if there could only be one thing left, in this worldly existence? It’s very hard to answer this, and it’s especially hard if you haven’t gone down the list, beginning with twelve items.
The game can be played more simply: the twelve books you couldn’t live without, or twelve people, or twelve emotions… but this one concerning objects, I have found, is the most soul-clarifying.
Sometimes when I’m writing a novel and I get much too caught up in the complicated plot and complexity of the relationships between characters, I’ll use this twelve-step process to untangle the threads. I’ll lay out twelve of the most crucial threads in the novel, and eliminate them one at a time. What is the most important thread?
I can then go slowly back and follow each of the other threads individually so that they entwine with the one that is essential. This is a process of weaving together a complex story that can be energizing and healing and helpful. It’s as satisfying as untangling a ball of thread in your sewing box, and organizing them into a wonderful cross-stitch pattern on a tapestry that depicts a scene.
Read your novel or short story or essay and choose twelve essential qualities that are in it. These would include plot lines, characters, and ideas. You may have to stretch yourself to discern twelve.
First eliminate the one that – if it were removed – would not alter your story at all, or hardly at all. Now eliminate the next one.
Don’t do this exercise by thinking about what’s most important, or try to guess what you’ll end up with. You won’t give yourself the same clarity of thought if you do it that way. You’ll find that going backwards into the essence of your story may open your eyes to something even you were not aware of.
This is an excellent practice to do when you’re stuck or confused, but it’s also helpful when you’re confident and proud.
- a carved wooden tray
- sailing to a friend’s private island
- your wish coming true
- dancing till dawn
- knowing you are beloved
- the funniest joke in the world
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