Joshua Fields Millburn, one half of The Minimalists, was living what should have been the American dream, but after the death of his mother and end of his marriage, he realized all the material success he was striving for was not bringing him much happiness. Together with his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, he set out to simplify his life and minimalist the amount of stuff in it that he realized had little value.
That journey was chronicled in the guys’ Minimalist website and later the book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.
Now after a first book tour that let them meet their readers and see what stories resonated with them, Millburn and Nicodemus are back with another book, Everything That Remains, a kind of memoir that is much more “why to” than “how to” according to Millburn. The Minimalists arrived in Houston for a stop in their 100 city tour (they're at Brazos Bookstore at 7 p.m. Tuesday), and I had a chance to ask Millburn how to minimize to lead life to its maximum.
CultureMap: The structure of Everything That Remains is rather unique with your voice narrating the story, but then Ryan has a kind of conversation with the story in the endnotes. How did you decide on such a format?
Joshua Fields Millburn: Our first book was very much in the first person plural pronouns, but I wanted to tell a story. The way to make it the most immediate was to tell it from a first person present tense perspective. It was actually Ryan’s idea to pepper in those interruptions. It’s how we are. We interrupt each other and sometimes those interruptions are just funny smart-alecky remarks, but other times they can be profound. . .
Really we wanted to tell a story, and we felt the best way to do that was to draw the reader in with that first person.
CM: One thing I noticed while going back and forth between your narrative and Ryan’s endnotes is that in a way the book always allow Ryan to have the final word on any subject.
JFM: That’s interesting. No one has been brought that up before. I think that’s very much so, especially when you get to the ending. To me it’s my favorite ending out of anything that we’ve done, but I think even then he gets the last word. I’m OK with that, him getting the last word.
We’re radically different people, but we’ve known each other for a very long time, and we have similar values and beliefs. Even though we have different personalities, we’re very similar in a foundational system of values. I feel comfortable with saying: Yeah, I believe the same stuff that he does, so why not let him get the last word.
CM: One very emotional scene that happens relatively early in the book is when you write about having to figure out what to do with all your mother’s possessions after her death and especially the things from your childhood that she kept. You observe how many times we hang on to stuff because those objects perhaps connect us to our memories of people. Is that a bad thing?
JFM: I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. In my case — and from talking with thousands of readers and getting different perspectives — I think where it becomes problematic is when we think the memories are in our things, as opposed to the memories being in us.
It’s not that I’m proselytizing. Ryan and I aren’t trying to convert anyone to minimalism. For me it’s about sharing a recipe.
You’re right though, I think things can trigger memories, that’s why I took pictures of mom’s stuff before getting rid of it. It was a very difficult process, but I find those pictures trigger memories in just the same way.
Some things I sold and gave that money to a couple of charities that helped her with her chemo and radiation. She had some help, and this is paying it forward, but it would have been selfish of me to just hold on to something for sentimental reasons when I wasn’t actually getting value from it.
I don’t ever say to other people you have to get rid of those things. That would be silly for me to say. I think it doesn’t make sense to hold on to things that don’t add value to your life.
CM: When I read about minimalism there’s sometimes an emphasis on material things, and I know from Everything That Remains and your website that decluttering the material stuff is part of the journey, but I wonder if in the 21st century it’s all the virtual stuff and information that’s beginning to weigh heavy on us. In my own case, I think I’m more of an information pack rat than someone who has to always buy things. Is it possible to clean out our digital or virtual closets on this level?
JFM: I think this is important, especially as we’re making a shift. The material possessions are a physical manifestation of some sort of some internal clutter that manifests external. For me, getting rid of that stuff was the initial bite of the apple that changed everything. It was making room for what was actually important.
From a digital perspective I think we need to look at it differently, now. We are making a shift from an ownership society to a culture of access. The most staggering example, in my case, would be the hundreds of DVD and thousands of CD I used to own. . .We’re now more focused on having access to things, which is very encouraging to me. We’re less worried about owning this CD as having access to this album. Will that bleed over to the physical world? I hope so.
We met a guy in Albuquerque who told us when he needs a chainsaw he goes to his storage locker, which is Craigslist, and then he puts it back in his storage locker, Craigslist, and someone else gets it. Having access to a digital files or a chain saw, if you’re not using it everyday, to me that’s far more important than: Yes I own this chainsaw or yes I own this widget and storing it in my storage locker just in case I need it someday. . .
For me it’s not about owning less or having less online. It’s about making the most deliberate choices.
CM: I was looking at your tour dates, and this seems like a schedule that would make the most jaded, indie rocker cry. Why such an intense push?
JFM: We’re fortunately enough to have a large audience that I could be fine sitting in a house in Montana and writing, but to me nothing replaces the face to face interaction. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. This is a message I really believe in. And I want to get it out there. It’s not that I’m proselytizing. Ryan and I aren’t trying to convert anyone to minimalism. For me it’s about sharing a recipe. Can other people find ingredients that work for their lives?
It’s a platitude, but giving is living. Emotionally that didn’t really resonate with me until I started doing it and feeling fulfilled by contributing beyond myself.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists, appear at Brazos Bookstore at 7 p.m. Tuesday.