TINY: 4 Things Writing Has In Common with the Tiny-House Movement

And now for something completely different! (Variety is good, I’m told.) My baby brother, of whom I’m ridiculously proud, and his brilliant girlfriend, who is truly amazing for reals, are in the process of polishing a documentary they filmed about their experience building and living in a tiny house. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the “tiny-house movement” is basically the implementation of a set of ideals in which a person tries to live on as small a footprint as possible, using as little resources as possible, to make the world a better place for its burgeoning population.

Back a few years ago, my brother was inspired by this movement to build his own tiny house and, since he’s a filmmaker, document the whole experience, exploring as he built the house the idea of what makes a home. A few months ago, he and his girlfriend finished the house and the filming and sent me a rough cut to get my opinion. Well, let me just say that I was Blown. Away. The quality of the project, the power of the interviews, the heart of the film…words just cannot describe it. You’d have to see it yourself.

So then a week or two ago, they submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival, and while we anxiously await news on whether or not the submission will be accepted from among the 12,000 other films submitted, I thought I’d write up a quick blog post about four tenets I believe writing has in common with the tiny-house movement.

The World Is Your Living Room

If you’re like me, the idea of living in roughly 100 square feet is claustrophobic as hell. It would be like living in a nutshell. Well, the proponents of the tiny-house movement say that living so small forces you to make the world your living room. If you want to read a book, your community library is right down the street. If you want to spend time with friends, go for a hike with them or meet them at a local restaurant. The idea is that you meet people halfway, on shared turf.

For me, this is a great reminder to pare down description. As a creator of literary worlds, it can be difficult to keep from getting carried away in describing every detail of action, interaction, and setting, so that the reader is one-hundred-percent immersed in the author’s vision of the story. But I’ve heard it said, and I think it’s great advice, that we should build only what is needed to set a scene. Two or three specific details woven into the main action are plenty to ground the reader. The rest should be left up to the reader’s own imagination and shared experience. Let the reader meet the story halfway.

Live an Authentic Life

It seems to me that the philosophy driving the tiny-house movement is a deep desire to find, implement, and thrive in a more authentic life, meaning that many tiny-house dwellers seem to care more about finding in themselves the things they truly value and then building their lives around those things.

I’ve found that the books I love reading the most, the ones that I turn over and over in my mind, are likewise unearthing something authentic. Even in the most speculative fiction, the best stories are ones that hit very close to home. As writers, it’s important to plumb our own depths, uncover our own universal experiences so our characters can come alive on the page.

Learn to Build by Building

A few people have contacted my brother during this process, asking if they can learn from him how to build a tiny house. He laughed when he told me this and said, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” And the truth is he didn’t. He’d never built anything before in his life, much less an entire house. He learned how to do it by making a lot of mistakes, and I’m sure when someone asks him for his advice, he’s worried he’d just be telling them how not to build a house.

Writing, in my experience, is this way as well. Even after thousands of years, the only sure-fire way to learn how to write is to write. Make all the mistakes. Try all the things. Do, undo, redo, and repeat. It took me seven years of writing almost every day to get even close to good enough to get an agent. This is not an uncommon trajectory. It might take someone less time than that, sure, but everyone has to start in the same place: newbie without a clue. The wise newbie (yes, I believe there is such a thing) will get advice and critique along the way to help reduce the amount of time it takes to get good, but the time still needs to be put in.

Tap Your Community

When they decided to turn his tiny-house project into a documentary, they worked their way into the tiny-house community all over the country, interviewing tiny-house dwellers here in Portland, in California, in Washington, in Texas, in Massachusetts, and in Colorado. They blogged about the project and connected with other bloggers to learn more both about building and the movement itself. The support they garnered throughout the year (and some) it took to finish was astounding. They found and tapped their community, and with that network, they built a frigging house.

For writers, community is essential. As many other writers did, I started the writer’s journey with a set of preconceived notions about writing—specifically, that writing occurred in a bubble: I would write a thing, and someone else would publish it. Apparently, that is not how it works at all. There might be a bit of solitary time, but it’s far outstripped by the amount of time spent interacting with critique buddies, editors, marketing folks, and even readers. And this is the best thing ever! All those people with all their input and support take a book from good to changing the face of a generation.

So what insights do you think we can glean from the tiny-house movement?

To learn more about the tiny-house movement, start here.

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About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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