How Decluttering Led to Realizing a Lifelong Dream

“IT IS THE POSSIBILITY OF HAVING A DREAM COME TRUE THAT MAKES LIFE INTERESTING.” – PAULO COELHO

IT ALL STARTED WITH A DREAM…

I wanted to be a writer as soon as I was able to read at age four. I loved meeting new characters and plunging into their worlds, and I wanted to create stories as entertaining as the ones I read.

But as I approached adulthood, I heard a message over and over again: writing will not pay the rent or put food on the table. This message rang loud and clear for a daughter of blue-collar immigrants. I knew my heart’s desire, but I was bound to familial duty. I had to get a good job and help out my struggling family. Becoming a starving artist was not an option.

THE ONSET OF CLUTTER

After majoring in English in college, I went to law school and found a job in corporate law. My years at the law firm were intense and stressful, but I got paid well for the many hours I devoted and I could finally help out my family. I kept writing stories at night and on weekends because it provided the best escape from my very serious, very fact-based job. However, with my newfound funds, I could also escape in other, more expensive ways: shopping, luxury travel, fine dining as well as hobbies such as oil painting, skating, playing the piano and skiing/snowboarding…the list went on and on.

In other words, because my job was high stress and it didn’t exactly satisfy my creative yearnings, I began filling my free time with hobbies to keep me entertained and distracted. Consumerism accompanied these hobbies, and my apartment soon became a storage unit of art supplies, Rollerblades, snow gear, exercise equipment, etc. I rotated among hobbies for years, collecting more supplies, more gear, more STUFF.

And then, when I got married and my husband and I moved into a townhouse near the beach, and then into our current home in the hills, the repeated packing and unpacking process clarified what I already knew. I simply had TOO MUCH STUFF! After unloading yet another box, it dawned on me that if anyone were to review my objects, they’d quickly realize I was someone with way too many interests. And too many interests meant a lack of focus. I craved a more focused, less scattershot lifestyle.

THE ROADMAP TO CHANGE

So I decided to get serious about decluttering every aspect of my life – not just possessions, but also activities and hobbies. The first thing I did was to type out a one-page sheet of priorities – a “vision board” of sorts. I called it my roadmap. (That was about seven years ago.) I listed things I wanted to focus on, things I wanted to accomplish in my life. Among the top items were: 1) de-materialize and declutter to focus on the essential aspects of life (that’s a mouthful, but I actually did write that down because it was important to me) and 2) become a published author.

Then came the process of implementing what I’d written, allowing my words to guide my action. My roadmap directed my time and my resources during the years that followed. I was basically fasting from extraneous activities and possessions in order to focus more on what was truly important to me. Decluttering was like a spiritual discipline! To keep me on course, I often referred to blogs like becomingminimalist.com and books like “The More of Less” by Joshua Becker and “Simple Matters” by Erin Boyle.

I began to de-prioritize my collection of random hobbies in order to focus on my writing. (How ironic that my primary passion was actually the least expensive of the bunch – it only required my imagination and a pen/paper or a laptop!) I trimmed down on my weekend painting courses and stopped going on expensive ski trips (I didn’t love spending hours in the snow and my knees always hurt afterwards, so I wasn’t too sad to let this one go). I also sold and donated my old skates, snow clothes, etc. There was gradually less to clean, less to store, less to maintain. With my additional free time, I sharpened my writing skills and learned more about the craft. I signed up to be a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and immersed myself in the world I’d originally set out to join, all those years ago when I was a kid dreaming up stories.

As I began making headway in the publishing industry – forging connections at writer’s conferences and securing a literary agent – I became even more laser-focused on my priorities. The more deeply I delved into my primary passion, the more efficient and streamlined I became with my time, reserving my best hours for my biggest priorities. Yes, this meant I had to sacrifice some things, such as certain social activities, TV watching and a string of hobbies. But the rewards far outweighed the sacrifices because finally, I saw my dream crystalizing into more than just a dream.

A DREAM BECOMES REALITY

Today, my dream is my reality. My first children’s book “The Turtle Ship” was published several months ago by Lee & Low Books (it features exquisite paper collage illustrations by Colleen Kong-Savage), and my second picture book, “The Paper Kingdom,” will come out in a year by Penguin Random House (it’s being illustrated by the brilliant artist Pascal Campion). I also have other manuscript drafts in various stages of completion. My house is now decluttered to the point where I can look around and debate what else to get rid of, because my space is cleansed of things I don’t use or don’t love. As the famous 19th century textile designer William Morris said: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (Random note: I had to research prints of William Morris textiles for a part-time job when I was a college student — little did I know back then how much his statement would impact me.)

Had I spent more years rotating among hobbies and collecting more stuff, it would’ve taken much, much longer for me to realize my original dream of becoming a published author. I would’ve simply been too distracted.

It takes hard work and discipline to resist a consumerist routine (I had a habit of online shopping or strolling through the mall when I was bored or depressed), and it’s a constant battle to combat societal pressures to consume more and more. But if you’re craving a mindful and focused lifestyle, I highly recommend writing a priority list or creating a vision board to guide you. This will be your roadmap, so review it often. I suggest weekly. If you focus on pursuits that are core to your identity and who you want to be, you’ll find yourself on a path to more peace and fulfillment. I’m a prime example of how too many hobbies and too much stuff stood in the way of realizing a lifelong dream…until I finally decided to conquer the clutter once and for all.

For more posts about my decluttering journey, click here.

17 Responses to “How Decluttering Led to Realizing a Lifelong Dream”

  1. Tanya Bahari-Connor

    This really resonates with me. I have been on my minimalism journey for 2 yrs and now feel the true benefits of the lifestyle after many deep decluttering sessions and a new attitude when buying things. I wanted to write since I was 5yrs old and now I have the time, I have enrolled in a writing course and are beginning to routinely write. Congratulations on refinding your passion and following it!

    Reply
    • Helena

      So happy to hear you’re taking concrete steps! Enjoy the writing course. Your comment reinvigorated me — thanks for reading the post 🙂

      Reply
  2. Stacy

    Your story was very inspiring and I want to thank you for sharing it with us. We each have a dream. Let’s not let possessions or mental clutter hold us back. 🙂

    Reply
    • Helena

      Thanks for stopping by! Agreed 100% — too many possessions and mental clutter can hold us back from a more meaningful and satisfying life. Carpe diem!

      Reply
  3. Kathleen D

    Thanks for your great article, it’s inspriring like others here have said. I also started decluttering and being more intentional about what comes into my home several years ago. I find it harder now to do so after having had a child, but I try to regularly sort through her things a little bit at a time. Incidentally, my daughter’s name is also Helena, and I’ll keep an eye out for your book!

    Reply
    • Helena

      It sounds like you’re on the right track by sorting a bit at a time. Do what you can do for each moment, step by step, so that the process is enjoyable rather than overwhelming. Best wishes to you and your (beautifully-named) daughter! 😉

      Reply
  4. Connie

    So glad I read your article. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I , too, have had many hobbies (and jobs), none of which fulfilled my dreams. Maybe it’s not too late for me.

    Reply
    • Helena

      It’s never too late! I hope you do pick up that pen (or laptop) and start writing very soon. I think we all need to express our creativity a little bit each day to satisfy the deep longing, especially if you’re an artistic soul (and it sounds like you most definitely are). You’ll feel so much better after you put some words down on the page, even if the starting steps are shaky.

      Reply
  5. Tracy

    I paused midway into your story because I felt a deep ache in my heart; I’ve always dreamt of writing and illustrating a children’s book in the future but my lifelong practice of making art and blogging have both fallen to the wayside. I feel so rusty whenever I try either in a moment of inspiration. My dream competes with many other dreams in my life, and my current responsibilities demand all of my time and energy. I know this dream is not a priority to pursue right now (it’s always on the backlog, never in my personal quarterly roadmap). Thank you for sharing your story; it reminded me of what I love and encouraged me to carve out space in my life to practice it, even if it’s not something I want to bring to fruition now.

    Reply
    • Helena

      Thank you so much for your note! You’ve expressed exactly how I used to feel when I read about other writers/artists who realized their dreams. The dream of publication seemed so out of reach, and yet reading about others’ breakthroughs stirred in me lots of longing. A “deep ache in my heart,” as you so eloquently expressed. What I’ve learned is that even if you feel totally uninspired or overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities, try to put down at least one sentence one day at a time. Pretty soon, you’ll have a page. And then a chapter. You’re very fortunate to be able to both write and illustrate, and I do hope you pursue creating kidlit soon. The SCBWI is a great resource, and you’ll meet so many kindred souls, many who took years to actually start plugging away at their dreams. Sending you all my best!

      Reply
  6. Rebecca

    Thank you so much for writing this! I relate all to well to the “too many hobbies” issue. I often joke that I am a Jack of all trades, master of none. I recently spent several weeks working on decluttering and I was able to let go of so much by way of craft supplies and other hobby materials. I still have multiple hobbies, but I feel like they are a little more contained. I love to write and actually finished my first in what I hope to be a series of children’s books but have been too scared to take the next step into getting it published. I hope to be able to spend more time editing it and finding an illustrator now that I got rid of some of the excess. I have also been able to pursue my passion project with my photography and started a new blog a few weeks ago to showcase those pictures. Thanks again for sharing your story, you are truly an inspiration!

    Reply
    • Helena

      Oh that’s so great! Your comment literally had me dancing in my office chair 🙂 So glad to hear about all the productive decluttering and your resulting focus on the activities that matter most to you. Hoping to see your children’s book series on the shelves!

      Reply
  7. Karen T.

    Congratulations on your success, Helena! Your article was very inspiring. Like many of your commenters, I too have wanted to be a writer for children. I’m a grandmother now, but maybe it’s not too late for me!

    Reply
    • Helena

      Thanks so much! It’s never too late to realize a dream, and you’d be amazed at how many grandparents are writing kidlit. You have a rich source of ideas and material–your grandkids! And they can even be your “test audience” for anything you write 🙂

      Reply

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