Maura Malloy: The Masterpiece of a Simple Life at TEDxIndianapolis (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of screenwriter Maura Malloy’s TEDx Talk: The Masterpiece of a Simple Life at TEDxIndianapolis conference. This This event took place on October 20, 2015 at Indianapolis, Indiana. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.


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Maura Malloy – Screenwriter

William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

These are words I live by for two reasons: I love being surrounded by beauty, and my physical surroundings directly affect my person. I can meditate and do yoga till the cows come home, but if I’m surrounded by a mess or just excess stuff in general, I am unable to focus, to work or to relax. A serene space is a requirement for my sanity’s sake, both professionally and personally.

Clear countertops, an empty sink, clothes put away, an empty desk to write on. That thought alone both focuses and calms me, but the world I live in doesn’t readily meet my needs for simplicity. There are more products available to us than ever before.

The 1950s-era supermarket contained 3,000 different items, but by the 1990s, there were 30,000 items.

Let’s take a look at a swanky Fifth Avenue apartment in 1943. Notice the lack of clutter, the negative space, the simplicity of it all. This is no longer the ideal, or, even if it is to some people, it’s nearly impossible to achieve. We, as a society, are accumulating more than ever before, much of which can be traced back 25 years ago, to when imports to America increased exponentially, allowing huge amounts of cheap toys, clothes, and electronics to come our way.

As a result of this accumulation, 1 in 11 American households spends over a thousand dollars a year to rent self-storage space. One quarter of households that have two car garages have so much stuff in there, they can’t park a car. And although US consumers make up 3% of the world’s children, we buy 40% of the world’s toys.

So, while I find this New York apartment to be the ideal for serenity, it wasn’t necessarily attractive to me always. I remember coveting my collections as a little girl. There was the Berenstain Bear book collection, the pencil collection — I don’t understand — the Teddy Bear collection, and most importantly, my dolls. I wanted more of all of it. I was a child of the 80s and 90s. More equaled better, which equaled a happier, more fulfilling life, right?

All I have to say is, thank God for curiosity, because at 19, wanting to see the world, I traveled abroad to India, where I spent a good deal of time with a bunch of joyous children that lived nearby me. They were happy and fulfilled, but they had none of the collections I had as a little girl. A broken bicycle tire could entertain them. And, when I say “entertain”, I’m talking unquenchable joy emanating from their beings for hours at a time.

What’s more, my stuff was limited on that semester. Due to weight restrictions on Indian flights, I was only allotted 40 pounds in my backpack for the entire four months away, and that doesn’t add up too much. Yet, I felt unencumbered. Life got simpler. It was freeing, and my days became filled with experiences, and not stuff.

So, a seed was planted, but it wasn’t enough for me to change my habits. I judged American consumerism, but I bought tons of trinkets on that semester abroad. Many were for friends and family, but many were for me.

I shipped a huge box of tourist gear back to my parent’s house. But this was a unique circumstance, right? Possessions equal memories, right? That box was proof that my life had forever changed. It was proof that I was an adventurer, a world traveler.

How I came to believe otherwise has been an eye-opening experience. I became a minimalist when my passions and my goals became more important than my possessions.

Seven years ago, I started writing in earnest. It took me by surprise. For the better part of my life, I had dreamed about and pursued acting, and here I was, rolling out of bed, planting myself at my desk, beyond motivated, beyond fulfilled. It was a passion I never knew I had. And I was willing to go to any lengths to continue doing it for as long as I was around.

I was living in New York at the time, sharing an apartment with two roommates, living paycheck to paycheck, but I never felt lacking. After all, India had taught me the value of the experience.

But the more I wrote, the more I needed space, to daydream, to brainstorm, to create. So, here’s the thing about necessity being the mother of invention. My bedroom walls weren’t going to magically expand. I had to create space within the confines I was given, and it was a small bedroom, packed with furniture, tons of books, and pages upon pages of files from my graduate school years, proof that I had earned my master’s in Fine Arts.

So, to create space, I started to declutter. I checked my desk, I figured, “In this day and age, when we store everything on our laptops, a desk is unnecessary.” I scanned all my graduate school files, and now that I had digital copies, I recycled all that paper, and I even downsized my book collection, which kind of felt sacrilegious, but, after doing so, I had an empty shelf on my book case. That became my writing space, and my room got bigger.

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So, I had decluttered to the essentials to what I knew to be useful, but I loved beauty, and I was in New York, and style mattered to me, or, I should say, New York cultivated my sense of style because we would all agree, I had no idea how to put an outfit together when I first arrived.

So, once the city schooled me in the fine art of dressing, the decluttering extended to my closet, which was a good thing, because it was about the size of an iPhone. I got rid of anything that didn’t make me feel like a million bucks. I was ruthless about it, and the result was awesome. Gone were the days of hemming and hawing in front of a mirror, wondering if I looked OK.

When I did make purchases, I found quality pieces that lasted, paused to make sure I really loved them, then purchased sparingly. I like to call this the power of pause and the art of conscious consumption. I used my teeny apartment, my teeny bedroom, my teeny closet and my teeny budget to develop these skills. And I continue to use them today, even though my life couldn’t look more different if it tried.

I moved to Indianapolis. I moved in with a man that I ended up marrying. We’ve just sold his 1,000-square-foot house and have moved into a 2,700-square-foot house. And big reveal: I’m about to have a baby. Seriously; I’m 35 weeks along. We might want to flag any doctors in the audience, just in case.

So while I moved to Indianapolis with very few possessions, I moved into his fully furnished house. And guess what the first thing I did was when I arrived? I decluttered. I love my husband, and I knew he loved me when we went through every item in his house, and decided whether to donate it, to check it, or to keep it.

In my defense, he had become the bachelor that all of his friends had given their cast-off items to when they got married. But he’s also a collector. So, when he put his foot down about items he wouldn’t part with, I got to learn what his passions are, and what makes him tick.

When we got married, we asked for donations to our favorite charities because we didn’t need anything, but, when we got pregnant, we welcomed the baby showers and the generosity of loved ones. I don’t want minimalism to shackle me just like I don’t want to be shackled by stuff.

So, in this season of accumulation, I have instituted the power of pause, and the art of conscious consumption to design a baby registry, I have called that list more than you’d like to know — conscious consumption requires a lot of research — and I have gone to town designing a nursery I love.

But when the baby years are over, I will declutter what is no longer necessary and pass on the baby gear to another round of expecting parents.

Now I’m very aware that I could be carrying a hoarder who hates show tunes, but you know what they say, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

So, while I look forward to discovering her sense of style right along with her, I also plan to use simple living to instill values in her life. When I teach my little girl to put her toys away in the living room, it won’t be just because I can’t stand the mess. It will also be because I want to teach her that she shares this world with other people, and having a healthy respect for the space you take up in it is part and parcel to being a worker among workers during our time here on Earth.

I believe a home should be a haven, a place to return to, and rest, and find comfort so that we can better deal with the stressors that are inherently going to be a part of our life, instead of add to them.

When asked how he created his masterpiece, Michelangelo said, “It was simple. You just chip away until you see David.”

What if our life is our masterpiece? And what if we chip away all that is unnecessary, until we see what matters most, our people and our passions? What would that life be like?

So, I just want to ask two things of you before I wrap up.

The first is I ask that you go home tonight, and you find some quiet, serene space, and you close your eyes for 30 seconds, and you imagine what your masterpiece would look like, one that has nothing to do with keeping up with the Joneses or how you think you’re supposed to live your life, but how you truly, authentically want to.

And then, the only other thing I ask is that you wake up tomorrow, and every tomorrow after that, and you chip away all that is unnecessary, until you’re living your masterpiece.

Thank you.