Paring Down to Create More with Melissa Coleman
Fresh year, fresh episode. Today we’re digging into simplifying, organizing, minimalism, and paring down so you can create more with Melissa Coleman from the Faux Martha.
Paring Down to Create More with Melissa Coleman
In this conversation with Melissa Coleman, we talk about everything from what minimalism is to how to separate minimalism from perfectionism, taking a step back from the hustle, and then some tactical tips for creating a framework for a minimalist kitchen and minimalist eating– making this whole lifestyle work in real life.
Today we’re digging into simplifying, organizing, and paring down so you can create more.
We’re kicking off 2019 with a conversation with Melissa Coleman from the Faux Martha.
Melissa is a designer, a home cook, a baker, a dishwasher, a wife, a mom, and what she calls a “cozy minimalist”.
She believes in everyday magic and aeropress coffee.
Her work has been featured all over the place, including Real Simple, Better Homes and Gardens, and The Wall Street Journal.
Melissa published her first book, The Minimalist Kitchen, in 2018, which we’ll dive into during this conversation.
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In this episode, we talk about everything from what minimalism is to how to separate minimalism from perfectionism, taking a step back from the hustle, and then some tactical tips for creating a framework for a minimalist kitchen and minimalist eating– making this whole lifestyle work in real life.
On what led Melissa to write her book:
Melissa kept coming up against the problem of more, especially in her kitchen space, but also in her closet space– she felt it everywhere.
The problem she kept coming back to was too much stuff.
In all areas of her home, but especially in the kitchen, Melissa started to pare down, keeping the things that she actually used and getting rid of the things that she didn’t.
Something she started to notice was that when she pared things down to a manageable amount, she was actually able to make more.
She knew how to use the tools and ingredients that she was keeping, and so she made more.
On moving towards less: where to start and what it means in practical terms:
Melissa is still trying to figure out how to talk about how to make moving towards less happen and how to become a more doable distillery in her own life.
Simplicity is hard– you can think about it in the context of a recipe.
When she’s working on a recipe, Melissa tries to pare it down to the necessities and then gets rid of all the extras.
And there’s a point in a recipe when you cannot delete a step, you cannot delete an ingredient, because if you do, it’s no longer what the recipe is actually supposed to be.
That’s the hard part, and in a lot of ways it takes experimenting; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing.
Once you’ve simplified, it looks simple, but getting there is the hardest part.
It takes a lot of time, and that’s what feels counterintuitive.
Robyn’s dad is a professor, an academic with high standards, who she worked for in recent years.
It was amazing work, but it was too complicated– people couldn’t access it, but it could be simplified.
Her father found it frustrating, not wanting to “dumb it down”.
However, to Robyn, simplifying does not mean dumbing it down.
In fact, it is so much more work to write only one paragraph than five pages.
You can always do more, and that’s why Melissa believes houses are so easily cluttered.
You can always add more, but it’s about asking, “if I take this away, will the room feel unbalanced? Will it feel sparse? Will is feel welcoming?”.
Simplifying takes time and intentionality.
Our human brain is wired for more, but marketing messages, and the culture here, in the United States, is very focused on never enough.
This combination creates a perfect storm that’s missing intentionality.
Everything is beautiful and pristine.
And she has what Robyn thinks of as a dichotomy, because although it’s not Melissa’s intended message, it becomes about an outcome.
That’s a secondary issue around simplification and minimalism: it becomes about an outcome.
We have ideas around what we think minimalism is supposed to look like– a white kitchen, or labeled mason jars in the pantry.
And maybe those are part of your process, but it very well may not.
On outcome versus process in minimalism:
Melissa is a visual communicator, first.
Her background is in graphic design, which is how she learned to beautifully and precisely communicate the essentials.
And that is still her main mode of communication.
When you’re scrolling through an Instagram feed, you don’t have to read words, but she also loves words, and to her, words matter.
One thing Melissa is trying to figure out personally, is that sometimes she loves what her life looks like, but images don’t capture it all.
You can’t see what’s behind the camera; it’s not the full story.
She wants to be honest about her pursuit of minimalism, of paring down, of simplicity, but it’s really hard to be completely honest in that.
“Even when it does look this way, it’s still the same life as it was before”.
Your home might look just how you’d like, but your car still breaks down and you still argue with your husband or lose patience with your kids.
Melissa has chosen minimalism as a tool, because life is chaotic.
She began identifying where chaos became a problem, like when it got in the way of being able to figure out what to make for dinner.
So she grabbed minimalism as a tool, used in the way she designed her home, in the way she designs her recipes, and she’s currently trying to figure out how to implement that into her work life.
The byproduct of minimalism is space.
Melissa loves space; as a painter she learned about using negative space as a tool to draw the eye to where she wanted, and as a designer she learned about using white space as a tool to draw the eye towards an image or message.
And in her home she uses negative space and white space to create space to do the things she wants, like eat dinner, or have a bonfire with her family, or just space to remind herself where her phone is.
Minimalism and simplifying are about the process and not the outcome.
When we focus on the outcome, we can get confused and caught up in what we think it should look like; it can become a very privileged and exclusive thing.
But if we can deemphasize outcome and focus on the process and steps to get there, we can find that space can come out in many ways.
Robyn sees overlap in creating space and mindfulness: having space to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, or having space in your day to take a deep breath, or having space to sit down and have a meal with your family.
And having that space doesn’t cost money, it just costs intention.
And it also doesn’t require looking a certain way.
It’s about remembering to find joy in our actions, too, which is easy to forget when we busy ourselves.
Even by busying ourselves in creating the space we live in comes with stress.
“The weird thing about minimalism is that you do have to do a lot of work to get to a place”.
Our spaces matter, and Melissa thinks of spaces as mirrors that are reflecting something back at us.
If your space feels chaotic, you might be feeling that in your life too.
But even if you’re not feeling it, it’s a visual reminder of a need for space.
And also about time: time is almost this secret ingredient.
Melissa was working on a pizza dough recipe that took almost an entire summer of testing, and their secret ingredient, a beautiful analogy, was time.
The dough tasted so much better when it had time to sit in the fridge and rest for three days, compared to dough made the morning of.
“I love the analogy that time is actually an ingredient, it should be in recipes, it should be in our life… it’s a practice, and what it looks like today is going to look so different for you, for me, five years from now, maybe even two months from now… it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing”.
Robyn reminds that when you overlay perfection, comparison, overwhelm, and guilt onto anything you end up with worse results.
In this case, when you overlay perfectionism on top of minimalism, is becomes paralyzing because you’re trying to get an impossible outcome.
It can discourage you from even starting or just drive you crazy with a new set of problems that you’ve created for yourself.
Melissa talks about this idea in her book, too.
She talks about it because it’s something she’s working on and living in.
In talking about minimalism, Melissa wrote, “Does everything need to be efficient and just right? No. As with everything, I hope you see this philosophy for all its good and for all its flaws. I like to think of minimalism as a practice because it needs constant refining. Rules that are too rigid will strip away the joy, and rules that are too loose will create overflow and a frustrating kitchen. The magic is in the space between, or as Koren refers to it, the magic is in the poetry”.
There’s a quote by Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers, that Melissa wrote about all through her book.
“Pare down the essence, but don’t remove the poetry”.
That quote became a guiding principle for Melissa.
For her, the poetry is in life and experience, in the practice of yoga, in the practice of failing, and in the practice of doing it right.
Robyn reflects on having those moments every so often that serve to remind of the purpose.
It’s not the other stuff, it’s not the outcome of the kitchen looking a certain way.
And it’s hard; when you think about it from a neurological perspective, you notice that you don’t get reinforcement right away from this process.
On everyday magic:
On social media, we try to create a magic that’s expensive, that’s costly, and really there’s been so much work put into the picture that it’s not even enjoyable.
Melissa realized that the ordinary things are really easy to enjoy, and you don’t have to do much work to get there.
Something as everyday as sitting by a fire, being mesmerized by a flame, or laughing while playing a board game.
Those were the things she was missing and the things that she wanted to give her daughter.
As she started to experience certain things that brought a lot of joy, she paid attention to them.
The transition to parenthood was a challenge for Melissa’s family, and paying attention to these joyful moments became increasingly important.
“You experience those joys… you see them and you spot them, and then they go away again. And I wanted to figure out a way to remember what those things are”.
Now, at the top of Melissa’s family calendar, there is a monthly bucket list with the basic things like canoeing in June or apple picking in October.
Remembering the really basic things that don’t take much effort to get there but produce a lot of joy, and that’s the everyday magic.
Melissa also thinks the everyday, ordinary magic is gathering around the dinner table.
“The food brings us to the table… but then the magic happens once you get to the table. And getting to the table is really hard”.
One of the reasons Melissa wrote her book was to figure out how to get to the table.
She wanted to design recipes that were simple enough, flavorful enough, and nourishing enough to get her family to the table.
But then once they got to the table, what kinds of conversations came up.
“When you look at the every day, it’s nothing to really even write a blog post about or take a picture of, but when you splice together all those little bits of the ordinary, they turn into something magic. They create these deep, deep connections that you cannot find on Pinterest or Instagram”.
Robyn reminds that science supports this idea: once you start intentionally pointing out these things, your brain learns to spot them.
You are already wired to notice threats and spot harm, but you can start to rewire toward these things that matter, but you have to be intentional.
Calling it out and writing it down may feel forced at first, but over time your experience in the world changes and you begin to create a meaningful life.
On creating a minimalist life, step by step:
Melissa uses frameworks everywhere.
When it comes to writing, she knows that she writes best in the morning, at her desk, with a cup of coffee.
She figured out when she succeeds, and then created frameworks around that working backwards.
“The best framework is an intuitive framework”.
Watch your patterns, pay attention to the problem areas, and then you can work toward really great solutions; that’s the process of working backwards.
Melissa just created a pantry cleanse to break down the idea of framework.
Think of the kitchen as a closet, because closets are the biggest troublemakers.
The hard part, though, is that the clothes in the kitchen are perishable and they disappear, and we have too many tools, too many spices.
In order to make it more manageable, pare it down.
Robyn knows how difficult it can be to put this idea into practice, and she uses the idea of creating a capsule pantry to help.
It’s this idea that you can think of meals in parts, and use those parts to mix and match so that when you go to the store, you fill in the parts, not the list of ingredients.
And then when you “shop” your pantry, there’s stuff in there that can be used to mix and match.
What happens for so many people who are cooking, is they collect recipes and buy lists of ingredients for each recipe, and then end up with this overwhelm flow of stuff that isn’t used again.
Within a framework perspective, it’s about getting really intentional with your patterns and looking for where the excess is.
Spices, for example, are such a great example, because so many of us have excess spices in different shaped jars filling our pantries.
Robyn’s strategy for paring down her spices is to pay attention to what is used and buy nothing else.
Even if it’s a spice called for in someone else’s recipe, rather than adding an additional jar to her shelf, she skips it or just makes something else.
In total, Robyn has only eight spices, which she stores in glass jars in a drawer and buys in bulk to save money and effort.
And all of Robyn’s recipes only use those eight spices.
But creating something that now makes her life easier was not a totally easy process.
Melissa still runs into this issue every so often, looking in the back of the pantry and finding something that nobody is really eating.
Her solution? Either get rid of the jar or fill it with something that they are buying all of the time.
It’s thought intention, having a framework to start working toward, and experimenting.
The experimenting piece tends to scare people, but too much step-by-step guidance won’t work for you if it’s coming from somebody else’s plan (it’s not one-size-fits-all!)
Instead, you have to find a place between someone else’s plan and no plan, and that middle space can feel really uncomfortable.
And when it doesn’t go the way you wanted, take it as feedback rather than failure.
There are great resources to get started on this process, like what useful kitchen equipment Melissa recommends or a guide of what to include in your capsule pantry from Robyn, but you should also ask yourself whether you need or will even use something that made the list.
“Use your intuition. Know when to say no when it doesn’t work in your space and say yes when it does”.
On how to work like a minimalist:
Melissa finds herself in a tailwind again and again, working hard and not being in the places that she wants to be.
She makes a point that she loves her book, but she wants to be remembered by her relationships.
While working on her book, she realized she was spending her time working on something, but not working on other things that she wanted to be working on.
She was repeatedly finding herself in a place where her work life was out of control, even though she had created calm spaces.
Melissa uses minimalism in her personal life to make it feel more doable and create space to hang out with her family, but her work life was spilling over into her personal life.
While she was on her book tour, Melissa realized that if she was going to use minimalism as a tool in all other areas of her life, it needed to be woven into her work as well.
Currently, she is working on making just enough, financially, but to make money as a blogger your work has to be seen– a challenging balance.
Melissa talks about how helpful taking breaks is: she took long breaks over the summer, disappearing for weekends and slowing down.
“I approached life more slowly, content more slowly, and I personally feel so much more fulfilled and I’m so much prouder of the work that I’m producing at this pace than the work I was producing at the pace of a hustle”.
Melissa was listing to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast with will. i. am., and on it, he talked about a horse named Hustle.
You don’t want a horse named Hustle because they’re not going to last.
You want someone who can endure, and in order for Melissa to endure, she has to work backwards and figure out the pace at which she can endure.
Something she recently asked herself is, “If I can’t keep us this pace, can I work in this industry?”
She gave herself 12 months to come to a decision, with the intention of walking away from her work afterwards.
But during that time, she implemented some of the changes she always said she would but hadn’t.
Ultimately, Melissa is proud of the work she is producing now, and where she’s at came from choices to make less money and be seen less on social media.
All of our choices have consequences; all of our choices come with loss, even the best ones.
Melissa’s choices, of working a more manageable, minimalist work life, comes at a cost but it also comes with reward and benefit.
Both Robyn and Melissa fully acknowledge the privilege this conversation is, around sacrificing work for something more meaningful.
And although it’s not the topic of today’s episode, it’s always an important message to notice.
But, behind the scenes, being a content creator or business owner online in 2019 is the perfect experiment in pushing people to always do and be more, to be seen.
Something that people aren’t always aware of is that if a content creator doesn’t put content out onto a platform at a frequent enough pace, the platform will consequently show their content less.
And it’s not just about money it’s also about mission, why do this work if it’s not going to be seen?
Doing really good work that connects with people and provides value might be a proxy for hustle, but producing really good content still matters, even if it’s at a slower pace.
“Hustle always comes at a cost, maybe to our humanity, maybe to our wellbeing, maybe to our relationships”.
It’s about finding a balance between taking the time off and doing what really matters and also amplifying the message and continuing the conversation amidst the chaos that is the internet.
If you are a consumer online, they way you can help is by actually showing up and commenting.
Engaging with online content opposed to scrolling through is on one hand, linked with more wellness, but that aside, it’s also incredibly helpful to the platforms you love.
People like Melissa and Robyn don’t put content out there for themselves, they actually would love to hear from you!
They aren’t experts, they’re just doing it in public.
On what it means to be healthy:
“Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry”.
“Practicing moderation, whether it’s in your work life, whether it’s in the amount of spices you keep in your kitchen, in the amount friends you keep… so that things aren’t taking away and you’re able to add to things”.
Melissa Coleman is a Maine-based freelance travel writer and the author of the memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands.
Melissa’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, National Geographic Traveler, Travel Weekly, O Magazine, The Oregonian, Portland Press Herald, Maine, Maine Home + Design, and on Everett Potter’s Travel Report and Powells.com.
This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, was a New York Times bestseller, Indie Next Pick, People’s Pick in People Magazine, and nonfiction finalist for the Maine Literary and New England Book awards. A window into the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, it tells of the joys, challenges, and a family tragedy experienced while growing up on an off-the-grid homestead that was inspired by self-sufficiency icons Helen and Scott Nearing.
Melissa’s father, Eliot Coleman, a renowned pioneer of the organic farming movement, and her stepmother, gardening author Barbara Damrosch, own Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Her sister, Clara Coleman, manages the family farm and is a sustainable farming consultant.