One of my very favorite books is The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1996). In it, there are black and white photographs of famous writers at their desks. I have never been the kind of writer – to my detriment – to read how-to books on writing. But this voyeur’s peek into a sacrosanct world? I only wish Krementz had published all 1500 photos she claims to have taken.
Seeing iconic writers at their desks – actually doing the work, doing the writing – is like seeing your kindergarten teacher in the grocery store when you are 5. The shock of it: they are real people! (You weren’t sure). The writers are thinking. They are in their pajamas. They are on a couch with a pen. They are surrounded by babies or cats. (They have babies and cats!) Or they lie in bed. They stare, sit cross-legged, smoke, type. They have mountains of papers, or sparse desks in sparser rooms.
My desk was inherited from my in-laws during a home renovation. It is solid oak and nine feet long. I adore it. It has been hoisted through second story windows. It has been lovingly dismantled screw by screw for five different moves (each time fewer screws were replaced, and now I suspect it is held together by both adoration and gravity). It has lived in an old chicken coop turned studio, in various bedrooms, and now exists above my garage.
While in the Novel Incubator program this past year, in the process of revising my novel, I thought I’d take photos of it during my novel revision. Despite my best intentions, it was always profoundly messy: research and scribbled notes, file folders, maps, books, photos, model airplanes, to-do lists, other people’s novels, manuscripts, poetry collections. And I realized: my desk is a portal into another world.
To create meaning, there must be a deconstruction of boundaries. Of our comfort zones, of our ideas of right and wrong, of our ideas of rules, of how-tos, even our notions of what constitutes perfection. I surround myself with ideas and facts and books. It gives me a raw, organic, living mess in which to draw energy. Sitting down, I re-read scribbled middle-of-the-night notes on character, or look at photographs of Children’s Hospitals in 1918. I peek through Ken Burns’ THE WAR and an email from my uncle on how to start a 1935 Plymouth (it’s tricky). I retrace walking tours of Portland, Maine, with gorgeous little maps I collected while doing research there. I glance at a book about the Hapsburg princess interned in Texas during WW2. All of this – and more – feeds into the life of my novel.
Creativity, for me, rises out of this chaos. I find it in looseness, in shifts and longing; sometimes, even, in the ugly. In the remorseful, in loss, in bad decisions. In desire and heartbreak. Now of course I am talking about my mind.
It’s okay to allow yourself – just like a messy desk – to have a messy mind. There are so many things to be conscientious about: paying bills, forcing your teenagers to eat vegetables. But give yourself some breathing room before censuring the clutter of your writing space, and thus your mind. Let the physical space be a place of comfort, of energy, of looseness. Of freedom, of rule-breaking, of consummate privacy. Whatever it takes to allow you the space (mental, physical) and energy to write.
If you really want to make yourself feel better, read this article in the New York Times. What a Messy Desk Says About You, by Gretchen Reynolds (September 19, 2013). It’s actually scientific: “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”
Every time I start a new revision, I fire up the vacuum. I attack the mountains of paper, I file the research, fold up the maps, stack the character arcs and the timelines. Right the splayed book spines and wipe up the less pretty: the fly corpses, the crisp-dried tea bags. I sweep the stairs. I find cryptic notes, notes I no longer understand, and feel a sense of loss. It starts to look tidy and dull instead of like a madwoman’s lair. Shouldn’t this be calming? I feel a sense of doom as the recycling bin fills and notecards are rubber-banded. All those wretched notes, the half-crazed tirades, the highlighted articles, the overdue library books. I take a good look around: it is neat again, respectable, but the energy is gone. This is not when I would take the photo. Take away the mess, and you take away what is interesting, and vital, about the space I choose to work in. You take out me.
All clean, I drum my knuckles on the oaky expanse of my desk. Or is it my mind? Possibility: fresh and blank. And I sit down, hopeful and eager for an ever yet more beautiful, complicated, thrilling mess and the writing it will inspire.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on July 29, 2014.