Recently I had a day which I knew was going to be unproductive. I was getting the first thunderous rumblings of a migraine and there was no way I was going to be able to concentrate on writing my book. So I decided to do something useful anyway - requiring no brain power - and clear up my desk.
I say “desk”, but it is actually the oak dining table my grandmother bought on her marriage in 1933, so it has a larger surface area than the average desktop. In spite of this, you could hardly tell the colour of the wood because of all the things heaped up on it. It looked like this:
It took me three hours to clear up completely. Most of it was paperwork, which needed to be filed (groan!) in the proper places. There were also what seemed like a trillion receipts to be sorted: business expenses to be filed, the rest to be shredded. And then there were things like two pairs of 3D cinema glasses, which have no sensible home anywhere. Eventually, however, the desk looked like this:
I still had a stack of hardbacked books instead of a proper laptop stand, but otherwise it now looked tidy and respectable – and to my mind, a bit sterile.
I posted both of these pictures on Facebook, mainly to stop myself chickening out of the clearing up after I’d taken the first one! What was interesting was that instead of a chorus of “what a mess!” I suddenly had other writers commenting, “I feel so much better about mine now,” “Your desk is totally like my desk. I feel relieved,” and even: “That is such a comfort. Please leave it like that.” Some of them even posted photographs of their own messy desks.
Now, I am prepared to believe that there are authors out there who have beautifully ordered work spaces with their highlighter pens lined up in rows. However, it’s clear that many of us like to work in what one writer sweetly described as a “creative midden.” Or maybe we don’t like it as such, but we aren’t bothered enough about it to have a clear up. After all, we know where everything is, right? The reference book I am using is underneath that stack of old holiday photographs. Somewhere…
Anyway, having seen the comments on my messy photograph, I was wallowing in a pleasurable sense of writerly sisterhood, until I was pulled up short by a non-writing friend. “Helen,” she commented, “you wouldn't survive a day in a corporate office. It's clear desk every night.”
Setting aside the fact that I did in fact survive ten whole years in a corporate office before I became an author, this comment stung me a bit. It seemed to imply that my messy desk was incompatible with efficiency, productivity and professionalism. It was, in short, the sign of a deeply messy mind.
Perhaps I’m being oversensitive here. But as an author, you inevitably do hear a few remarks that suggest that writing is something that just sort of happens in a very unstructured way, probably while the author is sitting in an arty little café. Or in a hammock.
“I’d love to write a book if I ever had the time,” for example, which suggests that the speaker is too busy rushing about between important pieces of business to do anything as fey as write. And don’t get me started on the people who suggest a writer gets “a proper job”…
All this did make me think. Am I desperately disorganised and fey? No, I don’t think I am, and nor are my fellow authors.
It takes months, sometimes years, to produce the first draft of a novel. The first novel anyone writes (unless they are already a celebrity with an eager public crying out for their book) is written without any guarantee that it will ever be published and read. Eighty or ninety thousand words don’t write themselves; that represents a huge amount of work done entirely “on spec.” There is nobody hanging over the author’s shoulder at that point, urging them to get on with it. The motivation comes entirely from within.
Then we come to the follow-up book, at which point there may very well be someone hanging over the author’s shoulder, at least figuratively. The second book is notoriously “difficult” as it has to be at least as good as the first one and now there is a deadline, too. Nothing happens without a lot of self discipline. The writer’s muse isn’t lolling about on a chaise longue sipping absinthe and throwing out a couple of half-finished sentences a day; she’s going flat out, like a hamster on a wheel. Well, mine was, anyway.
Living with mess is also a matter of priorities. Anyone who works at home knows that on a bad day, when inspiration is lacking, it’s very easy to get sidetracked into chores. Ten thousand words needed by Friday? Yes, but there’s this DVD collection in desperate need of alphabetising… Get sucked into that particular maelstrom and the book will never be written.
So I like to think that a messy desk demonstrates that the writer has his or her priorities right. They have looked the Spirit of Domesticity in the eyes and said, no, I have a book to write first. A messy desk is, in fact, the sign of a Higher Calling.
That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it…