On the Efficacy of Mess

It only took five years, but I recently worked out that my personal Facebook page didn’t have a cover photo. What could I put up there, I wondered, that might represent me fairly? Then I remembered this pic, taken at the end of a longish book tour:

shed in usual disarray

It’s not how my office looks all the time, but it is how it looked that day – no styling involved – and I have to admit that tidy’s not my thing. Tidy, in this room, happens about once every two years when the junk load gets too much for even me to bear, and I devote a solid day to (sort of) fixing it, digging down through strata of junk until I hit, say, the fully loaded 1993 Bart Simpson Pez dispenser (Pez all crystalline and fused together …) or the two $2 notes I’m holding for two friends in connection with a wager they made in 1986.

Okay, so there was one awkward time when our house was broken into and one of the police took a look in there and said, face all well-practised empathy emoji, ‘Yeah, I can see they really trashed the place.’ To which I had to say, ‘Actually, they didn’t get to this bit …’

I thought my new cover photo would pass unnoticed but, while one person asked if there had been any casualties, posting the pic also unearthed a tribe of writers just like me – some claiming to be even more messy – authors who have managed over the years to have published (collectively) hundreds of books, carve out careers and who, outside their shambolic writing environments, present as acceptably groomed and almost punctual people who manage to prepare for and deliver almost every event in their diaries.

So, how can this be, when my Dad can’t see an untidy workspace without coming over somewhat judgy? (Or maybe that’s just mine, every time he sees it …) He’s of the ‘tidy desk, tidy mind’ school, and he’s far from alone. My shed looks, to his kind, like an oversized dumpster into which I’ve dived, not like the sort of place from which anything worthwhile might emerge. And yet, thoughts happen there and come together and end up, through a series of sometimes surprisingly meticulous processes, as something as organised as a book.

His workplace remains neat, his pencils sharp and straight. I’m sure even his hard drive has barely a speck of clutter (he has occasionally used some awesome software he’s got to tidy mine, for which I’m grateful, and prepared to cop a previously negotiated amount of tutt-tutting). He cannot fathom how a work day might begin in a workplace like mine. But he is a management consultant and IT expert and I am a writer, and maybe it’s a simple as that. Perhaps we need to think in different ways.

Okay, I have to admit that some writers might actually be neat. I don’t understand those people, even though I like some of them a lot. There’s even a (closed) Facebook site where writers post pics of their workplaces. There are some kindred spirits of mine to be found there, as well as some who embrace tidiness and others who faked it for the few minutes they took the photo (those latter two groups are hard to tell apart, and I’m not sure either is to be entirely trusted …).

It turns out that there’s some evidence to support me using the information management model that I do. Ergonomist Mark Landsdale, now a professor at Leicester University, some years ago looked at the information management of ‘messy’ people. (See how I’m slapping quote marks around that now? Those people aren’t messy, it turns out – they have a system. I have a system.) I’m going to paraphrase him. Don’t be shocked if a hint of bias works its way in.

Filing, it turns out, is often arbitrary and forgettable. One piece of paper might have five different files into which it might appropriately go and, once it’s filed, most of us forget which one we chose. We come back for it later, can’t find it, rummaging begins, stress ensues.

But the other way, our way, my way, is the method Prof Landsdale has called the Volcano. In the middle of the volcano is a small clear area in which work occurs. Around it is a heaped arc of papers (lint, Pez dispensers …) which, in evolving, has developed a kind of order to it. Frequently needed items tend to be near the top and centre, infrequently needed items sink and drift to the peripheries. Documents are often near where they were last put down and often, through use, come to cluster with related documents. In its own way, it’s a kind of system and, unlike a filing cabinet, it’s chock-full of memory cues. It works! It works, Dad!

So, on the wall behind my desk, is a photocopy of a newspaper article talking about Prof Landsdale’s model. Of course, it’s completely obscured by plies of paper at the moment but, one day, I’ll clean deep enough to find it again and make my Dad read it.

‘Untidy desk, untidy mind?’ I’ll take both, thanks. Making a novel is not a tidy process. It branches everywhere. It’s a thicket you need to find your way through, but that’s exactly what it needs to be. If it’s not a thicket, it’s not a novel.

So, what works for you. Are you reading this in your neatly pressed Team Tidy T-shirt, or are you with me in the volcano?

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16 Responses to On the Efficacy of Mess

  1. greenspace01 says:

    Volcanoes work for me (assuming it’s my volcano in my work/living space)

  2. bicandabiro says:

    Dear Nick
    I have had a very similar conversation with two police lads regarding my break and enter. Something was said like “You write in HERE?” (as they busily wrote in their little notebooks).
    I work in unorganised chaos, but I can always find what I need. When I feel like I’m surrounded by solidified lava I perform the dreaded filing ritual and rue it for days.

  3. Reblogged this on Perth Words… exploring possibilities. and commented:
    I’m always in complete chaos!

  4. Dimity Powell says:

    Volcano. My nook, neat or otherwise is non-air-conditioned. :-\

  5. Robin Storey says:

    I’m definitely with you on the volcano – I only tidy up when the mess is so bad I can’t find anything. I share an office – and a desk – with my partner and have to put up with pointed comments about untidiness, but I’m careful not to go over the imaginary line drawn down the middle, so he’s got no grounds for complaint! I have also read research indicating that a messy desk is a sign of a creative mind, which rings true for most of the writers I know.

    • nickearls says:

      As long as the line remains imaginary, things are probably good. If one or both of you feels the need to mark it, you may have a problem.

  6. volcano all the way 😀

  7. I am definitely a card carrying member of Team Tidy but I’m married to a volcano lover!

  8. Weary says:

    You have possibly the best web pages.

  9. Pingback: Five Reasons To Have A Messy Desk – wordpress-343791-2210344.cloudwaysapps.com

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