We’ve all heard the saying that a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind. But is it really? Before I start trying to justify my messy desk, I’ll acknowledge there might be some truth in the saying. I suppose I do have the sort of mind that shoots off thoughts in all directions, creating chaos. Reigning in ideas to try to fit them into neat categories does not always work. They tumble from their aligned slots to grow and yell and spread until they end up poking out all over the place and tripping each other up. I love the way Kate Millett (in ‘The Loony Bin Trip’) describes the mind as ‘a really crazy steeple full of frills, and balls, and cuckoos.’
Yes, but hang on, let’s be fair. I can organise the clutter in my mind. When writing, whether academic essays or creative writing, I find I can tidy up my mind, weed out the irrelevancies and put things in order, giving a pleasing shape and structure to the topic in hand. I enjoy doing that. Making sense out of a jumble of ideas. It’s easier to sort out what I think and feel about something when I write it all out of me.
In writing short stories or a novel, my first draft is untidy. I don’t write a plot outline in great detail before I begin (or if I do, I tend not to stick to it). I just need the bare bones and the basic idea, and then off I go, adapting and changing it as I go along. With each edit, it gets more organised. Jean Rhys once pointed out that a novel must have shape, and real life usually has none. I think memoir writing is, in some ways, more difficult than writing fiction. In memoir writing, we do still have to give a shape to our life events and set down the material in a readable form. However, in so doing, we need to take care to keep rooted in the facts of what actually happened. Unlike with writing fiction, we can’t allow our imagination to soar.
What’s wrong with an untidy writing desk, then? I can answer that by saying it’s so annoying when you can’t find your pen or the particular paper you need. For practical purposes and to make life easier, I MUST tidy up my desk. But I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that ‘a clean desk sends the message that you’re organised and accomplished, while a dishevelled one implies that your life is in a similar state.’ (That’s a quote I once jotted down, but, sorry, I don’t know who said it). And remember that great thinkers such as Albert Einstein and Roald Dahl had untidy desks. So there! We untidy deskers are in good company.
‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’ – Einstein.