I saw a website recently where writers were showing off their offices. They were gorgeous things, all shiny and glamorous and expensive. And neat. I gushed over them as much as everyone else who commented about them. Those offices said “successful writer, sure, but damn good decorator, too.” They were perfect. Neat gleaming desks, proper lighting, paintings and sculptures and artsy bulletin boards, never-ending bookcases and stacks of books and files neatly arranged on every flat work space.
Could I see myself working in those spaces? Well, could I? Actually, no. I couldn’t. That was a real revelation. I had to laugh at how hard I tried to see myself working in those spaces and just couldn’t do it. They weren’t me.
But to say I felt inadequate is to say I felt inadequate. What kind of dilettante was I, anyway? Do I dare call myself a writer if I can’t even keep up, office-wise?
My office isn’t even a real office, it’s an annex to my bedroom. I used to have a real office in my bigger house but here in my little cabin I grabbed whatever space I could find. But I’ve come to love my little space. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the bedroom door. They’re mine, too. Around the corner, to the right of my desk, I keep my printer/scanner on the bottom shelf of a big bookcase. If a project gets too busy I can always spread out papers on my bed. It works. It’s all good.
I admit I don’t usually invite people into my office; nor do I take pictures and brag or even lament about it. But I read an article today called “Why You Should Have a Messy Desk” and realized it was speaking to me. There was Mark Twain sitting behind a paper-strewn desk. There was that precious but awkwardly worded quote from Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
There were more messy desk pictures, of highly successful entrepreneurs mainly, not writers necessarily, but this is what brought me to blog about it. Because, Ha!
Recently, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that people with a messy desk were more prone to creativity and risk taking, while people at cleaner desks tended to follow strict rules and were less likely to try new things or take risks. Dr. [KathleenVohs, behavioral scientist at the University of Minneapolis] and her co-authors conclude in the study, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”
Never mind that the study said this,too:
“Not surprisingly, they have found that people blessed with innate conscientiousness, meaning that they are organized and predictable, typically eat better and live longer than people who are disorderly. They also tend to have immaculate offices.”
That should have been troubling, but I paid more attention to this part. (Okay, I laughed out loud):
Few previous studies found much virtue in disarray. The broken-windows theory, proposed decades ago, posits that even slight disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism. Chaos begets chaos.
And sometimes a messy desk is just a messy desk.
After I read those articles I took a picture of my desk. I didn’t rearrange anything to either make it more messy or more uncluttered. This is how it looked. The page that prompted this whole thing was still on my laptop.
A little about my desk: it’s really an oilcloth-covered work table my grandmother kept in her pantry. It has a front drawer and enough room underneath for a few tote bags full of old files and research articles. It’s deeper than a normal desk, giving me plenty of room to fill it with stuff. (It has always had red-and-white checked oilcloth on it and as long as I can find rolls of it somewhere, it always will.)
The painting above my desk (not visible in the picture above) is a watercolor I bought in San Diego years ago. A Chinese artist and his daughter had a booth at Seaport Village where the artist created beautiful pictures using client’s names. He spoke little English so his daughter did the translating. He had a roll of white paper–something like shelf paper–laid out in front of him and when I first saw him he was meticulously Chinese- brush-painting the name of a little girl whose mother was trying but failing to keep her daughter still until he finished. He didn’t hurry and seemed to be oblivious to everything around him as he worked. He was smiling and I saw a man who loved what he was doing.
As I watched him I knew what I wanted him to paint for me when it was my turn. I told his daughter and she seemed confused. She wrote it down for him. He nodded, gave me what I thought was a quizzical look, and got to work. It took him about 20 minutes and he charged $3 a letter. He signed it with a flourish. “Park”. This is what he painted:
Can you tell what it says?
(If you have a notion to take a picture of your own workspace, I would love to see it. You can rest assured it’ll probably beat mine all to hell.)