In Defense of My Messy Desk

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.)


About constantcommoner

Ramona Grigg. Freelancer, blogger, essayist, photographer, dreamer. Island dweller. Yooper.
This entry was posted in On Writing and Media and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In Defense of My Messy Desk

  1. I was absolutely stunned when I got to the bottom of his article and saw the picture. That same man did one of those lovely paintings for me in San Diego in the 1980s. By the way, my desk is even messier (by far!) than yours is. Best regards from Melbourne, Australia. Deborah


  2. Well, I’m floored! I’m trying to remember when it was that I was in San Diego and I believe it was in the late 80s or early 90s. By the way, it cost me about three times as much as the cost of the painting to have it framed! But it was worth it to me. I’m go glad to hear that there are others who met that wonderful artist and still carry him with them.

    It’s funny that the word is so obvious in my photo (at least I think it is) but I’ve had many people look at the picture for a long time and never be able to figure it out. Then when I tell them what it says it suddenly becomes obvious. (I love that about it, too.)

    Thanks so much for writing. We almost went to live in Australia in the late 1960s. It would have been a two-year project, but we chickened out almost at the last minute because our kids were still young and we felt they would have missed our close families too much. I’ve always been sorry we didn’t take the chance.


  3. I just wrote a really LONG reply and it disappeared into thin air when I hit Post Comment. Let’s see if it hangs around this time!

    I was a young girl living in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1960s. But from what I’ve heard, Australia was rather repressed and backward then — like a big country town masquerading as a city. Women had to ‘know their place’ and people in the arts were looked at quite suspiciously.

    All of that has changed drastically now and Melbourne is like London-Far-South in terms of sophistication and the arts. And we are even more obsessed than Seattle with coffee due to the influx of Italian immigrants here after World War II.

    It’s a wonderful place to live, the people are wonderful, the health care is practically free (important now that we are getting a bit older!), and the quality of life is quite good as long as the bushfires and snakes don’t get you.

    Bye for now — and hope that this DOES appear this time.


  4. We were living on Maui at the time (another two-year project) and Australia was recruiting for techies and my hubby fit the bill. All of our travel and moving expenses would have been paid, so we were really tempted, but as much as we would have loved the adventure we really were a little scared, too. Maybe if there weren’t three little kids to think about. . .

    I didn’t know that about Australia then. My cousin in Finland is a nurse and she did a two-year stint there, courtesy, again, of the Australian government. That was maybe three years ago and she loved it there. Her husband was able to come for part of the last year and they took advantage of their days off to travel. She said it was amazing.

    Thanks for commenting. I’ve been though the lost comment agony.many times. Sometimes if it’s a long one I’ll copy it to MS Word before I hit the button. It has saved me many times–as long as I can remember to do it!


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