Clutter & Creativity


J hung the book spine mirror in my office this week. This is a serious thing, because J hates being in my office. J is a mechanic. He’s not the creative type. The fact that my desk is cluttered drives him nuts. He reminds me it drives him nuts by saying things like “I don’t know how you can work like this.” I’m a creative type, I need a little clutter. If my desk is devoid of all papers and things, I have trouble focusing on my work. And science is starting to research it.

We’ve all seen the photos of great writers working in offices with piles of stuff on their desks, usually with a bottle of hard liquor nearby. There is some truth to that stereotype. I once watched an interview with James Patterson, despite there being a reporter and a photographer in the room with him, his desk was covered in stuff. There were file folders and manuscripts piled up on the desk and a small table in the room. His bookshelves were not organized and several books were just lying on the shelf. I’ve seen similar pictures of Stephen King in his office where there might be a place for everything, but nothing’s in it.

And this doesn’t just apply to writers. I’ve seen artist studios where things were piled up. Tubes of paint laid out on a table, stacks of brushes heaped into a pile, canvases resting on the floor, out of the way, but definitely not put away.

And science is starting to understand it. In the last ten or fifteen years, studies have been undertaken to explain creativity. I occasionally stare at the clutter on my desk with a thousand yard stare. Not because I’m looking at it or even thinking about it, but because I’m thinking about something in the book I’m working on. Clutter and riding in the car are both stimuli for ideas for me. I don’t know why, but you put me in a car and I can’t help but think about what to write. Especially now that I don’t drive. Which means I’m not a great conversationalist when I’m going somewhere. I’m prone to motion sickness in the car or I’d keep a notebook and write while I ride. As it is, I can type a line or two into the notes section on my phone and often do…. because things composed in the car will be forgotten when I arrive at my destination.

So, while some people struggle to understand how I can work with 11 tubes of chapstick, six piles of paper, two printers, a blanket, two check registers, and med bottles, on my desk and a box on the floor. I wonder how people work with their desk completely clean. I’ve never been able to do it and when I worked office jobs, it was pointed out to me more than once. I just can’t help it. The cleaner my desk, the less I get done.

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