Yesterday, Jilly talked about the barrage of ideas and inspiration she’s had in her writing life (and how it’s perhaps a bit out of control), and on Wednesday, Elizabeth told us about how she’s been cleaning office lately. Both of those posts have got me thinking about my writing environment and how distracting it is.
I once read an interview with a writer who has a very cozy reading room, so she can be comfortable and enjoy her books. But the room where she writes is very Zen-like in order to avoid distractions, and I’ve decided I need to take that on if I’m ever going to get this book finished, because instead of sitting down and looking at words on the page, I look at the plethora of junk that’s filled my desk (for example, right now on my desk, in addition to the two monitors, lamps, and wireless speaker, I have a baby monitor, a tube of Krazy Glue, a ceramic butterfly that I painted with the kids at the local paint-a-pottery place, gift cards for a local mom-in-need, tissues, sticky notes galore with a bazillion reminders and phone numbers, wires to goodness knows what, an adapter for my iPhone, mail, a binder for the Parent Service Organization for my kids’ school, a roll of tape, more mail, a cookbook holder [?? no idea why that’s on my desk], a bottle of lens cleaner, and lint).
And that’s just my desk.
Every “thing” in my world seems to go from one place to another, but never to its proper place (if there even is one). Perhaps it’s because I’m juggling two kids, a husband, trying to write, and taking on the presidency of my kids’ school PSO. I’m constantly picking up their crap and trying to find a proper place for it. Or I’m yelling at them to get their stuff off the couch, off the counter, off the table, off the floor…off, Off, OFF!
In any case, all the junk in my life makes it hard for me to concentrate lately. Instead of focusing on writing, I’m focusing on all the stuff that’s not where it should be and am thinking of what has to go where, which leads to what I have to do, etc.
It turns out that science backs that up. In an experiment conducted by Grace Chae and Juliet Zhu, 100 undergraduates were introduced to two environments…one neat, the other messy. They were then given an (unsolvable) problem. The individuals in the neat environment stuck to the problem on average for 18 minutes, whereas the individual in the messy environment only kept at it for 11 minutes on average. Chae and Zhu have reproduced similar results in other experiments.
What this shows is that a messy desk is an obstacle to persistence (and I would go so far as to say productivity). Chae and Zhu believe that if your work environment is messy, it’s mentally draining. It threatens your personal control, and when the messiness is of your own making (as mine is), it can seem overwhelming, demonstrating your lack of control.
On the flip side, though, many studies, including those conducted by Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, have demonstrated that creativity gets a boost when your space is messy. For example, individuals in a messy room drew more creative pictures and were able to solve complicated brainteasers faster than those in a tidy room.
So what does this mean for me? Because I’m trying to get my story organized and in a detailed outline format, I may need to go for the Zen writing room right now. Maybe later, when I’m brainstorming ideas for my next book, I’ll feel better in a messy environment.
Or perhaps what this all ultimately comes down to is personal preference. In my work life, I had a messy desk. Stacks of paper everywhere (although if you asked me for something, I knew exactly where to find it), hardly any room on my desk to write, and it didn’t both me, or my productivity or creativity, at all. I never felt “stuck” like I do now.
Some friends have asked why I just don’t go work at Starbucks or pull my laptop out when I’m on the couch, and it’s because around my desk I have research books, a huge whiteboard with my story outline on it, and an oversize map of Regency London. In other words, the things I need to write my story are in my office.
This past weekend, I made huge strides in “cleaning up and throwing away” the stuff in my office that I’ve been hanging on to for unknown sentimental reasons. I hope by the end of the week to have it in perfect, Zen-like order. Even if it means taking the personal stuff (like mail and bills and the like) and moving that to another desk somewhere else. Fingers crossed it goes well.
What sort of writing environment person are you? Zen or messy? Have you noticed a difference in your writing creativity or productivity if your environment is neat vs. messy?