In Praise of Messiness

I used to want to be a neat freak. This is not to be confused with OCD. Neat freaks do not repetitively and obsessively clean things but they like to have every limb of their life tidy and in order.

Last year I redecorated my living room in minimalistic fashion so that it would reflect my aspiring neat freak persona. First, I bought a piece of furniture which would hide my CD collection. I permitted no nick-knacks to clutter the room. When it was all finished I would step into this room saying, “yes, I am capable of being neat and tidy.”

This went on until I decided to pursue writing more seriously. Then, the writer in me couldn’t keep up with the shipshape me I’d been longing for. Or maybe it was the other way around. Slowly and with great subtlety the neat freak was shoved aside by someone not caring if the candelabra on the living room table was placed in the center. I no longer felt guilty about going to bed with the dishes piled up. Nor did I worry whether I had to shove aside pages of manuscript I’d printed out in order to make room for my bowl of cereal.

More importantly, I allowed one of my manuscripts to take up permanent residence on one of my chairs in my cherished minimalistic living room. I was becoming one of those women of the fifties who in a rage of liberation tore apart all the plastic coverings on their sofa and allowed the neighbors’ children to sit on it, feet up and all.

Soon my writings began to inhabit the rooms of my apartment like a new family member. Piles of books are now on my grandmother’s antique chest; index cards litter the shelf next to my bed so that when an idea strikes me awake in the middle of the night I can jot it down (I have learned the hard way not to rely on my memory for this); my dining room is transformed into a research center; my office…well, have a look.

And throughout all of this I discover that I need chaos in order to be creative. After all, it has been said that chaos is the driving force of the universe. Without chaos nothing would happen.  If my tidiness did not stifle my creativity, it kept me from writing. Did I really need to have neat piles of folders in order to transfer onto my computer screen what was inside my head? Did my kitchen have to be spotless before I could feel the ejaculation of creative juices in my mind?

There is also something to be said for messiness in writing. I am not capable of producing a perfect first draft of anything.  My first drafts are chock full of  clichés,  run on sentences, bland  adjectives, ideas run amok. Notes on whatever I am working on  – a piece of music that stimulates my imagination, a word I hear someone use over the radio, a flash – are scattered throughout my apartment so that I now have scheduled in my writing routine a time slot: transcribe notes into computer.

My first drafts look much like my office.  Would you want to read them?

The first chaotic draft is the starting point. Something to work from.  Without it there is no writing.

Before I am ready to send my work out, bedlam must be uncovered. There are revisions, reading what I have written out loud, rewriting, plucking out adjectives, scrounging the thesaurus, shifting ideas so that they are more coherent, so that my writing is clearer. Cleaner. Tidier. Neat.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Messiness

  1. “My first drafts are chock full of clichés, run on sentences, bland adjectives, ideas run amok.”

    Standing naked in front of a full length mirror is a great way to see what one needs to do to get in shape.

    So it is with writing.

    With time and work and plenty of sweat (along with more than a little cursing), the flab begins to disappear and something worth looking at takes shape.

    As Samuel Johnson said, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

    As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “No pain, no gain. You got to feel the pump, yah.”


  2. I like the way this article flows and the honesty with which it is written. It is difficult to be objective about one’s work but the more experience we gain, the more clearly we see what needs to be fixed.

    I believe chaos in our lives or in our surroundings can be a real distraction to the writing process. We need some form of orderliness to be able to create productively. Not perfection but just a way of knowing where everything is so we don’t waste time looking for it.

    I tend to work with organized piles, leaving enough space to give myself the illusion of freedom.

    Dave’s comment about seeing clearly and getting into shape (which requires discipline) is right on!


  3. Pingback: Martin Amis | Carol Balawyder

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