Clutter and Creativity

Habits normally take about two weeks of constant doing to form. Unfortunately, they don’t take that long to break… including writing every day. This house-buying and move has given me a valuable opportunity to experience that from the inside…

How many of you need a level of cleanliness, or for the clutter to be below a dull roar, in order to create? I was rather disconcerted (okay, I was flat out frustrated) to find I could not cook in the kitchen once it achieved a certain level of clutter. None of the individual elements were insurmountable – stacks of moving boxes on their side, leaning in the way, half-packed box on the table, everything out of a closet and piled on the floor, stacks of packed boxes blocking the deep freezer door. But I walked into the kitchen, past a certain point, and my brain went “Augh! No! Cannot work here!” If I wanted to cook, I had to clean and move things until my elbows did not hit not-kitchen objects when turning around.

Similarly, once the office devolved into a staging area, all my writing stopped. Moving into the new house, until the office actually began to resemble an office, It felt like I was trying to pull out fingernails as well as fiction.

My darling husband, on the other hand, has no stress about the clutter at all. He’s been rather bemused at my reaction, then took it with a shrug. “When you work in refugee camps, you can’t afford to let the external chaos swamp you.” Though, once the living room had four bookcases filled with books, neatly alphabetized, and the couch and recliner arranged around them and the fireplace, he did walk in the door, smile, and say “It looks like home!”

It’s not just me: J.L. Curtis, of the Grey Man series, also moved recently, and once everything was unboxed and in its place, the pictures were hung, and the paperwork sorted, he started writing again. Or, ah, “Sorry I never turned up for coffee. I got sidetracked by writing!” (Always the perfect writer excuse.)

There’s a happy medium. The beautiful Mrs. Correia warned me years ago that once my writer was happy enough to create, I was going to be lucky to get two weeks between books to work on the last of the moving boxes.

How much clutter can you stand before you can’t create?

And more importantly, how do you deal with it and restart?

24 Comments

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24 responses to “Clutter and Creativity

  1. Uncle Lar

    There is a certain level of clutter that begins to annoy and distract me. Usually it involves stacks falling over or being unable to find a critical item necessary for the current project. At that point everything stops while I knock things back down to a manageable level. By no means a barren desert, I find a certain level of clutter comfortable just so long as I can find what I need when I need it.

  2. Uncle Lar

    Change of subject. I’ve been helping a writer of my acquaintance get through a rough patch. She’s published, a mix between small house and indie, with 30 books out. Everything from fantasy to hard science. Somehow she just cannot seem to develop her fan base into a consistently paying market. She is a fine writer, or is in my estimation at least. But her work is not generating the sort of reliable cash flow needed to support her family.
    Part of her problem is that she is terrified of indie. Someone no longer in the picture helped her put up what she has now, and basically threw them up on Amazon with precious little consideration to the ancillary details beyond bang there it is. I’ve been encouraging her to ramp up her output and seriously go into the indie market, but other than moral support my skills in that area are limited.
    She does cons, has a web site, follows much of what is discussed here at MGC, but somehow market share has escaped her. She and I are both a bit lost as to where to go next. Any advice?

    • Marketing is the most frustrating and baffling part of Indie. My best move was a combination of the Labor Day Sale and the release of five titles in close sequence. I’d recommend cleaning up all the Indie titles she has, and then saving up a few books or stories so she can put up one or two a week and keep her Author Raking as high as possible for as long as possible. No guarantees. You just have to keep trying, and realize that every book will produce a trickle of money. Get enough books up and you’ll make a living off of writing.

  3. I never let my clutter get too deep. Or too mixed. Yeah, it looks messy. But can find anything I need in pretty short order.

    That list I made last week? It’s in _this_ stack of papers. That folder has the character lists and maps for the big series, the papers under it are the briefly needed notes for the last story, and I ought to ditch them. The thesaurus stays right there. The CD stack is label out so I can easily find the song I want. The messy stack . . . that’s the one I ought to go through and file (most of it will end up in the round file.)

    Of course, it helps that I haven’t moved house in thirty years.

    The most terrifying words in the English language are my husband saying “I’ll clean up your office while you’re off visiting your parents.”

    • TRX

      > notes for the last story

      On his blog, one author mentioned he’d made a tidy amount auctioning off his old notes, marked-up drafts, and other documents related to his books.

  4. Depends on the clutter. Books and papers I have a very high tolerance for and can ignore or work around (thank you, grad school). Other life debris is a problem, especially if it is something I can pick up and fiddle with.

    How did I get back into writing from the last big shifts? I never quite stopped. I reverted to pen-n-paper, or scrawling ideas in my Little Black Book. Then I polished some rough pieces, and launched into the next book-like thing. Writing is my treat after getting other life-stuff and work-stuff done.

  5. The greatest danger in trying to de-clutter is getting distracted. I find things that got added to the clutter because I intended to do something with it, and running across it again makes me start thinking about that project again. although I usually only end up filing it with other clutter.

    (And don’t get me started on the huge stack of comics in the den, vs the huge shelf of empty comic storage boxes in the storeroom, and the too-big-to-tackle comics alphabetizing project delayed by the intent of learning to use a new database, delayed by ooh, shiny, new game!)

  6. I lived in a 24 foot travel trailer for 26 years. You ain’t SEEN clutter. Pikers…

  7. There are two kinds of clutter: yours (where you control where everything is, and no one else has a say about any of it) – and theirs (everything else).

    I can handle mine, because I know the minute I have some extra (ha!) energy, or it becomes too much, I and I alone can pick up enough of it to function again.

    Theirs drives me crazy. Daughter is back home (15+ months) – all her college dorm and apartment and career stuff is SOMEWHERE in this house. And there is a LOT of it. My dear MIL died – Husband brought home boxes and boxes and hasn’t been able to go near any of it, so he put it (30+ months ago in my nice relatively-clean and orderly basement on top of MY gym equipment, which I can’t use now). His dad is moving out of his house, and more stuff is coming ‘home.’

    I can’t move a thing of theirs. They claim to know where everything is. Maybe at one point; now, there is a lot of searching when they need something. They get frantic if anyone touches so much as a paper.

    So I write in my nice disorderly-but-fixable office, and take naps there, and bring lunch up, and… you get the idea.

    Because I’m not allowed to touch theirs – and they aren’t doing it.

    And I have writing to do.

    • julieapascal

      I’ve got my own room now which needs a cleaning badly and needs stuff out of it badly. (The guest bed has to stay.) Most of the stuff is mine… piles of junk from going to college all over the bed. The stuff that’s not mine I can either dispose of or deposit in my husband’s office. We’re lucky to have the space that we’ve got. Though I find it difficult to visit him because I have to squeeze around stuff. I still have my space to have as I please.

      Elsewhere on the internet an architect was complaining that a young couple would come to design their dream house and it would start with an elaborate man cave or den with a bar and flat screen TV and invariably end up without so much as a man-corner and with the guy not even getting to choose a recliner for the living room because it wouldn’t match the rest of the furniture. This is short sighted. If it’s impossible, it’s impossible but the best thing anyone can have is for the person they live with to have a room with a door behind which their “stuff” can be deposited.

      • This! Togetherness requires respect for each others’ space, and the ability to have privacy when needed.

      • My husband has the largest room in the house: the family room. I guess you could call it a man cave. I have the tiniest bedroom, but I’ve always loved it because it faces south, and we live on a cul-de-sac where I can see everyone.

        I can’t imagine not having my own space any more. But it still needs a good thorough dejunking.

        Energy for that would have to come from the good time I use for writing – or an assistant – and I haven’t managed either for a while.

        Just let me get Book 2’s revision well started…

  8. I find clutter is a direct consequence of having other stuff deemed more important at the moment. Before I moved offices at work, I generally spread out work on a desk, a table, and a computer desk, and stuff tended to get put where I could. When I moved offices, I lost my three bookcases, but gained a wall with built-in shelves, roomy work surface, and cabinets. I insisted on five full sized filling cabinets, and my used L-shaped desk has drawers for handing file folders, which I filled with just that. As I moved in I found a place for everything, and every since I try to put everything away before quiting time. The result is practically no clutter.

    Home is another matter, and I’m slowing cleaning out my work area before that horders show drops by with a dumpster. Here the issue is stuff that I’m not comfortable just tossing in the trash. At work we have a shredder and shredding bin, but here I only have a small shredder.

    I really need not only to clean out my home file cabinet, but maybe invest in two legal sized ones. That would give room for research information.

  9. julieapascal

    I can tolerate unbelievable amounts of clutter because I simply don’t *look* at it. What’s really funny is that I seem to have the reputation as a neat freak at work. As lowbie on the totem pole I’ve been the one who gets to spend entire days searching the office for documents no one can find because files for the thing are in three different places and haven’t been used for 10 years. So my surfaces are clear and I’m sorting the filing system and labeling things whenever someone sees me. This isn’t because I’m a neat person, it’s because I’m highly motivated and desperate. Organization is HARD for me. I can’t even look at my cupboards and figure out where things ought to go or make a good plan for clothes in my drawers beyond socks in the top.

  10. amiegibbons15

    I just have to have one tiny spot to work in. For me it’s the line between the bed and the wall or on the bed. Long as those are clear, I can work. Which is huge considering I live with Hoarders: Photograper Edition. 🙂

  11. Mary

    Clutter is not a problem for me. Yes, it makes as good a way to vacuum the cat as any, but then something else is triggering the desire, and clutter is just the excuse.

  12. mrsizer

    I’ll let you judge: I reclaim rooms. The most recent being the plantry (combo pantry and conservatory/green house without glass walls). For the Pumpkin Carving party (Sat before Halloween; 21st annual last year) we used the counter as a staging area (chafing dishes, crock pots, etc…). It never got cleaned afterward and stuff just started piling up. It wasn’t until the to-be-recycled cardboard pile started preventing cupboards from opening that it got de-cluttered into (i.e. reclaimed as) a functional room, again. This was two weeks ago.

    Several years ago (when I didn’t need the space) my home office had the same problem. I gave myself a clean office for Christmas, which involved filing FIVE YEARS of paperwork (and throwing out even older paper that was filling the filing cabinets).

    Other rooms go through similar cycles. It just gets away and becomes too much bother to deal with until it becomes completely useless. Then, when I want the room back, I need to fight for it. Obviously our house is too big if we can lose entire rooms and not care.

    The room I’m using must be neat. The entire house, not so much.