Monday, November 23, 2009

Cleaning Up My Act

by Libby Malin
www.LibbysBooks.com


So it came to this -- I cleaned my office. I can hardly believe it. No stacks of stuff sitting around the floor. No piles of papers waiting to be shredded. I can actually see the surface of my desk.

I'm lucky enough to have a home office, a room on the second floor of our house that overlooks our back yard. In the spring and summer, I get to watch as robins, finches, and blue jays cavort at the bird bath (those robins are territorial, let me tell ya) while I write.

While the landscape outside is pastoral, for a long time the scene inside has resembled the aftermath of a natural disaster. My office is small, with just enough room to fit a desk and table comfortably (and a cot when our house explodes with guests at holiday visits). It used to hold a gigantic filing cabinet, but that's gone due to my cleaning purge.

For a long time (too long to admit to!), I put off this cleaning project. I'm one of those people who can write in the midst of chaos. In fact, sometimes chaos feeds my muse. All those papers around, all those pens, books, newspaper clippings. . . . and here I am in the middle of that tempestuous sea, calm and focused, putting words on the screen in an orderly fashion. I could carve out this one tiny space of order amid the ruins, and dagnabit, I'd hang onto it with all my might!

Every once in awhile, however, the mess would mess me up. I'd get this itch to see it all clean and tidy. I'd wonder what germs lingered in the dust bunnies under my desk. I'd think "ewwww" before I could get to the "ahhh" of creating something on the page.

So I'd do at least some perfunctory cleaning, enough to make me feel I was on Step One of a multi-phase project that was, after all, trending in the right direction (uh, that direction being up a steep hill). Muse unfettered, I'd be able to sit at the computer and write again.

Well, all this mind-game stuff came to an end when I decided to analyze what kept me from cleaning the place thoroughly, what was the mental block holding me back. It turned out to be an easy answer--I just didn't have places to put things. The big filing cabinet was useless--its drawers would stick and I never did find the right hanging file frames for it. So it had to be jettisoned. So did a bunch of outdated files.

It took me a week, as I worked each storage problem--making new files, finding room for them in a file cabinet that actually works in a closet, organizing office supplies, arranging books on shelves, etc. But, man oh man, does it feel good to finally have it done. A place for everything, and everything in its place!

Okay, so how does this relate to writing? Just as I stalled on cleaning, I sometimes stall on writing. Yes, I can manage to work past the stall, but it's an arduous process (imagine pushing a rock up the aforementioned steep hill) as I push this way and that, keeping plot and characters moving but not addressing some underlying problem.

Eventually, I have to address whatever the problem is, though -- the root of my stall. Usually, it involves a character who is doing something not true to the characterization I've drawn. Then I step back and ask myself: okay, what would she really do in this circumstance? The answer is usually something different from what I've put on the page as I pushed up the hill.

Sure, these discoveries might mean going back and rewriting, jettisoning scenes with the same cold calculation I used to get rid of that enormous but useless filing cabinet. In the end, however, I'm dealing with a much better manuscript--all neat and tidy, just like my office! :-)

17 comments:

  1. I can't write with chaos. I'd like to say that means that my house is neat and so is my office, but sadly, no, although the office is definitely better. Full props for cleaning it out - that requires too much time in my world. LOL. But it's so nice that it's done!

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  2. If I couldn't write in the midst of chaos, I'd be in big trouble. But I have to confess the mess was getting a little dangerous looking by the time I finished SEALed With A Ring.

    It was a relief to finally have time to do a thorough clean up instead of a lick and a promise.

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  3. I, too, have a filing cabinet that has long since been filled to capacity and the only drawer anyone looks into is the owner's manual drawer, which I consult only when my lawn tractor needs work.
    Congrats on cleaning up your space.
    I really need to rent that dumpster!

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  4. I think there's something therapeutic about shredding things, I've decided. That's been the most fun thing of the whole process.

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  5. Libby--I spent most of Saturday morning cleaning out my disaster of a room. Somehow papers and books (including some romance novels, lol) begin forming piles that eventually just turn into places to put more things on top of... a recent tower of books starting acting as a second bedside table, and that's when I knew it was time to go through things, put them away properly, and figure out what I'm donating to local charities.

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  6. Books as pieces of furniture. I can relate, Danielle.

    Sometimes finding things in my (former) mess was like going on an archeological dig. If I could just locate the right "strata," I knew I'd come across the treasure I was seeking.

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  7. I enjoyed how you compared your cleaning to your writing, Libby. I'll keep that in mind next time I'm stuck. :}

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  8. Congrats on the cleaning. If only I could do that. I find that if I do some cleaning, the next day I need something I moved and now can't find it. I remember where it was in the mess, but not in its new clean place.

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  9. It's hard for me to focus in a chaotic environment. If I get too distracted, I have to clean so I can think!

    Ash

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  10. Libby~

    Since you've finished yours, you're more than welcome to come clean mine. We're even within driving distance.

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  11. Congratulations Libby! How wonderful to have that feeling of accomplishment. Reading your post has put me in the mood to do a little cleaning.

    Amelia

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  12. I'll tidy my chaos next week, ready for my office to turn back into my Mum's bedroom for her visit. Nice thoughts about writing. Perhaps I'll work on that chaos afterwards.

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  13. GREAT post, Libby! And how cleverly you tied the whole thing to your writing. ;-)

    I'm usually waaay too busy cleaning up messes in my WIP to do any actual HOUSE or OFFICE cleaning! Chaos IS me and I'm proud!

    AC

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  14. My office always looks like a war zone, but I always know where everything is. Makes my family nuts. I do get the cleaning bug and I'll be ruthless when I clean too.

    Linda

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  15. Oh, and let's not even discuss 30 years worth of publishing and writing paperwork!

    Linda

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  16. I am kind of a neat freak. Not quite as OCD as my hubby, but darned close. I have to have order and serenity surrounding me. At least as far as the environment goes. I CAN write with noise, in the car, and other weird places if my muse is in full force. But I prefer to be alone in my ultra tidy, pretty office.

    Congrats on tackling the big clean up. It always feels good to go through the mess and have order. At least for me. But then we have already established that I am a teensy bit OCD! LOL!

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  17. I'm wondering how long my clean up will last. I have been putting things away, though, as I bring more papers into the room.

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