by Libby Malin
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 So did a bunch of outdated files.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! :-)