Confessions of a Messy Writer

photo by Jennifer Pack
photo by Jennifer Pack

When I was growing up, our next-door neighbor had a plaque in her car that said Bless this Mess. The Mitchell’s house wasn’t messy (because they had a housekeeper)—but Mrs. Mitchell’s car overflowed with cigarette butts, soda cans, gym bags and papers. I thought it was kind of badass to be so messy. No place in our house was as messy as that car—with the exception of my bedroom, which was typically a jumble of books, stuffed animals, clothes and maybe an art project or two in progress. The chaos didn’t bother me. It actually felt kind of comforting and safe. I stubbornly resisted my mother’s exhortations to straighten things until she threw up her hands and just ordered me to at least keep my door closed.

I think it’s interesting that my mess didn’t bother me as a kid. Because now it certainly does. It’s not so bad when things are a touch untidy. Lived in, I think, would be the euphemism. But it’s a slippery slope from an unmade bed, a sweater draped over the back of a chair and an unwashed plate in the sink to a bedroom strewn with clothes and a leaning tower of dishes in the kitchen. An article on the website apartment therapy titled “What Does Your Home Say About You?” claims that a healthy home says, “Welcome. I am taken care of, can I take care of you?” If my home could talk, it might be slightly less solicitous, somewhat more disgruntled and maybe a little under the weather. I’m not confident it would have all good things to say about me. We don’t always get along.

I’m currently teaching in four schools. I wait tables two nights a week. I have classes to plan, bills to pay, groceries to buy. I need to get to the gym. I have to make time to visit with friends. And oh, yes, I’m writing this book. All this busy-ness means that sometimes things like housework get short shrift. I know there are busy people who are neat. They would say I use my busy-ness as an excuse. They would even say—I know because I’ve read the comments on apartment therapy—that my messiness is a sign of Underlying Mental Problems. Maybe part of me worries that’s true.

I’m always flummoxed by how large a mess can grow in a brief span of time. And how hard it is to stay on top of. And how much time it takes to keep a house really clean—like the houses in magazines or on apartment therapy. I scold myself for being such a slob. I don’t like the clutter. I worry it’s a sign of a cluttered mind, a cluttered life. But there always seem to be more important things to attend to. When I’m at home with a few hours before me, faced with the choice of writing or cleaning house, writing tends to trump housework. It feels more pressing, more important.

So I choose to write.

Still, the mess nags at me. How can I write when there are dirty dishes in the sink and dust bunnies under the bed? Maybe if I tackled that stack of papers and folders in the corner of the dining room and kept the living room dust-free, some kind of magical synergy would occur by means of which I would write briskly and brilliantly, finish my book and become a wildly successful author. Is messiness holding me back?

Needing answers, I turned once again to the wisdom of the internet. First of all: Man, the internet wants to help you get organized. There are quizzes to find out if you’re chronically disorganized, steps to cut clutter, and downloadable cleaning checklists.  On webMD I learned that a messy bedroom can aggravate insomnia. I discovered that Oprah’s clutter guru and the leader of her “Clean Up Your Messy House Tour,” Peter Walsh, believes that clutter “robs you spiritually.” I also found out that Oprah had a “Clean Up Your Messy House Tour.” And a clutter guru. Finally in a New York Times article from last fall, “What Your Messy Desk Says about You,” I learned that a messy workspace can make you more creative.

Wait—record scratch—what?

A study done last year at the University of Minnesota seems to support the notion that a disorderly environment can produce increased creativity. Researchers placed college students in two different workspaces—one neat and one messy—and asked them to brainstorm new uses for ping pong balls. The students in the messy space came up with more—and more innovative—ideas. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” wrote the authors of the study, “which can produce fresh insights.”

A post on an MIT blog mentions that Einstein was notoriously messy so there’s that. (Also Mark Twain and Francis Bacon.) The same post quotes from an article titled “The Etiology of Messes” that explores the cognitive reasons some of us are messier than others. The author speculates that, “to those who are hierarchical thinkers, anything other than a hierarchy might be perceived a mess, and those that are messy are merely non-hierarchical (e.g., relational) thinkers.” Ah ha! Just as I suspected, I am a non-hierarchical, relational thinker! Trying to keep my living space (which is also my working space) pristine is fighting a losing battle because I’m just too much of a creative genius.

I remain in awe of those tidy, organized folks who are ready for a friend to drop by for coffee and banana bread at any time of day or night. I’ve worked on my messy tendencies my whole adult life and I’m not there yet. I could stand to develop a few habits that would cut down on the clutter. I hear that putting things away immediately after using them helps. I intend to continue to work at reducing what the MIT blog calls “the entropy of collections.” But in the meantime I’m going to try to make peace with a bit of clutter and mess—and get on with the business of writing.


10 thoughts on “Confessions of a Messy Writer

  1. I do a mixture. Have to have beds made, countertops and stove top cleaned ( it’s easier when you tackle that stuff every day) dishes washed (plus dried and put away, Jim! hee hee), towels straightened, sink and mirror clean, living room picked up and tidy. Plus I spend 10-15 minutes a day on an extra task on a rotating basis: sweeping or dusting a room, organizing the recycling, cleaning the toilet etc EVERY DAY.

    I do this because there is ALWAYS another project in process that requires a shut door. Currently I’m organizing all the Christmas decorations I took down like a month ago before I store then (In my defense, I love Christmas and we had 4 trees… I know!), working on taxes, still unpacking from my move 2 years ago!!! (a box a day …became one box a week… became unpack 10 minutes at a time) and several DIY decorating projects…


  2. nice thinking as usual maia. I am nearing the end of the line of figuring out what to do with cluttered collections. Retired and in my 67th year on this messy planet and forced to attend way too frequent funerals of aging relatives and a few prized friends, I see my writing as an autobiographical sum-up of my/their life’s stories that is embellished by my attic full of graphic evidence. The finished glossy product will be the creatively nonfictional hardback book certainly… but maybe more importantly – its evil twin – the never ending E-Book hopefully will be continually updated by those who come after me – esp my son and daughter – who can provide an upgrade to the shorthand model. In short, I am taking the responsibility for cleaning out that attic, scanning the best photos and docs and starting the wikipeak of my existence. A lot of laughs and a little learning may result. hey – beats goin quietly…Keep on writing and editing and that mess will take care of itself while it kinda keeps you company…


    1. Interesting. You’ve made me remember I love poking through attics, junk shops, flea markets. They always seem full of stories. Maybe that affinity is in the DNA of a messy and creative spirit.


  3. You should come and see Ken’s office… and it’s in a reformed state since it was basically declared a fire hazard (100s of pounds of paper stacked 2-3′ high all over the floor) and he cleaned up his act. He’s long maintained it is the sign of a creative mind… you’re in good company.


  4. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back. deefefgdaeef


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