Ahhh! The sweet, fresh, spring breeze flowing through my open windows and doors has inspired a major spring decluttering project in my home. It started with physical clutter (which is still a work in progress) but I’ve decided to extend it to writing clutter as well.
What is writing clutter?
Stop reading for a moment and look around your writing space. Anything distracting you from accomplishing your best work is clutter. It could be physical or mental.
Once I began writing this post, I realized there was so much to say about the stuff around us that the subject deserves two posts. This week let’s take a look at physical clutter. Next week, we’ll assess the mental clutter in our lives.
Defining physical clutter
You might be tripping over, or knocking over, physical clutter every time you sit at your desk. You’ve finished the story or manuscript that generated the need for most of those items, but you never took time to return everything to its proper place before beginning your next masterpiece.
Or you might have a mountain of ideas jotted on whatever was at hand when inspiration struck. But none of it is organized, and eventually you lose the precious sparks instilled on those scraps of paper. The sticky part of the paper has long since dried up, so you end up slapping a handful of tiny paper slips back on the edge of your desk, or the side of your monitor a dozen times a day. There are hundreds of other notes that have migrated to various corners and drawers of your desk. You haven’t peeked at them since you scribbled a few words on each.
And maybe there’s clutter in the good luck charms you have to arrange in a certain order around your keyboard before you can even begin writing. It started with one piece, and then a friend gifted you with the action figure that reminded her of your favorite character. And you couldn’t resist the little dog that nods his head with every click of your keyboard. Of course, you can’t do anything without staring at a photo of your dream beach house for at least ten minutes. And what’s with all the bowls crusted with the remains of bean dip, cups half full of moldy coffee, and crumpled candy bar wrappers tossed on the back of your desk?
Physical clutter can also be the broken office chair that requires you to balance in a specific direction or be tossed to the floor. Or your desk is so cramped that you can’t get your knees beneath it and your laptop leaves no room for a pad of paper beside it.
Dealing with physical clutter
This is the time of year it makes sense to throw open all the windows and cupboards, to shake out all your curtains and blankets. Don’t you just love the way they feel and smell after a few hours of sunshine and fresh air? Well, your writing space needs to feel (and smell) as bright and energetic as any other room in your house.
Start with the biggest clutter—books, papers, and research that belong to past projects. If you don’t have enough shelf space for your books look for a sale on simple, foldable shelves that you can put anywhere in your house. (I like these because I can fold them up and move them from room to room without scratching the floor or banging into the walls.)
Get your writing books organized by category. I like to shelve mine using the same line up as that of getting a book written and published. The order looks like this:
Books on sparking creativity
Books on creating characters
Books on writing a first draft
Books on editing and proofreading
Books on getting published/self-publishing
Books on marketing
I don’t go crazy and file each book within its category by title or author. But I do know where I’ll find the book on how to dress my characters, and I don’t have to dig through every pile of books I own. And all my dictionaries, thesauri, and style manuals are within an arm’s length from my keyboard.
Create project folders—every paper that relates to a specific manuscript goes into a folder. If it’s a small project I may only need a manila folder that I’ll tuck into a large hanging file. If it’s a massive collection of notes, maps, and brochures I’ll designate a large hanging file just for that project. And every folder goes into the filing cabinet, and gets labeled for easy recovery.
Create an idea journal—collect every loose sticky note, napkin, or receipt that you’ve scribbled on, and corral your glorious ideas into one thick journal or notepad. Set up a system of dating or labeling the entries so you can skim through the pages quickly when you’re looking for that idea you had at brunch over a year ago. When you fill one journal, start a new one, and capture every glimmer of inspiration in one easy to access place. You’ll be amazed at how many of those ideas become stories once you rediscover them. Now toss all those loose scraps of paper in the trash.
Let it go—if it’s a tchotchke that doesn’t make you laugh with joy when you see it. Maybe it can find a home on a small shelf above the window. Or perhaps it’s time to donate your collection of action figures to someone else in the family. With visitation rights, of course.
Plates, cups, and wrappers need to be returned to the kitchen when no one’s looking. That way you can put off washing and drying them until you’ve finished your project. Or maybe someone will take care of that for you while you continue decluttering. In any case, you’ve freed up valuable work space when you don’t have to worry about knocking your grandmother’s antique tea cup to the floor (or about what’s growing in it). Go ahead and toss the wrappers now. You’re never going to get around to making origami swans from them.
Now that you’ve removed the physical clutter, you may find large areas of your working space you don’t need to dust. Well, the desktop was covered with all that clutter so the dust obviously couldn’t reach it. Count your blessings. Then dust whatever looks dim or fuzzy.
You deserve to write in comfort—change chairs or desks if it will help you write longer. If your back hurts after you’ve been sitting for an hour, go treasure hunting in your house. (I’ve made a new rule: I don’t buy a chair or sofa without sitting on it for a while.) If there’s one chair in the house you always gravitate to, claim it for your office. The same with your desk. I recently moved from a beautiful roll-top desk that afforded me no space for my knees or for taking notes, to a wide L-shaped IKEA worktop. I’ve personalized it with a coat of aqua blue paint on the work surface and deep, Caribbean blue on the legs. The serene colors make me smile, and blue is the energy of communication.
Make your work area as comfortable as possible, and you’ll find you enjoy writing even more. A good lamp and a ceiling fan may keep you feeling alert.
Okay, it’s time to sit down and look around. You can see what you’re working on, you can reach your reference books, and every surface sparkles. Breathe a sigh of relief. You’ll thank me when you realize you aren’t sneezing anymore.
Next week: Saying goodbye to mental clutter. See you then!