Posted tagged ‘Eric Abrahamson’

Writers’ messy desks: a tribute

January 26, 2016

messydeskBlog headline: “A Perfect Mess: Why Disorganized People Are More Creative and Productive.”

I love headlines like that. Most writers probably do. After all, no less than Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Years ago, I was curious about my dear friend Beth’s writing nook. It was up a narrow flight of stairs and had a window out over her Annapolis neighborhood as well as—how cool was this—a window over her living room. One day I asked to see it. She demurred; it was a total mess.

I didn’t have to say anything, just gave her the two-handed New Yorker “Wha, who you talkin’ to?” gesture, aimed at my incredulous face. The Jersey girl got it and led me up the steps.

She wasn’t kidding. Her office was a fraction the size of mine and proportionally a wreck: books piled sloppily, threatening to tumble over; magazines full of Post-It notes; papers, tapes, brochures, and other paraphernalia everywhere. Photos, buttons, tsotskies. No sign of the floor; barely a sign of the walls. A neatnik’s nightmare.

Sure, Beth would have liked a neater office. Like most of us, though, she had lots of projects in various stages, and putting things in order, let alone storage, was a low priority. And apparently there was more.

According to the post referenced above, in the Web Writer Spotlight by David K. William, we disorganized people are indeed how we have defended ourselves to bosses, family, and friends: “spontaneous, bold and more imaginative.”

William cites Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. “On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense,” they write. “The various piles on a messy desk can represent a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offer far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide.”

Well, even to me that sounds like self-justification. How many times have I cussed while turning over piles of paper in search of that one I need right now? But they go on: “It’s not just that the advantages of being neat and orderly are typically outweighed by the costs. As it turns out, the very advantages themselves are often illusory. Though it flies in the face of almost universally accepted wisdom, moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.”

William cites other researchers, too. Susan Biali, a physician, life coach, and author, praises “controlled clutter” for certain personalities. There’s a study by University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor Kathleen Vohs: Clutter increases both efficiency and creativity. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe,” she says. Now that I believe. After all, as Abrahamson and Freedman note, “Mess helped Alexander Fleming discover penicillin.”

I wish I could share David’s post with Beth. To my enormous sorrow, she died suddenly on her birthday this month. Her partner told me he isn’t even thinking about her office for now. It hurts me to think of his pain in going up those steps—because if a writer’s soul is anywhere, it’s generally among all those disorganized papers.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.