Procrastination or preparation?

I read somewhere that you should never clean your desk before sitting down to write. Supposedly, cleaning your desk becomes the task, not the writing. It slows you down and distracts you. You may never get to the writing.

I’ve been having a heck of a time writing in my home office of late. And by “of late” I mean, like, for the past couple of years. (Kidding. Sort of.) My office is a room that is supposed to be mine, for writing. It’s filled with old notebooks and journals, books about writing, books that I love, dictionaries, thesauri, literary magazines, etc. etc. Favorite art adorns the walls, and there’s a bulletin board onto which I’ve tacked bits of visual inspiration; art photos, a letter from a lit contest I was a finalist in a couple of years ago. After the tendinitis that left me unable to type for a while in 2007-8, I bought an ergonomic chair, and a tray for a keyboard and mouse that helps my arms stay pain-free. My desk has a nice spot for my laptop, printer, and scanner. In short, my office is a place that should be perfect for writing. I’m lucky, I know, to have it.

Except that recently it’s been a room I want to avoid. In the year-plus since my son was born, the office has become the place to drop unfinished projects, unopened mail, and whatever else we wanted out of the way. Piles of paper began to rise on my desk. Sometimes I had to clear a space just to put my laptop down. While I was pregnant, because I couldn’t seem to write, I diverted my creative impulses toward painting and drawing. Art supplies (and unfinished art projects) covered the table adjacent to my desk.

Ugh. What a mess.

My attempts to sit down and write in my office of late have been failures. I get distracted, I remember projects from around the house that need to be done, I surf the web. My successful writing days have all come as a result of staking out a table in my local coffee shop.

Today, after a morning workout at the gym, I just didn’t feel like walking to the coffee shop. But I couldn’t get anything done. I was tempted to clean up my office. For some reason this seemed like it would help with the writing. But it also seemed like procrastination, so I tried to rally to walk to the coffee shop. I even put my shoes on. And then I decided: who cares if it’s procrastination? If it helps me write more tomorrow, or the next day, maybe a clean office is just what I need.

And so, I did it. I uncovered my desk. I put away the art supplies and the unfinished art projects. I took care of some of the piles of boring administrative tasks. I hung up some of the picture frames that have been laying on the floor under my table for months. Wow. Guess what? I feel better. And I’m writing. Maybe some people need a ritual to go through to prepare for the day’s writing. Baseball players do it when they come up to bat, so why not writers? Maybe cleaning up my desk is just my way of adjusting my gloves and my hat before taking a swing.


6 thoughts on “Procrastination or preparation?

  1. I tend to accumulate vast piles of everything and to write in the middle of them. Or I do at work. My own writing is much more peripatetic now and reliant on notebooks on tube trains, laptops on my knees on our bed and the occasional bout on the kitchen table. In other words, I don’t have a writing space anymore and am having to learn new habits.

    • Truman Capote wrote in bed with a typewriter on his knees, so you’re in good company. (Of course, he also wrote with a glass of sherry nearby at all times, but that’s neither here nor there.)

  2. I so agree about the ritual. I have a writing space similar to yours and I’ve found the best way to get myself into it is to perform some kind of ritual — deskcleaning/paper-straightening, picture-adjusting, pencil-sharpening — before I sit down to work. It works fairly well as long as the ritual takes roughly the same amount of time each day and doesn’t migrate into actual cleaning/tidying. (Yes, I’ve often lost this battle.)

  3. Last week I finished reading for the first time Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and she talks about how it may be good to go some place else to write: “It’s good to change the scenery from time to time, and at home there is the telephone, the refrigerator, the dishes to be washed, a shower to be taken, the letter carrier to greet.”

    Before I had my own washer and dryer, I used to get some interesting material at the laundromat.

    • Writing Down the Bones is a writing book that I like to return to — there aren’t many that I find that inspiring. She’s right… there are way too many chores and distractions around the house. Perhaps the laundromat should be my next writing location!

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