Sidestep the Poet’s Pitfall {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 19}

In previous lines of work, when I sat at the teacher’s desk adapting curriculum for little English language learners, or when I wrote and edited and created design full-time for church ministries, I’d hear the bell ring or watch the clock tick to 5:30 to close out my day. I’d put my papers in files, click save on all my documents and shut down the computer overnight. The next day, I’d come back to a clean desk and empty screen, a little picture of His mercies showing up fresh every morning.

Now, in my role as a mother and manager of the home, there’s no bell or clock that says my day is done. There is the kids’ bedtime, but even after that there are dishes to wrangle, lunches to pack, and clothes to rewash because I’ve forgotten them in the machine for two days.

When I tuck in the beautiful chaos of motherhood and kiss the kids goodnight, I finally come in to my office to write and find a whole different kind of chaos, not such a rewarding one.

There’s my desk, its own accidental collage of doctor’s reports, Bible study materials, early reader books, discarded print cartridges, crayons and scissors, cameras and the scraps of a design project that’s been hanging over my head. My shoulders slump at the sight of the many things I should be doing instead of writing. Thoughts shuffle in and out of one another and come up jumbled like the mess of papers in front of me.

Every time I see the piles sky-scraping, I think of Gordon MacDonald’s insight on how our physical surroundings mirror our inner lives: “When I am slipping into a state of disorganization…I know it because my desk takes on a cluttered appearance. The same thing happens to the top of my bedroom dresser. In fact almost every horizontal surface in the path of my daily travel becomes littered with papers, memos to which I have not responded, and bits of tasks that are unfinished.”

I feel like the writer friend of author and psychologist Karen E. Peterson who came home from waiting tables thinking she’d get to work on her fiction writing, until she opened the door to the sight of “her desk covered with a chaotic jumble of half-written scenes, numerous outlines, a cracked mug with a one-inch layer of calcified coffee….” She couldn’t do her best work there. She could hardly get her creativity flowing at all in the midst of the visual block.

The undisciplined life can hold back even the best writers. Reflecting on the disorganized, undisciplined ways of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Barclay wrote: “Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little…. It has been said of him: ‘He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one–the gifts of sustained and concentrated effort.’ In his head…he had all kinds of books ‘completed save for transcription.’ But the books were never composed outside Coleridge’s mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out.”

No matter what our level of tolerance for chaos, there is most decidedly a connection between the order of our environment and our enthusiasm for creative projects. If our motivation wanes, if our efforts won’t sustain, maybe we need to practice a little more discipline, reigning in the excesses of our surroundings and our schedules.

Maybe we simply need to pick up the debris from the last creative project to prepare a clean slate for the next. Maybe we need to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives” to make for a better rhythm in the home, including blocking out a daily or weekly time for creative writing. Maybe we need to do a clean sweep and scale down the number of our belongings to relieve the cluttered mind. Maybe we need to work with a trusted friend to get control of our space and streamline the systems of our home or office for easier upkeep.

To create a more disciplined writing life, to lead those thoughts and drafts to their potential, to avoid the pitfall of the poet Coleridge, we may need first to create a more disciplined life in general, one in which the horizontal surfaces of our space invite like clean slates ready for writing and revision. In the next post, we’ll talk about adding personal touches to your desk or office to turn it into an inspiring place, but for today, will you join me in clearing some space?

{How does orderliness (or lack thereof) in your writing space affect your concentration? What steps will you take today to make your space less distracting and more motivating?}

This is Day 19 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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4 thoughts on “Sidestep the Poet’s Pitfall {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 19}

  1. Excessive clutter makes me feel…overwhelmed. And guilty. Neither of those are conducive to creativity. However, a strictly clean and polished space also tends to stress me out. I guess the perfect medium would be: “Clean enough to be healthy; cluttered enough to be happy.” (As one of my teachers used to say.)

    • Great phrase- I love the way your teacher put it. The Write Type, a book I mentioned in the post, has some questions and little tests to determine what kind of writer you are, what conditions put you in the optimal mindset for writing. And our next post will have some questions from a design blogger to help us explore what will most inspire us in our space. I think I’m like you, I can’t think straight in complete chaos and clutter, but I also need some sense of personality in the space to make me feel at home. In my little office, I’ve got a few things already placed, but I’m looking forward to finally putting some things on my inspiration board as well.

  2. I am always taking pictures of my desk, because it is like an archaeological record of what I’m working on at any given time. I loveitnwhen it’s neat, but that doesnt last long!

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