Thanks for joining me this week for Part 12 of this series. I’ve been continually surprised at how much there actually is. Being a pantser, I’m following where my creative voice wants to go. Feel free to suggest topics. Might be something I haven’t thought of and need to! Next up will be critical voice.
It’s fairly well-known that creatives are on the messy side. So much so that organization gurus lecture us about not being disorganized and try to force us into a very structured system.
It makes non-creative people nervous and can bring out the worst in them. I experienced a lot of this in the Army, to the point where I thought my organization was broken.
I lived in barracks, and the Army controlled how that looked. They didn’t differentiate between the young male soldier who leaves his dirty underwear on the floor (sad but true) and a magazine sitting on a table, waiting to be read.
The latter example is straight out of a policy on what each room was supposed to look like. Magazines and books had to be put away at all times. I never understood that. How were you supposed to read?!
Everything always had to be arranged for inspection at any moment. That always left me feeling like I couldn’t do anything in the place I lived.
When I left the military, I took a personality class on the Meyers-Briggs Indicator. You take a test and are identified as a certain personality type. I’m an INTP, which is not one of the more common ones but fits for creatives.
The most amazing thing? The instructor said that you don’t have to be neat to be organized.
I’ve since had people admire my organization. A lot of it developed because I have to beat back the chaos of overwhelm!
So I’m messy. When I work, I might have papers strewn all over my desk. When I write, it’ll be on the floor.
Messiness can turn into clutter and disorganization, and even to chaos.
During my days of pure overwhelm, it turned into chaos. Most notably, the chaos was at home. I didn’t know it then, but it was a sign of the stress I was under. Piles formed because I didn’t have the brainpower to decide what to do with the stuff.
Sometimes I’d realize I needed to do something with all this stuff, so I’d buy plastic storage boxes. The boxes replaced the piles. I couldn’t find anything.
My then co-writer suggested geological filing after I couldn’t locate my car title (in the safe deposit box). The way he described it—or the way I interpreted it—was dropping receipts in date order in the box.
It, too, became a clutter-fest of paper. The biggest problem I had was that paper was everywhere. I had boxes in every corner it seemed and critical voice kept nagging me to do something.
I finally purchased a filing system from the Container Store (which appears to be discontinued now). It came with printed labels for all different categories, like Auto Maintenance and Medical. It helped somewhat.
I could find everything important. But it was still challenging for me to get anything into the folders. It seemed like the work chaos was short-circuiting that part of my brain. The last thing I wanted to do when I came home was do anything that felt remotely like work, and filing was something I did at work as well.
It became apparent that I needed to do a long-term cleanup. Every time I came home from work chaos, I arrived into home chaos. Not good for the writing.
So I started by looking for solutions for the creatives. I tried Organizing for the Creative Person: Right-Brain Styles for Conquering Clutter, Mastering Time, and Reaching Your Goals by Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping and several other books that have since disappeared. I also read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. It reminded me a little too much of the Army pressing their organization on me.
Nothing seemed to help.
Paper was clearly a problem, so I decided to stop the paper flow as much as I could.
I went online to every company I got bills from and attempted to sign up for online bills. The results varied with this. Not every company had moved to online billing. One had an option to either have paper or have paper and online billing (since updated). My insurance company was so slow to get to this that they only did it in the last two years.
Major impact on paper inflow!
Without new paper flooding in, the chaos receded enough that I felt like I could tackle the boxes.
I picked one that annoyed me and started a fast pass through it. My goal? Find anything I could immediately trash. That included envelopes, the advertising junk credit cards send (a lot of it), and yellow sheets I’d written random, long-forgotten notes on.
Then I circled back and repeated, still finding more I could trash. After that, I did a fast, very general sort into categories that I could file at one time. The categories stayed very broad, so I wouldn’t bog down on asking where it was supposed to go.
Some papers required more decision-making that I wasn’t for. I just dumped them into the next box I sorted and eventually dealt with them.
Then I set the goal of getting rid of all the plastic storage boxes. They’d become clutter themselves.
The empties went first. Then I worked through the ones that had stuff in them, throwing out a lot I’d forgotten about. And I counted the boxes to see how many I’d had.
It was forty-four.
It was astounding I had accumulated so many (though not all of them were big boxes). It was also amazing how freeing it was when I let go of the clutter. I hadn’t realized how much it had been crowding in on my creative voice.
As a reward for getting the clutter under control, I have a maid come in. I can hand off tasks I don’t like, and it keeps a boundary on messiness turning into clutter. When I know the maid’s coming, I tackle the clutter before it gets out of hand.
I’m still messy when I create. For both my writing side hustle and my day job, I use portable whiteboards (11X14) to keep the paper inflow down. Instead of stickies or notepads, I just erase what’s on the whiteboard.
Because I have better control of this, I can also see when stress is causing the messiness to turn into clutter. I had a bad two weeks at the day job owing to a situation that had suddenly changed on me. My creative side was terrified that I would slide back into the way things were during the days of chaos. Critical voice said, “Nope, I’ve got you covered.”
It noticed that I started to accumulate clutter. In this case, I’d ordered a few things online and had let the packing materials sit out for too long. It was an amazing sense of agency reminding myself that it needed to be disposed of.
Now, especially since I’m teleworking, I also clean up around my desk at the end of the day, and especially right before the weekend or if I’m headed out on vacation.
One of the worst things about gurus is they tend to be cheerleaders and say, “Once you follow my system, you can go on autopilot.” If I go on autopilot, the worst traits of critical voice and creative voice come out.
The reality is that managing the natural messiness that comes with creativity will always be an ongoing process, with skirmishes along the way.