Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spring Cleaning For The Mind

Observing my own increasing trend for writing anywhere but actually in my home office - on the bus, in the park, in the cafe (bad for caffeine consumption!), I started to wonder if there might be something going on.

It could not possibly be the stacks of old Locus, Australian Author and Queensland Writer's Centre magazines, or the teetering piles of books - both read and unread. Nor the archive boxes stuffed with odd assortments, the piles of mouldering manila folders or the half of the office that has its floor area taken up with carefully deposited critique responses (patiently waiting for their turn), some of which may require carbon dating. I mean there is plenty of room to move the chair back - I hardly even even to squeeze through to sit at the desk.

Well . . . OK. The message finally started to sink in that five years is definitely long enough between spring cleans. So began the painful, painful process of trying to sort through all this gumph. Thankfully I managed to pull off a small miracle and use some storage area in a void under the house. But half a ton of paper had to be tossed (don't worry I recycled it).

After a long weekend spent tidying, sorting and dusting, I managed to reduce my office to something approaching minimalist. I could not believe the difference it made. I actually like being in the place now!

It made me realise that over time a kind of psychic detritus can accumulate along with all this garbage. You see all that crap, and somehow it gets bound up with all the negative feelings you accumulate toward your craft (well at least for me). It did me a lot of good to blow away the cobwebs. Physically dealing with this environment helped to clear the mental slate tremendously.

So how do you arrange your work environment? How do you keep the psychic cobwebs from accumulating, or do you keep the poor underpaid cafe workers in a job?


Brendan said...

Talking of cleans, I was looking around my place thinking it was time to roll up the sleeves and get with the yakka, but I foungd my keys so it is off again for the foreseeable future:)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Absolutely, Chris. I really need to do a physical and psychic clean of my office/mind.

Anthony J Langford said...

ANother good post.. I think you need to feel comfortable, no matter where you write.. some people like chaos and mess.. but i prefer quiet.. and not too messy..
When i was working fulltime I would try to find a park bench close to work that was as quiet as possible.. but your right, i think a good cleanup in work and home can make the brain feel freer...

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I completely agree. As I am but a young'un I share a house with three other chaps, meaning that my room doubles as my office. I suspect this is not the best working arrangement, despite the ease of which I can roll from bed to chair in one semi-smooth movement (I have refined it to an art form - I hardly ever break things now).

I think there needs to be a distinctly separate space that writing goes on in for me to be completely focussed; if the room is a mess, if there is stuff on my desk beyond mouse, keyboard and my collection of cuddly Pixar-toys (yes, I'm a 23-yr old man, what of it?) I find it very hard to concentrate on the act of creation, when the (sometimes) easier act of cleaning needs doing.

Do you all find that your writing space needs to be just that - only for writing? Having a PC in your bedroom just doesn't cut it for me :(

Anonymous said...

I can't find anything, after I clean. My husband cleaning up my space is grounds for divorce.

We remodeled and set up two beautiful offices, now that our kids are gone. I transferred as many notes as possible to the computer, before moving anything. I haven't had anywhere near the problems I thought I would.

Maybe I'm finally adjusting o writing on the computer . . .

heteromeles said...

Moving is the best cleaning I know of. Fortunately, I've had to move a lot in the last ten years.

One of my favorite tests for deep cleaning is memory. If I can't remember why I kept something, out it goes.

Feeling is a good guide too. If it's a door to something neat I'd totally forgotten, I keep it a while longer. If I feel better as I dump it, it gets recycled.

As for books, references get problematic. I usually check the local library. If I can check it out readily, I may dump a book. Typically, I buy references if I can't get the information any other way. A great example is a recipe I made this week. I don't have the cookbook, but it's available at the local library. So far I've checked it out 3 times, because that's about the only recipe I use in that $35 book. Probably I should just copy that thing down, you think?

Jim McCoy said...

I do it the easy way...

I put my netbook on the kitchen table and if I don't clean it up my wife will. (Granted, I will have scorn heaped up me if she has to do it but IT GETS DONE!) Of course, it helps that I work afternoons and I can write in the kitchen while my wife and daughter are both sleeping.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I do my best to keep the library open and the coffee shops in business. Once a month or so, I go in and decide it's time to clean the workspace. Then, for a week or so, it's a great place to write. After that, the clutter bunnies come, multiply and take over again. I give them time for the baby clutter bunnies to be old enough to find their own homes elsewhere and clean again. It is a never-ending cycle.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I had reached the point when I was re-buying books to avoid cleaning. At this point I realized I MUST clean no matter how much I hate doing it and no matter if I'm in the process of getting an office for myself in the attic.
In cleaning I realized that I had stuff there that I should have thrown away six months ago.

Synova said...

I'm going to be setting up an office from scratch very soon. We had friends who moved from out of state living with us for a while and I've decided not to let the kids have their room back again. I could take the space they have now, instead, but it's dark and their old room is bright.

When it comes right down to it I've decided that displacing my kids will help me view what I'm doing as important since I'm putting it first. I'm working on "work from home" employment in addition to writing, but it's the same idea, really. The plan is that having an "office" that isn't stuffed in the corner of someone else's space will lend a physical assist to some mental reordering.

So what should I be sure to do?

I expect to have access to some book shelves and even largish desks for free from a business that has closed. I'm hoping they aren't too ugly. I can probably afford paint. I hope I can somehow swing a good chair.

I really suck at organizing but figure I can get just about as many book cases as I could want and the room is actually sort of largish so there will be extra space.

What should I be sure to do? What might seem like a good idea but not be? Anything that seems frivolous but isn't?

Any suggestions?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. I'm not sure why, but I also love to be in motion. That's why if I have a choice I like to write in the mornings before my natural restlessness gets the better of me.

Enjoy the drive!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. It's been like a nagging tooth, but its taken me quite a while to actually make myself do it!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Anthony. I also prefer things to be fairly tidy, but I forgot about the people who function in a 'busy' enviornment. Maybe I should have had suggestions on how to create stacks and clutter:)

Anonymous said...


What helps in my office is keeping my common reference books handy.

Exercise equipment centrally located and not allowed to collect stuff. This does occasionally get me out of my desk chair and exercising while something slow loads, or I just need to think for a few minutes.

What I tried to leave out was reasons for other people to spend time in here. All the bill paying stuff, envelopes, stamps, return address stickies and the files for bills are _not_ in my office.

There is no comfortable reading chair.

There is a small bed, so when both kids are home for the holidays, one isn't stuck on the couch. I filled it up with pillows and cushions, but it's not really comfy to sit on. And it's staying that way.

It's _my_ room.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. I think a dedicated area - almost like a zen shrine - would be my ideal. Practicality tends to triumph though. Although I do have a dedicated home office, I also run a business with my wife, so there are stacks of business related stuff side-by-side with momentos from my last conention. Probably the feel of the area is more imporant, no matter what space you have. It might be possible to create that sense of a dedicated area even in a small space - for example the area inside a square guarded by Pixar toys?:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. You are poster child for the electronic age:) I know what you mean though. I have moved jobs various times and accumulated a vast mountain of paper - reference stuff I will probably never look at. This time I am determined to walk out of my current job (when I eventually move on) with nothing more than a USB drive and smile on my face.

I have gotten pretty good at working from pdf's on a split screen and taking notes directly into word files. Certainly saves the trees!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, heteromeles. There is also that wonderful invention of the photocopier - or better still scan that recipe into a pdf and store on your computer (up to 10% of a book is legal I think).

I think we must use similar sorting techniques. I also make very quick decisions based on the 'feel' test. I try not to let the mind get involved too much.

As for cleaning by moving - that I am not very good at! I tend to stay in one spot. House before this one I was in for 16 years. Crazy amount of time.

Chris McMahon said...

Ah, Jim. I see you have found the next best thing to the cafe, yet at home?

Think of all the money you save on coffees:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I know exactly where you are coming from. Generally I tend to be fairly neat, but different rules seem to apply in my creative space! Yes, I have my own local species of those clutter bunnies.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I found pushing myself to clean my office (yes it really had been 5 years) unspeakably hard. The change has been amazing though. An yep - I found plenty of stuff I really could have ditched long, long ago.

Its a great technique actually. You get your critque home from the group, then instead of woking on that story you stick it on the floor and wait for it to be covered for three years of gumpha. Then by the time you find it again you have already re-written it your way and got it published. Nice. Then you can ignore all those comments:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. It it were me I would also have some sort of archiving/storage system that was not in the office. Try not to pack too much stuff in there and leave plenty of space.

Try getting a network printer that the whole house can access, so it does not clutter up your room. Make sure you have interest access where you are (wireless is ideal and would work well if you have a wireless network printer).

I like natural light, so I would go with the brighter room. My office is a bit of a dungeon & I would love to have a view. Something creative about being able to stare off into space or at the sky outside.

Basically anything that is going to make that space comfortable and inviting for you. Try to make family understand that it is your space and don't wont it to turn into Grand Central Station. They will stop pouting eventually:)

All the best,

Dave Freer said...

You're dead right, Chris, external space has a lot to do with what I can do with my internal space. I have massive clearing everytime I start a new book, and sometimes in between when I get stuck.