A clean office is a bad thing for a writer.

Anne Lamott, the author of Bird by Bird, opened one of her lectures with this: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”

I don’t have a child, but man, does that hit home.

My office has three states:

  1. Hot mess – If the office usually looks like it’s exploded, like it does now,  I’ve been busy working in it. The closets are open, the desk is surrounded by paper, pens, packages of Kleenex, chargers and a few unidentifiable objects. Things (plants, books, papers, cats) are hanging off my bookshelves. My closets are open and things are falling out. That’s what it looks like now.
  2. Cold mess – If there are a lot of boxes and laundry baskets in the middle of the floor and it hasn’t been vacuumed in a long time, I’ve been avoiding it – and my novel – for a long time. I’ve just kidnapped my laptop, closed the door and fled. This is what it looks like after the holidays.
  3. Clean –  Have you ever seen Poltergeist? Remember the little psychic lady who says “This house is clean”? If so, you know how creepy “clean” can be. It is the worst state for me office by far. Everything is tidy. Spotless. Dusted. Everything’s been filed. The carpet has been cleaned, the laundry is gone, and worse, the desk is immaculate. If my office looks like this, it means something’s wrong; I’ve spent a lot of time in there but all I’ve been doing is cleaning.

I’ve done that sort of thing for weeks at a time; gone up to work and ended up dusting the room instead, or rearranging the books on the shelves. It’s a habit I started in college, when during my sophomore year, I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to work unless my tiny room looked like a glossy page out of Dorm Beautiful.

It was the sort of habit that kept me  – for years – from working on my writing, which is strange, because when I started writing as a child and teen, I was able to write anywhere, under any conditions – it didn’t matter if the room was messy, or the radio loud, or conversations happening around me, or if my mother was asking me to please come downstairs and do my chores. I just wrote for the sheer joy of it. Very little was able to stop me. I think that year in college, is when I realized exactly how badly I wanted to be a writer, and also, that if I sat down to write, I’d have to take the next step and finish something. Then I’d have to show it to someone else. And then they might reject or criticize me, and I could very easily fail at what I most wanted to do with my life.

So instead, I cleaned.

I carried my Clean Desk Rule out of college and into the world with me, and I allowed it to expand. At one point, I couldn’t work until my whole apartment was clean. It’s worth noting that the Clean Desk Rule never applied to my workspace in the newsrooms I worked in; I was always on deadline, regardless of the state of my desk. The work had to be done.

Those days are over. Right now, my office is a hot mess.

Allegory of Music.

The Allegory of Music, by Filipino Lippi.

There is just enough room on my desk for my laptop and my hands. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is taking up half the left side of the desk and threatening to slide off a copy of my manuscript. The bookshelves and tables overflow with tangles of charger cords and craft books. One of the walls is hung with rejection letters. The floor under my feet is strewn with copies of literary magazines. I look like an allegorical painting, only without the flowing robes and hair and classical allusions that you see in Renaissance works like The Allegory of Music. Instead, I’m The Allegory of The Contemporary Fiction Writer, clad in grubby jeans and a tee shirt I got for free somewhere, hair stuffed under a baseball cap from my MFA program.

What changed? I think I started looking at writing differently when I joined my MFA program, but when I left my newsroom job, that’s when things really changed. Writing became my job; not something I wanted to do in a distant, perfect future, but something I was already doing.  Just as I didn’t bother cleaning my workspace in the newsroom before getting to work, I don’t clean my home office before getting to work.

The work needs to be done. Even if there’s a body in the sink.

I’m pleased to report that the office hasn’t been clean in some time.