Rituals and Excavations

Throughout my writing career, it’s been my custom to clear my desk after sending a manuscript to my publisher. Mundane? Yes. But the ritual helps me step away from the old story world I’ve created and now must leave. I can then start a new book with all decks cleared for action.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve lost this practice. Too harried by the demands of work and deadline. Too tired to bother. The old standards have slipped.

I’ve known writers whose offices look like the aftermath of a bomb explosion. Their sticky notes are so old that the adhesive is gone, and the cellophane tape they’ve used instead is yellowing and brittle.

Other friends in this business could compete with a banker for the tidiest-desk award. Jack Bickham might allow a single sheet of paper to lie on his desk top. His manuscript went into an in-box, precisely aligned on one corner. Presumably he kept all his notes in computer files or in his head.

Another friend of the banker style neatly tucked her pages out of sight in a desk drawer at the end of each writing session. She didn’t even leave an ink pen in view. Her file cabinet was a model of efficient organization, and a small bookcase held a handful of reference books and copies of her published novels. There was nothing else, not even dust.

Across the years, I’ve possessed beautiful offices that were decorated and plush. I’ve also had ghastly holes. I enjoy dreaming my way through coffee-table books about fabulous offices assembled by interior designers. I’m still kicking myself because I didn’t buy a house with an entire upstairs devoted to office space, complete with windows and a fireplace. (The cramped kitchen and a whirlpool tub plumbed in the back hallway might have influenced that decision, however.)

Whatever my surroundings, I am–in organizer parlance–a “piler, not a filer.”

Try as I might, my desk quickly becomes heaped with references, scribbled notes on scraps of paper and stickies, sample chapters and drafts, copy-editor style sheets, complicated emails of editorial instructions that I’ve printed out, and other miscellany such as amazon.com receipts and book contracts.

I prefer to have everything concerning a project right out in the open in front of me, beside me, and behind me. I fear that if I put away that index card containing my villain’s motivation, I’ll never see it again.

There’s no logic here. If the item goes into the pile, I’ll never see it again anyway. At least, not until the book’s finished and I no longer need it.

Mostly I blame a lack of discipline for the problem. The books I’ve read on feng shui say that messy clutter bars the entrance of new ideas. Perhaps so. I do know that my system causes inefficiency and frustration.

So, it’s time to clean the office and get it into proper order. When I moved into my current house, I didn’t have an opportunity to sort and clear the old office. All sorts of rubbish were packed along with important file folders, resulting in chaos. I’ve only unpacked the most vital things because I’ve been occupied in writing a trilogy, and the book must come first.

With THE FAELIN CHRONICLES finally off my slate, I have no excuse. While I wait for my agent to think over a book proposal I’ve submitted, I’m determined to transform my office into an orderly and pleasant workplace.

Easy to say. Harder to do. If only I had the luxury of a secretary–efficient and devoid of any personal attachment to scribbled notes of sample of dialogue.

As I sift and sort, I start to read. Once I start to read, I remember what I wanted to do with that idea. I can’t bear to toss the note on the back of an envelope. It might, after all, be the genesis of my life’s masterpiece.

The scribble goes into a new pile, just a little one. I promise myself that I’ll label a folder for it. Only what is to be done with a jumbled assortment of inspirations? File them under what category? Inspiration? Assortment? Jumble?

Those of you who’ve been proficient with computers since you were toddlers must be squirming right now, yearning to remind me of the convenient neatness of Cloud files–behold the paperless world! It sounds very nice, only I’m a visual person. I’m tactile. I do not float in the abstract. If a file cabinet causes me trouble (because once a paper goes inside it, it tends to vanish forever), how am I to remember the name of that computer file I’m searching for? And do I want yet another dratted password in my life? No, I do not.

However, good things do come from the task of excavation. For example, over the weekend I located my French book contracts. Woo-hoo! But quick! Get them in the contract file before they disappear again.

I feel like an archeologist sifting through layers of soil. Here are research notes from that last Google search on 19th century plantations. Lower is the style sheet that I needed six months ago. Beneath that is a draft of a magazine article that I wrote–when?–and have yet to polish and market. And … aha! Now I’ve located my favorite pen. Even better, here’s a book weight I’d forgotten about. Why do I have eight used ink jet cartridges taking up valuable space? They should go to the office supply store for recyling, and I’ve said that the last eight times I’ve changed the ink in my printer.

Recently, I’ve started wondering if I’m becoming a hoarder. Thank you, reality TV, for putting this worry in my mind. People used to be reassured that if they feared they were going insane, it meant they were perfectly sound of mind. Can I cling to the corollary that if I fear I’m a borderline hoarder, I’m not one?

(I’m not quite convinced.)

I’m pleased to report that my wood desk has been cleared. I ruthlessly dislodged the vintage manual typewriter, stacks of books, and assorted paper and notebooks. Now I can see the deep scratch in its glass top, a boo-boo courtesy of my most recent move. I’ve had this desk forever. I paid for it out of my third book advance, and it has served me well.

I’m making progress in cleaning off the computer desk. Half of the stupendously messy pile is gone, which means I can use the full surface of my mouse pad again. I’ve found two novels that I’d lost. Now if I can shift the stack of twenty-two books from my desk chair (the stuff atop the wooden desk had to go somewhere), I’ll have a work space that’s useful instead of cluttered.

Perhaps I’ll even find the willpower to maintain order by using an in-box. I know I have one … somewhere.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Rituals and Excavations

  1. Oh, I relate to so many things you’ve expressed in this post! Would you mind if I quote you with an excerpt from this? I’ll link back to your blog, of course.

  2. Meghan

    Hahaha. I was part of a Facebook conversation yesterday that’s purpose was to discover “the best way to keep track of all my online passwords.” I was wide-eyed. I didn’t know there were such websites: websites that help you keep track of your passwords for other websites?! My contribution to the convo was, “Good old pen and paper?”

    • Exactly! I’ve been informed about the website that tracks passwords by someone who was all bright-eyed and enthusiastic about this marvel. I could not be impressed. It reminds me of a clerk in Best Buy several years ago excitedly showing me some electronic gadget that you could handwrite notes on–no doubt a primitive precursor of sorts to today’s sophisticated iPad. All I could think of was why couldn’t I use a piece of paper instead of purchasing a $400 toy? Now we can doodle in color on our phone screens! Woo-hoo! It’s called crayons, people.

  3. Angelique Alfaro

    You are one of my favorite writers. I would love to see the stories Nether and Mandria on the big screen or in a TV series like the Game of Thrones.

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