Friday, July 2, 2010

Why My Desk is Neat

After our Life Matters show, I spoke to Clint Greagen and Rachel Power about housework.

In particular, balancing the need for household order - neatness, cleanliness - with time for work.

One theme was adjustment: slowly lowering our expectations; tolerating what once seemed a bare minimum. Not because our aesthetic or hygienic ideals have fallen, but because they conflict with other impulses: those of creativity, or idle minutes.

Here is an example: my desk. The rest of the lounge is messy. Not 'toddler birthday party' messy, but certainly out of order. It has to be, because it's impossible to entertain two kids without disorder. Once it's cleaned and tidied, it's filled with toys and filth again. Entropy.

But I keep my desk neat. It's not a decision; a conscious choice to differentiate it from its surroundings. It's a spontaneous, unthought, easy urge: it happens without deliberation.

On reflection, what does it do for me? First, it is practical. I know what I'm working on: books I'm reading are stacked up top, manuscripts I'm writing or editing down below. Pens are in the top draw, inks to the side, paper to the bottom left. I know where everything is, and I don't have to waste time looking or wondering.

Second, it is representative. It doesn't simply contain or hold my writing tools. It stands, in my mind, for the job. In my psyche is a vision of something like this desk, with all the various projects - books, editing, journalism, correspondence - in their niches. The physical neatness somehow encourages the mental neatness; the imaginary bureau.

Third, it is respite. Alongside the noise, I find the mess of the lounge draining. The Lego on the floor, the old boxes transformed into spaceships, the toast on a plate on the coffee table, the clothes drying on the trunk next to the heater - it's not comfortable to me. My desk is a holiday from the clutter and din.

Fourth, it is evocative. It reminds me of writings past; of pen, ink and paper; of sitting and finishing thoughts, chapters. It gets me in the mood, so to speak. This can be frustrating - recalling my work, but being prevented by chores, kids or sickness. But it works: to keep the ideal rejuvenated, when it's so easily deadened.

My desk is to my right, as I write. Goading. But I've only time for a quick blog: the kids are calling, as are their stomachs.

11 comments:

markwilliamjackson.com said...

Completely agree, my desk is very important, so much so that a few weeks ago I tried for a change, I dragged my big wooden desk upstairs and test drove a small metal & glass desk, lasted 6 days until I brought old woody back down and into its rightful spot. The rest of the house can have the horror of a war zone but my study remains a refuge.

Gondal-girl said...

sigh! I hear you brother - halleluja! Looking at that neat space is like remembering to breathe....

do you find a smaller work surface makes you neater?

I have noticed with my smaller desk near the front door though, it becomes the dump zone for keys, mail and visitors sitting at my office chair and looking at bits and pieces, which is enough to make me get a leaf blower and give them a taste! ( in my mind a huge insult).

Damon Young said...

I neaten whatever desk I use - large or small. Large ones just give more room for neatness, i.e. they can hold more orderly piles.

As for the 'dump zone', this is a continual threat, which I guard against doggedly.

Reservoir Dad said...

At our house things are in reverse. I do my best to keep everything clean from the living rooms to the bedrooms but the study door is kept closed and hidden from the eyes of visitors. I think the messy study and cluttered desk reflects my way of working as well - I very rarely plan and nearly always write with a mild sense of panic.

Damon Young said...

RD, you're certainly not alone in this. But I find panic, hurry and so on detrimental to my writing.

The doer's mantra: whatever works.

Gondal-girl said...

oh but I do, scooping up offensive detritus and moving it elsewhere...I patrol, I rage, I distract politely the visitors who paddles their fingers in my personal creative business by passing them the baby ( who has also decided it is great fun to rearrange objects on my desk too and smear the screen with his fingers...)

re: visitors - the messier desk is, the less likely they go about reading bits and pieces left about.... ( too cruel).

I salute you neatness in the face of cuteness!

Damon Young said...

All in all, the kids have been astonishingly restrained with my writing desk. Not my computer desk - Sophia loves to play with the mouse and keyboard. (Often stuffs things up.) But no pens or paper or ink wrecked yet.

Yet.

Peter Fyfe said...

I can't help thinking of the desk (mine a 1930s solid oak pedestal made by Stuchbury & Co of Sydney that found me on ebay and demanded purchase - it was love at first byte) as a sort of secular altar - a sacred space - where writers practice their religion by making sacrificial offerings of time and endeavour to the elusive gods of eloquence and revelation? I've often wondered at writing's close phenomenological equivalence to mystic praxis (albeit usually secular). If so, small wonder we need to keep it neat and just so. :)

Damon Young said...

Yes, I do think it's an altar of sorts - well put. But I think the god is me.

Peter Fyfe said...

I find it easy to recoil in horror at the apparent egocentricity of it all, but it can also be seen as the place where the mundane in us is kept occupied in order that the divine in us might be revealed, a container for the necessary eccentricity of our process.

Oops… that came out way too lofty... but I suspect you know what I mean?

Damon Young said...

Yes, I know what you mean. But I've not quite put into words.

Leave this with me...