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Organized Chaos

“A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.”

That statement often runs through my mind when I look at my desk or wherever I happen to be working (i.e., writing) at the time. And I write all over the place.

Sometimes, it’s at my stately oak roll-top desk, with all its little drawers and slots and cubby holes. At other times, it’s at the kitchen breakfast bar or table. At still other times, it’s at the dining room table or even in my recliner. (Now that is a real job hazard!)

The location depends on a variety of factors. My back has taught me that too long a period sitting at one location can wreak havoc on one’s back. Sometimes, it depends on my current task and how much room I need to do it. Lately, my possible work locations have been somewhat limited by the Covid19-induced conversion of my office into my teacher-wife’s planning room, with teacher’s manuals, curriculum guides, lesson-plan books, and props in preparation taking up available space, and the guest bedroom transformed into her Seesaw film studio, all for the mandated online learning that is now the thing. So I’m limited to the kitchen, dining room, or recliner.

I used to consider myself a super-organized person. In college, I was so thoroughly organized that I could get up in the morning, select my clothes for the day in the pitch-black darkness (so as not to awaken my lazy roommates), and walk into the daylight matching and color coordinated. Later, if I needed something from my office desk I could tell one of my children exactly where to find it, down to which drawer and where within that drawer they would find the object. It was the same with all the myriad books on my shelves.

But then we moved. Circumstances required us to live out of unpacked boxes for several months, the most confusing days of my life, and I’ve never recovered. I seemed to have lost the skill of organization. And it doesn’t help that I’m becoming increasingly more forgetful with age. Now, if I need something from my office, I’ll run (or hobble, depending on how the arthritis is doing that day) up the steps and then search and search for whatever it was that I needed until I forget what I was supposed to be finding. Then I go back downstairs and try to figure out what I was doing when my train of thought was interrupted by that pressing need for the thing I can no longer remember.

But back to my point. As nice as it is to be super-organized, a work place is, after all, just that, a work place. Something is under construction. And when one is constructing something, he needs tools and materials close at hand. Also, scraps of leftover or discarded materials lie everywhere. Construction is not neat and tidy. Dust gathers and debris collects, signs that work is being done.

This is no more true than when my research is winding down (it never really ends) and I’m well into the actual writing of the project. Let me illustrate it by describing how our dining room table has looked for the past several weeks. (With the social distancing mandate, I have no worry that we’ll need that table for entertaining dinner guests.)

A cardboard box filled with file folders sits on one end of the table. There’s one folder for each proposed chapter, and each folder holds varying amounts of notes, printouts, and photocopies from my research on the specific topic of that chapter. (I normally use a banker’s box for such storage, but in this case I’ve used a discarded 60-count K-cup coffee box. I long ago went through its contents, trying to stave off drowsiness with caffeine fixes.)

Stretched along the length of the table on the side opposite from where I sit are a line of books related to various aspects of my overall topic. These happen to be arranged chronologically since my topic is historical in nature. In front of those resources are various stacks of notes on the subjects that have been the focus of my writing to this point in the project and a sheet giving the running (and ever-changing) word count for each chapter.

To my left, angled so I can access it readily, is my laptop (always plugged in now because the battery is shot and the one I ordered has been delayed in delivery by the coronavirus, or so I’m told). In front of me is the legal pad on which I’m drafting in longhand, soon to be keyed into the electronic version at some point. And to my right, bringing our little journey to an end where we started with the box full of folders, are more scribbled notes, reminders of things I want to add to the manuscript, subjects that need further research, questions that I must answer, contradictions to resolve, etc.

In short, to the casual observer entering the front door (and daring to violate the governor’s social distancing dictat), it surely looks like chaos. Such a critic might be tempted to think, He has cluttered thinking. Just look at that mess!

But let me assure you, there is order even in that apparent chaos, at least in my mind. There is a plan, a sequence of presentation. Others might see it only in its final manifestation, the published result, but I can see it now. Just as the architect and the contractor look beyond the mess of the construction site and see the beautiful building, I see beyond the chaos and envision the final published version.

How is your writing space? Do you find things looking disorganized, disheveled? Are you able to create written order from chaos? How do you do it?

Now if I could only find that, that. . . . What was it that I was looking for?

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