It's around here somewhere.
I'm looking for a small, black electrical cable with an unusual connection tip. It looks like a mini USB connector, but it's actually something else. It's necessary to charge a quirky set of headphones I use from time to time—a door prize won at a conference a couple of years ago—but without that stupid cable there’s no easy way to make them work. Curses! I can't find it under this pile of junk! That said, while I dig through the accumulation of paper and other flotsam perched on the corner of my desk, it occurs to me that I really ought to go through the stack of mail sitting on top.
I seem to be in an eternal rearguard action with my desk. It drives me crazy. No matter how organized I get – no matter how well I compartmentalize my backup hard drives from my working drives, keep my various connecting cables disentangled from my audio breakout box, car keys, and odd bits of camera gear, there's always more junk on my desk than I prefer. Like all things, the answer is obvious once it’s known, and until this moment I’ve only had a hazy view of why it gets so bad. But, lo and behold, I think I’ve finally figured out how this mess always happens.
When I’m at my desk I’m usually intent on creating something. I’m editing a video or writing a script or finessing a graphic. The energies that compel me to make stuff are not the same forces that prompt me to clean up the mess. To be blunt, the mess is less interesting.
Obviously the mess is part of the process. It’s not just the useless shells of eggs I’ve broken to make cakes. The mess comes from an accumulation of collateral that accrue from an engaged life. They’re the production notes I leave for myself on the back of a grocery list, the business cards that sneak home in my pockets after meeting new clients, the bills waiting for my attention. The simple solution would be to make peace with the fact that the creative process requires cleaning up after a flurry of invention just as vitally as inventing new world in the first place. Shiny new inventions cannot gleam without clean light cast upon them, and a messy desk is nothing but chaotic pallor.
Alas, it’s not that simple. A messy desk is a statement of activity. It’s the intangibility of thought given abstract form. I know that the papers off to my right are usually things I cannot lose. I might hate the task of figuring out where they really should go, but I also know that I risk calamity if something from that pile gets blithely tossed into the trash. Off to my left, the electronic gizmos and hard drives that tend to accumulate like a flock of barnyard sheep are the widgets I use most often other than my computer. Those devices make everything else relevant, because they’re the repositories for actual ideas. Do they have a proper home elsewhere in my studio? Most certainly. Does my fantasy image of what the space looks like have them in their proper place? Yes. Do I usually find them, instead, sitting at arms length? Um, yes. Ultimately that seems to be the case…for now.
Here’s what I tend not to have at my desk. I don’t have personal items. I don’t keep family photos or toys or keepsakes or trophies. In my mind’s eye, I imagine my work area as perfectly spartan and clean, a tabula rasa. I love my family, but I see them all the time. When I’m working I don’t need—I don’t want—anything else competing for my mental attention. There already seems to be an endless clamor for some sliver of my forebrain’s mental storage space. The challenge is to find focus; I don’t need more distractions.
The tension remains. A messy desk inhibits clarity of thought, while simultaneously holding fragments of what’s most energetically in progress. A clean desk implies projects starving for input, even as it enables clarity of thought and ease of operation. I’m forever fighting to keep the space clear, uncluttered, the way I prefer it to be. But I’m also aware that time and tide wait for no one. When I’m standing knee deep in the surf and discovering a new way to capture the intangible sparkle of the light upon the water, I hardly want to take the time to worry about getting splashed by waves. After all, I walked down to the chaotic sea in the first place, willingly.