THE BLOG
10/13/2012 06:18 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2012

The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: From a Clear Desk You Can See Forever -- So?

True Story. Years ago as a young, untenured faculty member I was commiserating on the academic life with a senior colleague who told me that he was so busy during the week he had to come in on Saturdays to clean his office. I may have been a little wet behind the ears at the time, I may have been green, but I was floored by his admission. At the time, I had a toddler and a husband at home whom I adored. I was willing to work hard -- I have always worked hard, and if possible, I work even harder now than I did then (which is saying something, but don't we all, at the dawn of this insanely unbalanced twenty-first century in America) -- but there was no way I was going to leave my family at home on the weekends so I could come in and clean my office.

My priorities have always been pretty clear: 1. Family 2. Work (writing-teaching-research) 3.Everything else. "Tidy office" doesn't even make the list.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. I've written five books and more essays and articles in the past five years than I have time to sit down and tally. Guess what? Not a single editor or agent has ever asked me to include a photo of my office with my submissions. So you can relieve yourself of the worry that the state of your work space necessarily speaks for the state of your mind or even your career. You're already torn in skaty-eight different directions trying to work and write and have a life (Does anyone even say skaty-eight anymore? Let's bring it back.). Something's got to go. Let it be your desk.

Now, if you're the type of person for whom a spotless office is absolutely necessary to getting any writing done, ignore this advice in favor of creating the optimum writing environment for you. But if you're not, let the piles grow, setting aside perhaps a couple of hours a year to go through them and bring some order to the chaos. The beauty of this system is that when the time comes, you'll be less conflicted about what to keep and what to toss: if you let stuff pile up long enough, anything that was once time sensitive has either been dealt with or is probably time sensitive no longer and can be tossed.

If you choose productivity over neatness, however, steel yourself for a lot of commentary, especially if you're a woman. I'm periodically astonished at the freedom colleagues seem to feel to remark about the state of my office, often to my face, which means it must be a regular topic of conversation behind my back.

The other thing about writing is that, at least for now, even with the digital age ascendant, it is still a paper-driven field and as a writer, you'll be wrangling that paper well into the forseeable future: drafts and more drafts, proofs, flyers, memos, acceptances, rejections, and so on. If you teach, moreover, unless you have achieved the elusive nirvana of the paperless classroom, you have the additional pleasure of having paper handed to you, stacks and stacks of it, on a regular basis. These conditions make keeping your desk clean an almost sysyphean task. So take my advice. If you have a choice between cleaning your office or writing: write. If you have a choice between cleaning your office or a Mystery Science Theater Three Thousand marathon with your family: choose the family and MST3K. It's an old saw that as the end of life approaches, no one wishes they had spent more time at the office. I think it's safe to say that goes double for time spent cleaning it.