The following is not a review of Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman’s book A PERFECT MESS: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder—How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the Word a Better Place. The following is a testimonial. Commuting to work, I listened to the audio version of A PERFECT MESS and, with every mile, found myself more relaxed with my own clutter and my own life.
Abrahamson and Freedman offer fascinating examples and insights into disorder—from personal to professional to political mess—and explode many clichés about the virtues of extreme organization and the vices of messiness. The authors do not advocate utter chaos, but they do speak up for creative clutter and on-the-fly flexibility. They illustrate how those obsessed with organizing tasks can actually waste time that could be use for accomplishing projects. Life is far from perfectly predictable, and people who cope with disorder and unexpected changes and are not guilt-ridden by their own mess may actually hold, in some circumstances, an advantage over the rigidly neat and tightly scheduled.
As a writer, I have long lived with a certain amount of clutter—notebooks and tablets, pens and pencils, multiple drafts of various projects, research books and magazines, index cards, sticky notes, and scraps of paper. The tactile and the visual are essential to my creative process, and technology has not reduced the mess on and around my desks, which now include computers and printers and memory devices. I am far more delighted by creating a story structure and seeing once randomly conceived plot and character elements fall into a compelling design than I am by tidying up my workspace.
After listening to A PERFECT MESS, I have resolved to put aside any remaining twinges of guilt and embarrassment over messiness and embrace the mess as part of the creative process. Of course, there are limits to how many thoughts I can juggle at once in my head, and occasionally I misplace a book or a page of notes. Still, in a search among the clutter, I have often made serendipitous discoveries that benefited the work at hand or sparked a new project. I shudder to imagine what a “professional organizer” might do to my library by imposing the appearance of neatness without regard to my clusterings of ideas and inspirations.
When someone asks how I go about writing a novel or a play, I answer that my method harkens back to ancient augury. In a cardboard box, I collect ideas scribbled on scraps of paper—notes on setting and theme, plot twists and characters, along with fragments of dialogue. The collecting process may last for months or years. Then, when the time feels right, I open the box and spill its contents across the floor, like a diviner splitting the sacrificial beast. From the entrails—all those bits of paper—I read the portents that foretell the story. I discover the pattern that would not have formed without the freedom of random associations and the energy sparked by a perfect mess.