Amid clutter, we can find a spot of creativity

Published February 2, 2007

Last week, while on a driving trip across Alligator Alley, I listened with fascination to an incredibly enlightening discussion on public radio. The guest on the show was the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman.

Over the years, I've written lots of articles about the joys of clearing away the stuff and living a clutter-free life. The sad truth is this: despite my good-faith efforts to keeps my condo and home office in order, the mess seems to navigate its way back. If left unchecked, it starts to flourish like kudzu, suffocating everything within eyeshot - including my creativity.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not chronically messy to the point that I need counseling. I don't have Diogenes syndrome - a debilitating need to hoard clutter - nor do I necessarily enjoy living in a big, fat, creative, overflowing dirty mess.

But a certain amount of mess always seems to cleverly sneak into my life.

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to "get really organized." A hollow self-promise, that, three weeks into January (National Organizing Month, by the way), hadn't quite happened. I was actually berating myself as I was driving, mainly because gum wrappers and receipts had started overflowing again from my cart's cup holders and plastic tubs of Christmas decorations were still rattling in the hatchback and rear seat.

Yet, I was feeling more creative than ever, reading and writing a lot, accomplishing other goals that seemed more important to my purpose on earth than being a model of tidiness and organization.

So imagine my joy at hearing about A Perfect Mess.

The concept is simple: A little mess and disorganization may help, not hinder, the creative soul - or any soul for that matter. The books cites a number of famous messy-niks who flourished despite not doing what their mothers told them and putting things back where they found them. Alexander Fleming (oh, to think: his big fat mess equaled penicillin!); Albert Einstein and Bill Gates to name a few.

Of course, a couple of professional organizers called in, including a pioneer in the field who has been at it since the 1970s and written books on the subject.

She didn't disagree entirely, though she maintained organization made life easier and more efficient for almost anyone.

The book isn't about not cleaning. It's about the optimal level of mess, how constant cleaning and organizing cost us in terms of time and money (think of how companies selling expensive organizational supplies have flourished in recent years).

Wasted time is an issue, too. If you wait until you have 10 things to file, isn't that really more efficient to file just once rather than making 10 separate trips to the filing cabinet?

I've noticed that when I do really clean my desk, I can't lay my hands as fast on that number I just jotted down or the article I printed out a few days ago.

Articles I've read on the subject hint that there's a revolt brewing against the uber-organization movement of recent years. It's a trend that has reached an almost religious fervor, guided in part by its very own Bible: Real Simple magazine.

One woman called into the Perfect Mess radio interview and said that despite pressure to the contrary, she had come to feel comfortable with the amount of clutter that filled her tiny New York apartment. It was orderly, enough, she said, and she cleaned when she had the time, but it definitely looked cluttered.

She was doing great things with her life. And if her friends didn't like her clutter, then they weren't really her friends anyway.

Enough said.

I just noticed the storage containers under the bed in my guest bedroom are looking a little more messy than usual - so are my walk-in closet and my desk.

Too bad, I've got work to do, calls to make, stories to write, books to read.

What's the harm in letting a few quasi-neat mounds of paperwork pile up around my ankles?

I'll just leave it, I tell myself.

At least for now.