Finally, an excuse for a messy desk

clean house, wasted life

Over the weekend, I came across the story, “What a Messy Desk Says about You” in the Sunday New York Times. The article describes how working in a messier environment leads to greater creativity, at least, in the research reported. Honestly, this seemed a bit obvious. Aren’t designers and decorators known for keeping messy inspiration boards, crammed with photos, textiles, drawings and knick-knacks? Aren’t there coffee mugs featuring Einstein’s famous quote, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

More curious to me is the creative energy people put into organization and order. Hence, the elaborate and, yes, creative desk organizing projects popping up all over pinterest.  I cannot help but admire some of the energy and fastidiousness that goes into these projects. But, I am not one of those people, at least when it comes to my desk.

I like my messy desk – yarns strewn, three books open at once, scribbled notes on scraps of paper – a desk like an inspiration board, filled with happy accidents, joyful juxtapositions, a riot of color, images and ideas. Yes, I like it just fine… until I can’t find the scribbled list, the piece of mail, the thread (literal or figurative) that I’m looking for. Frustrating, but not frustrating enough to incite me to organize. Now, with a science-based excuse, I expect my desk will remain in a state of chaos.

* image from a poster available on

“When I make something, I hear it”


My husband thinks true artists are necessarily a little odd, fundamentally different than the rest of us who schlep through life thinking about what to cook for dinner, who is going to do something about the construction-related traffic delays, and wondering, shouldn’t I really be exercising more?

He might be right, and isn’t the world a better place for it? That’s how I felt when I read a recent story in the New York Times about the ceramicist, Edmund de Waal. Mr. de Waal is better known (in my circle, at least) as the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a family memoir, and a favorite of my book club. He is also, as declared by the New York Times, “a celebrated potter, known for installations of impeccably made vessels in soft shades of celadon or white, many of them permanently displayed in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

In the article about Mr. De Waal’s first upcoming exhibit in the U.S., I was struck by his statement that his work is “the language of sculpture, it’s about … poetry and words and the spaces between words and sounds. When I make something, I hear it.” The marriage of language and art, object and space in his statement makes me swoon.

He also seems to have translated the experience, the trance, the rapture of making something into words: “when I make something I hear it.” Is this is the altered state we all seek when taking on a creative project? I cringe to liken needlework, pinterest projects to the sublime work of Mr. De Waal, yet I believe creative aspirations have a common root. Some people, like Mr. DeWaal, are just more talented, more ambitious, more fully developed than the rest of us.

So, yes, my husband is probably right – true artists are fundamentally different than the rest of us because they live more fully in a creative, connected state of mind – that altered world where you can hear it, when you make something.

* images from Edmund de Waal’s website.

Mindfulness and making things

I am a sucker for social science – studies about how people make decisions, learn better, or lead happy lives. I can never resist trying to connect such studies to my little slice of life. So when I read this recent post on the UC Berkley Greater Good Science Center blog, my wheels were spinning.

You can read the post or you can watch the TED talk by Matt Killingsworth but in a nutshell, research shows that ‘living in the moment’ or thinking about only what you are presently doing leads to greater happiness in the short run and in the long run.

I started thinking about the times when I am most likely to be “living in the moment” and thinking about the present, rather than what I’m going to make for dinner.

When am I most focused on the present? When engaged in something creative – taking or editing a photo, drawing, carving a stamp, sketching out a planting plan for my garden, or even writing a blog post. I am focused when making things… is that why creativity is so satisfying? Does a making things-happiness connection explain the explosion of DIY, upcycling, guerilla gardening in our culture?

Yes, there are other ways to quiet the mind and banish the tickertape of things to do, places to be, people to contact. Yoga, tennis, and a long walk come to mind, yet the simple (or sometimes not so simple) acts of creativity infuse life with its own special kind of joy. I have no idea if social science can back that up or not.