Last weekend I bought a desk. It was a Craigslist find, only $20, an adjustable drafting table meant for architects or illustrators. I was delighted. I brought the table home, cleared a space for it against a window, set my lamp and plants on top. I cleaned, rearranged and admired it for a good 10 minutes before sitting down to work. I was ready to do something big.
I keep seeing headlines about the ideal creative environment. “An Empty Desk Means an Empty Mind!” say some. “Chaos Leads to Creativity!” shout others. These articles quote Albert Einstein and cite a study in which people came up with more, and better, creative ideas within a messy environment. The original theory here was "that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions," whereas an orderly environment would inspire “moral righteousness” (New York Times).
I admire the intent. These articles challenge the Instagram-worthy workspaces often celebrated in a minimalist-trending culture. They make us wonder if we might actually be geniuses, judging by our own cluttered desktops and shoe-strewn home offices. But in this “embrace the chaos” conversation, the real point is missed: That the same creative process does not work for everyone. The same thing may not even work for the same person on a different day.
Francis Bacon photographed in his studio by Perry Ogden
I can think of few times when a messy environment made me feel more creative. Mostly, it distracted me. I’ll admit I’ve wasted time organizing folders, wiping coffee stains and cleaning keyboards to avoid doing real work. Nonetheless, I am more inspired and productive in a tidy space. My mind is cluttered enough already, so an organized environment gives me some small sense of control. Of course my reasoning is anecdotal and not scientific. I am no Albert Einstein, but I’d posit that many rich, creative minds like neat spaces too. Or maybe they do one day, but thrive creatively in chaos the next.
Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing. Francis Bacon wouldn't let his cleaning lady touch his studio. Andy Warhol collected junk and filled his house with it, then pushed everything on his desk into a box when he was ready to work. James Joyce wrote in bed on his stomach in a white coat, with a blue pencil. While it’s clear that routine is important to many artists and writers, the specifics of that routine are not. It’s just whatever works.
My little drafting table is perfect for me right now. I have my glasses right here, a pen over there, an unopened piece of mail next to a plant next to another plant. I clear the cups and cereal bowls every night before bed. It’s pretty tidy, overall. I also work well in a coffee shop with headphones on, or in my bed on certain days. But my desk, man, my desk. It may be the novelty of something new, but I have this good feeling about it. And sometimes a good feeling is all it takes.