Decluttering for Writers: 5 Easy Tips

I mentioned in this post that I’ve recently reread Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and now I’m half-way through The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify (Updated and Revised) by Francine Jay. Both books have a message I needed to hear, especially now that I’m serious about creating a career for myself as a writer. How much do you really need to be happy? Am I happier if I have more stuff? (Answer: no.) Did I really need those stuffed animals I kept in my classroom when I taught elementary school or those grunge rock CDs from the 1990s? Over the past week I’ve brought 12 bags and four plastic bins of clothes I no longer wear (some even with the price tag still on them), CDs I no longer listen to, books I no longer read, and DVDs I no longer watch to Goodwill, a charity organization that resells gently used items. I even tackled my garage, which seemed insurmountable but in reality took me about three hours on a Saturday.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a minimalist according to Jay’s definition since I’m not going for bare walls or getting rid of stuff simply for the sake of getting rid of stuff. There’s nothing inherently wrong in things if they are things you love or things you use. It’s the stuff that hangs out in plastic bins in our garages or shoved into the back of our closets, things that you haven’t looked at in years, that can weigh on our psyches. In my case, it’s been 7 ½ years since I moved into this apartment and looked at the things I had stashed away in plastic bins.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the week I spent going through my belongings was a week I wasn’t writing. As a matter of fact, you would be correct. I didn’t get much writing done last week, but I would argue that it was still time well spent. I agree with Kondo and Jay that a cluttered home, or even a cluttered desk, can hamper our best intentions to sit, concentrate, and work. When everywhere you look is busy with things you don’t need and never use, it sucks up brain space (at least it does for me), making creating that much more difficult. As I was going through my belongings, deciding what to donate and how to organize what I was keeping, I realized that this tidying up was necessary for my writing process because I was creating room to work. Instead of my eye falling on clutter or my monkey mind thinking that I was going to have to tackle the garage one of these days, I attacked the problems head on, handled them, and now I can move onto other things. I was making sure everything was in order so I could spend my writing time thinking about—you guessed it—writing.

Of course, a writer’s brain is a writer’s brain, and while I was decluttering I discovered a few tips for writers who want to get their space together.

Yes, the Dickens books had to stay, along with my Dickens and Shakespeare action figures. They’re silly, I know, but they make me smile when I look at them.

  1. Pare down your books

Writers believe that books are magical and sacred, and they are. Many of us decided to become writers because we loved to read so much. I believe we can only ingest so many words before we feel compelled to start spilling words back out. I’m not suggesting that we need to get rid of every book we own, but imagine how much nicer our space would be, and how much more meaningful, if we kept only the books that were important to us. Like many writers, I had more books than I had space, some which I had never read (like most book lovers I tend to buy books faster than I can read them), and others which I read once and that was enough.

I let go of the extra books and kept only the ones that bring me joy, as Marie Kondo suggests. I still have books. I have my Dickens, books about writing, self-help books that have been meaningful, and of course I have my own books because it brings me joy to look at my shelf and see my name on the books I’ve written. I have a few knick knacks and a few photographs, and I have my coloring books because I love to color. Now when I look at my bookshelf I smile because I’m happy with everything I see.

I rarely buy physical books any more. I have my handy-dandy Kindle, which allows me to buy or borrow books, and instead of physical tomes that gather dust, I can bring all of my digital books wherever I go. I can read on the Kindle itself or on the Kindle app on my phone. I know there are people who still love having a book in their hands, and I get that. Part of my love for my Kindle is that I can make the text larger, which is easier on my progressive lens wearing eyes, so that’s a personal reason for my preference for electronics books. If you want to buy new physical books, by all means buy new physical books. If the book sings to your soul, keep it. If you read it once and that was enough, pass it on to a family member, friend, your local library, or another charity that accepts used books. Remember libraries? We can borrow books from the library, too, so we don’t have to spend money or find a place for everything we want to read.

Here’s my new desk with the handy-dandy shelves for my coloring supplies. It keeps the desk itself free for my computer so I can think without having to push crayons or colored pencils aside.

  1. Keep your desk clear

Desks are easy places to pile things. It must be something about the flat surface. But if your desk is messy or cluttered, it’s often the mess or clutter that captures your thoughts, not whatever it is you’re trying to write. It’s easy enough to get distracted these days by the Internet and Netflix without being distracted by our own belongings. I love to color, but my old desk had nowhere for me to put my colored pencils and markers. The coloring supplies were scattered all over my desk, taking up every square inch of space. There was no room for me to work. I donated my old desk to the Salvation Army and bought myself a nice, neat desk along with a nice, neat set of shelves (both courtesy of IKEA) with room for my coloring supplies. This left the desk itself clear for my computer so I have room to write. Having somewhere to sit and think without distractions makes so much difference.

  1. A place for everything and everything in its place

Both Kondo and Jay talk about steering clear of expensive storage bins, and I’ve found this to be true. Finding a place for everything you’re going to keep doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. There’s a Dollar Store down the street from where I live, and I managed to organize my bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom closet with plastic bins that cost $1 each. This is where organization plays a role because you have to decide where you’re going to keep everything you need. Jay talks about the 80/20 rule—you use 20% of your belongings 80% of the time, so you want to keep that 20% of stuff you use frequently close to where you’ll need them. All of my writing materials are located near my desk so I don’t have to go searching for them. I know where everything is. Instead of scrambling at the bottom of a drawer for a paperclip, I know they’re in the plastic container. It’s the little things that make a difference when we’re searching for time and space to write.

  1. Go digital

To stop the avalanche that happens when we have a lot of handwritten notebooks hanging around the house, I’ve become more digital. I used to keep spiral notebooks, but as I’ve become more aware of decluttering and staying decluttered I started keeping everything in electronic format. I keep whatever I’m working on on my computer and Dropbox and Google Drive help me keep larger files. I’ve started taking notes and journaling on my computer too. It took some getting used to since for many years I believed what Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within—writing longhand in spiral notebooks helps create a hand to heart connection with what you’re writing. I do still believe that, and there have even been studies that prove the point, but this is the digital age after all and I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand. Plus, having all those notebooks around my small apartment became cumbersome. It was a hard decision to recycle years of my handwritten journals, but I realized that I never went back into old journals to read them. I wrote them, got the thoughts out of my system, and then I was done with them. Why keep that old energy around?

If you do comb through your old notebooks for story ideas, then by all means keep them. If you love to write longhand, then do. Find a container where you can keep your notebooks (you’ll probably need more than one), buy cute Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman notebooks as Natalie Goldberg suggests, and do your thing. If you are interested in going digital, Scrivener is a great tool to keep your notes, research, and drafts in the same computer file. You can even import photographs. Here’s my post about my experience learning to write a novel using Scrivener.

Marie Kondo talks about getting rid of papers because papers never bring anyone joy. Lordy, is that true. I had two bins and two cardboard boxes of old papers in my garage, and I finally let them go. The papers were so old I found a coupon from a clothing store that expired in 2009. No joke. If they’re old papers, get rid of them. They will bring you no joy. If they’re papers you need, find a space for them and keep them all together so you know where everything is. One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to clog Mother Earth more than she already is, so please do recycle those old papers, but definitely get them out of your house.

  1. Be honest about your goals

What do you really want to accomplish? This is an important question for both declutterers and writers. Why are you really keeping that high school memento? Why do you really want to publish that book? Often, we do things motivated by how the thing makes us feel than by the thing itself. The more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we can accomplish. I want to declutter so I can relax and feel more comfortable in my own home. I want to clear my writing space so I have room to move my thoughts around and flex my creativity. It’s hard to settle your mind to a creative task when there are things around the house that need seeing to, so take some time to see to the tasks.

The point with decluttering isn’t to get rid of things you use or love. The point is to be honest about what you use or love. If you don’t use it or love it, you have permission to recycle it or give it away. It is a freeing feeling. The only problem I’m having now is that I need fresh excuses about why I’m procrastinating and not getting any writing done…

Writing this post made me think of George Carlin’s classic bit about a house being simply a place for my stuff. If you’ve never seen it, give yourself a five minute treat and watch. Carlin was always ahead of his time, and this bit is particularly funny in this age of decluttering and minimalizing. For me, at least, decluttering has helped me become more aware of what I’m keeping in this place for my stuff.

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