The problem with writing isn’t really the  writing itself. As long as I’m tapping keys, even, as is most often the case, the delete key, I feel as though something is happening. The cursor moving seems to be the main thing for me, forwards or backwards doesn’t really matter too much. My entire conception of what a writer should be was shaped by watching the Morecambe and Wise TV show as a kid. Ernie was always the deluded, self-important writer — sitting on his bed rattling out the latest masterpiece on his typewriter. This remains my idealised vision of an author at work.

But as with most idealised visions, the ‘Ernie State’™ remains elusive. The difficulty lies in those expanses of time either side of cursor activity. These constitute what I loosely term my ‘thinking time’ and the problem with my thinking time is that it is almost indistinguishable from my sitting-idly-staring-out-of-the-window time. A UPS van drives by, the smiley man down the road cycles past, Mr Whippy plays ‘The Happy Wanderer’ as the kids pour out of school. It’s hard to gauge the productivity of thoughts. Is any higher-level cognitive function present at all or am I just registering changes in the light like a house plant?

‘What did you do today Mom?’
‘I spent most of the day wondering if I was thinking at all.’

It’s in these blank stretches that my attention is drawn to the stray crumbs on the floor, the permanent triptych of receipt, Ikea pencil and torn envelope on the kitchen counter. Writers are supposed to notice things I suppose, but increasingly I feel a certain level of oblivion would be a mercy. Once upon a time all this disarray was invisible to me, once I lived in a kind of happy, hospitable squalor, but then writing became my job and children entered my life and along came a new terrible awareness of time. Writing, or at least my writing, was never going to fare terribly well in any kind of time and motion study. All those dead minutes. So many efficiencies to be made. A deafening, cartoon-clock-ticking sound effect began to accompany any attempt at work.

And now, how even the most inoffensive scene of domestic disorder lures me with its promise of time spent profitably, its glittering prize of tangible results. I can spend three hours working on minutely differentiated variations of the same four sentences or I can spend a fraction of that time doing something truly fruitful. Ten minutes max, I think, like a deluded addict, just give me that long to clear the clutter that is almost certainly blocking my thoughts, I mean, writing is totally my priority here. And so I begin, moving things: papers, jars, crumbs, pencils, from the visible realms of tables and floors to the invisible realms of drawers and cupboards and bins. And the ten minutes stretches. Soon I find myself involved in the endlessly recursive task of sorting out a toy cupboard and another day is lost.

One solution would be to work away from home but that’s proved impossible for me. I see others doing it, tapping away in uncomfortably small cafés, looking like people in sitcoms or adverts for banking apps. I judge them of course, as I judge anyone able to do something I can’t. What is the matter with them? Where are their crippling levels of self-consciousness?

For me, writing, if not exactly a shameful activity, is certainly a private one. I know I have a writing face. I don’t know what it is but I fear it’s something grotesquely vacant and not something I want the world to see.  Also my preferred ambient temperature for writing is one that is hard to guarantee outside of reptile houses. And then there’s the whole minefield of public toilets and plug sockets and interaction with other humans. For these and a million other tiny, anxiety-freighted reasons I have to write alone and at home, where, of course, there are things to tidy.

Maybe I should embrace it. Perhaps the constant janitorial rounds of my immediate perimeter aren’t really a problem. Lots of experts recommend doing something off-task to unblock oneself. It might look as if I’m sweeping the floor for the seventh time of the morning but maybe deep in my subconscious, that special place where magical things happen, I’m solving problems, untangling knots, mapping out sentences.

Sadly I suspect that these experts are the same maniacs who advise me to get up and walk around the house in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t get me to sleep any more than attempting to fit all the miniature cups and plates back in the correct storage compartments of my daughter’s Playmobil camper van gets my next novel written. I’m not saying I don’t have a subconscious but mine must be really sub because messages never seem to make it to the surface.

It seems more likely then that the tidying is purely procrastinatory. I’ve read a lot about procrastination whilst writing this piece. I’ve also swept the floor a lot. There’s an almost hallucinatory blurring of the lines between time wasting and working when writing specifically about procrastination. I’d recommend googling ‘procrastination’ as a particularly out and proud act of time-wasting. Using the internet, as many seem to do, to seek help for procrastination is so manifestly self-defeating that it elicits tenderness in me toward the rest of humanity. The only thing I’ve actually learned from reading about procrastination is that I’m doing it all wrong. It seems other people procrastinate by doing something they mildly enjoy – like watching videos of kittens or stalking ex-colleagues online – in place of the thing they should be doing. I, on the other hand, perhaps due to my Catholic upbringing, replace the thing I should be doing with something essentially unpleasant, boring and somewhat punitive.

If my motivation is neither to subconsciously make progress with my writing or consciously avoid getting on with it, then I’m inclined to think maybe it’s not really my problem at all. Maybe I’m just a symptom of a wider cultural anxiety. Pick up any magazine and somewhere between the adverts trying to sell you more stuff you’ll find some hand-wringing article on how to deal with our late-capitalist burden — too many possessions, too much information.  Each day the digital and physical trail we drag behind us lengthens, we try and outsource it to vast primary-coloured storage silos or to the Cloud but still it refuses to be tamed. Perhaps this is why ordered domestic domains are now fetishized and made public with endless Instagram accounts showing curated shelves, Hygge homes and decluttered living rooms. Tidying is waving a white flag: I accept the world is too complicated, I’m closing the doors and limiting my ambitions to a shelf.

Maybe though this anxiety is even more acute in the writer. The thing I’ve come to realise is that similar impulses lie behind both tidying and writing. Both involve sifting, sorting, making choices, bringing order to chaos; a certain rigour is required. It’s the endgame that differs. When I tidy a room I’m always left with a small pile of displaced items that cannot be housed. They have no logical place in the wider scheme of things. I stare at them and they stare back. They are inevitably consigned to the miscellaneous drawer. As a writer, it’s the literary equivalent of this invincible chaos that I want to find. I’m panning for the grit that remains after all the sifting is done. Tidying is about making the visible invisible, writing is the opposite.

I could not now go back to that old hospitable squalor. I don’t believe that clutter equates to creativity. I have to accept that tidying and writing stem for me from the same place and are battling like children for my attention and time. I have to accept that for every bit of grit I find to put on the page, I am forced to sweep other bits from the floor and that when I stop writing, the dust will settle, the piles will mount and the chaos consume me.

Catherine O’Flynn’s debut novel, What Was Lost, won the Costa First Novel award, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, and longlisted for the Booker and Orange prizes. She has since published two further novels and short stories.

15-04-2019

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