Taming The Clutter Monster

Happy New Year. Welcome 2012. It’s time for resolutions, reassessments, and resolve.

Will this be the year I finally clean my office?

I’ve been cleaning my office for decades. Or not cleaning it. Sometimes I’m writing a book or a story and I just have to shove the clutter to one side and write. After all, writing is the first priority. When I do get around to the clutter, I feel as though I’m rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Paper in, paper out, and still the paper piles up.

I have to do something. Believe me, the cats aren’t doing it. They’re more likely to sit on top of the paper.

Clio and Daisy Help Janet Write

I am a stage in life where I want to get rid of stuff. But I’ve spent 40-plus years accumulating stuff. I just hope it doesn’t take 40 more to declutter.

I grew up with a Depression-era dad who kept things, on the off-chance he might need them. Or just because. Must be genetic. I certainly got that habit.

On the other hand, I think of one of my cousins who lost his home when a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas. I saw him on TV telling a reporter, “Stuff is just stuff.”

Unless I’m going to take the meat-ax approach and toss everything at once, getting rid of stuff takes time.

I have a hard time parting with books. I’ve adopted a mantra that works for me as I go through bookshelves: “I read it. I’m not going to read it again. It’s time to let someone else enjoy it.” If I need the book for research or have a sentimental attachment to it, I keep it. Otherwise, it goes. The Friends of the Library twice-yearly sale has benefited greatly from my book-buying habits.

Most people don’t save letters. I do. I’ve been going through letters during the past few years, thinning out the paper. The ones I’ve saved take up space, but I’m very glad I have a packet of letters from my grandmother, who has been gone for a long time.

In Bit Player, my recent Jeri Howard book, letters are a major tool in Jeri’s investigation of her grandmother’s past. Jeri muses about this in an early chapter:

“What we keep and what we throw away. It was logical that Caro [Jeri’s aunt] would preserve her parents’ wartime correspondence. And just as logical that she would winnow out what looked like chaff, the letters from people who were not family members. These days we’re drowning in paper and clutter. We can’t keep everything. So we make those choices of what to keep and what to throw away.

“I wondered what this would mean to future historians, the people who rely on personal correspondence to reveal the lives and characters of historic figures. Somehow scrolling through e-mails doesn’t have the same cachet. And electronic communication is so easily disposed of, gone in the click of a mouse, dumped into a symbolic trash can.”

Clutter is also very personal. At least I got a short story out of mine.

Some years ago, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, about obsessive hoarders. That led to my short story Pack Rat, about an obsessive hoarder and a crime. It’s called Pack Rat (now available on Kindle and Nook!).

You see, the article was accompanied by a quiz, the kind where if you answer “yes” to a certain number of questions you might have a problem.

I won’t tell you how many yes answers I had.

But when it comes to pack rats, takes one to know one.


5 Responses

  1. Well put, Janet! I recall those thoughts from your Bit Player, which I enjoyed so much. I share the disease, I thought I’d solved it when my man and I moved three miles north last summer. We filled a dumpster the size of a Mac Truck and still the old house groaned with ungive-away-able books and “stuff.” And when we got to the new place there wasn’t room for it all. Now we’ve renters in the unsold house–with the request that they let us leave a pile (piles) of stuff in the old barn. Last time I checked it had actually multiplied.

  2. I did learn one rule: never handle a piece of paper more than once. (That would be correspondence, e.g., not manuscript pages!) If you pick up a piece of paper or a book, decide then and there what to do with it — toss it, shelve it, or file it; don’t simply put it back where you found it.

    Imagine how bad my office would be if I didn’t follow that one rule. As it is, I need at least 10 more rules to make a difference. Anyone have any?

    • Seems to me that every couple has a tosser and a keeper. Paul is our keeper and I am the tosser. I always ended every school year, after exams were graded and grades were submitted, by cleaning out every closet in the house – kids outgrow a goodly percentage of their stuff from June to June. That was the only way I could keep up with clutter accumulation. The kids are grown and gone and accumulating on their own, and Paul is my only resident acquirer/keeper of anything paper. If I could only pursuade him to follow Camille’s formula…

    • Camille, it’s a great rule. Would that I could follow it. I have tried, but… I guess it’s that shove-everything-to-one-side-and-write thing!


  3. Last night, sorting out the recycling (keeping all those extra stamped envelopes from fundraisers while dumping the many duplicate appeals from places that already had what we were going to give), I thought yes and yes to what you wrote!


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