Friday, October 24, 2014

The Organized Mind

By Susan

October is almost behind us and I'm starting to hear chatter about NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—in which writers commit to 50,000 words on paper during the month of November. There's a certain beauty in this notion: write a novel in a month! It's that easy! Several successful books have begun as NaNo manuscripts (Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, for one) so there's something to be said for the concept.

Here's why it can work: the first step toward success as a writer is to be organized, and NaNo, despite its other potential flaws, organizes the writer with short-term goals, long-term goals, a community with accountability, and a sense of urgency. This is a very good thing.

This week, I've felt a lack of all of the above: My system of setting goals for myself felt weak, I wasn't communicating with other writers, and my sense of urgency, on a scale of 1-10, was in the negative. I've never felt a burning desire to participate in NaNo, but I knew I needed a change.  I began to consider it.

Happy Bookcase.
I started with something simple. Organizing the mind is part brains and part brawn, and I already felt as though I'd over-thought every possible way through my plot  and character blocks. I decided to start with the physical and took my favorite bookcase and stripped it of its books. As I worked, I thought about what I wanted to fill my brain-space with, the same way I'd fill a book space.

This bookcase had been a gift to myself after I left the world of corporate sales management. It's a solid piece of furniture—no particle board here. At this point, three years after leaving the working world, it was littered with do-dads and out-of-date photographs, crammed with books and papers, and stuffed with tchotchkes that have lost their significance to me. My brain felt the same way--cluttered and outdated.  I took everything off the shelves, dusted them clean, and looked around me.

I had over 35 books about corporate sales, executive management, and women in business. They were no longer important to me and mostly brought me a feeling of dread. I thought about the shelf space these books took up, and it was an easy decision: They all went to the used bookstore the next day. (The total I received for the reading material associated with my former 17 year career? $8.) My brain needed that same clearing out—no space for anything other than the writing in front of me. The photos and mementos went into my grandfather's whiskey barrel. (Also in this picture. What? You mean everyone doesn't have a whiskey barrel coffee table?) I decided I wanted nothing on this bookcase that didn't connect me to my work.

I organized the books my own way: top shelf belonged to Kentucky writers and my friend's books. The second and third shelf went to signed books and a ceramic whiskey decanter shaped like a Kentucky Wildcat from my grandfather's collection (yes, seriously), and the fourth shelf now houses important books from Southern writers or literary writers I admire. The bottom shelf, one that's harder to reach, is loaded with some non-fiction good for research purposes for my novel but not something I'll touch daily.

Mercado Juarez: best tortilla soup in Texas.
The case was clean and simplified now, and my brain felt lighter, too. By organizing my surroundings, I freed myself up to organize my own interior. The day after I cleaned the bookcase, I set out to journal about my current mental block with the manuscript. I needed to do this by hand, unplugged, and without distractions, so I went to my favorite Mexican restaurant for soup. They know me there, and gave me a quiet table where I could work.

I was thinking about NaNo and why I should write 50,000 words in a month, but instead, I cracked the code on a major character and what I need to do with her. I wrote furiously for an hour, and things clicked into place.  By pushing away other distractions, I was able to move forward.

I'm still writing, and I'm still working, and no—this draft won't be complete at the end of November. But I'm energized again and feeling lighter. I'm relighting some passion for the characters, and those are all good things.

A little organization can go a long way.


  1. Beautiful post, Susan. It's like you Feng Shui-ed your interior and exterior. :)

  2. Ha! I didn't think of that, Cindy, but you are right!


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