Weekend Edition – Am I Too Organized and Boring to Be a Real Writer?

Via @thoreaupage

Via @thoreaupage

My ex-husband would tell you I’m a control freak. My younger sister would likely agree. To illustrate her point, my sister would tell you about the time I tried to – in her words – “strangulate” her after she poked at the covers of my recently made bed. In my defense, she deserved it. I admit that I was maybe a little overzealous about keeping my room neat (in contrast, you could easily lose a small dog in my sister’s room), but I did tell her – only moments before my fingers closed around her neck – that if she touched anything in my room, I’d kill her. I gave her fair warning.

··• )o( •··

My Type-A (sometimes bordering on OCD) behaviors have mellowed with age, but they are still undeniably a part of who I am. As a writer, I have always worried that my neatnik/organizer/planner self was somehow intrinsically at odds with (and potentially smothering) my free-spirited creative self. My desk is neat. My files are put away. My books are shelved (don’t judge) by topic and genre. I use spreadsheets and Scrivener and To Do list apps to manage my writing projects, and I schedule my days in half-hour increments on Google Calendar.

In other words, I do not fit the “artiste” stereotype at all.

I’m not particularly rebellious or at all flighty. I don’t wander off on muse-fueled walkabouts or check out of conversations mid-sentence because I’ve been struck by a deep insight about my story.  I’m not moody, overly solitary, or prone to benders on mind-altering substances. Though I’m thoughtful, I wouldn’t call myself “pensive.” Instead, I’m reliable and – though I hate to admit it – pretty predictable.

Looking at my mostly methodical approach to life and writing, I have to wonder – Is my love of order and process keeping me from accessing some mysterious source of creative genius? Does my need to herd cats and put ducks in rows undermine my authenticity as a “Real Writer?”

Though I do periodically worry about such possibilities, I believe in my heart that my organizational tendencies are more an asset than a liability.

··• )o( •··

Quick Point of Clarification: I’m not here to convert you. If you’re a naturally “messy” or “freeform” creative type, that’s cool. I don’t want to tame your wildness or shame you for having a cluttered desk. I don’t believe that there’s any one “right” way to create art. I’m just here to battle my own insecurities about being that unlikeliest of creatures, a “neat artist,” and to do my best to reassure any other Type-A writers living mostly drama-free lives that they’re perfect and authentic just the way they are.

··• )o( •··

It can be tough being a straight-laced writer. Being drama-free is not romantic, and being organized is not particularly sexy. These traits do, however, make it easier for you to get things done – often with less stress and in a more timely manner than if you were just “winging it.” The trick is to balance your analytical left-brained self with your imaginative and intuitive right-brained self. Embrace your systems, but don’t let them put you in a creative straightjacket. Do what you need to do to keep your chaos-averse self sane, but remember to let your mind take off on flights of fancy now and again.

Creating balance is about knowing when to access the different parts of your writer’s mind. You need to harness a variety of tools and skill sets for different parts of the writing process – brainstorming, creative “concepting,” researching, outlining, writing the first draft, revising, editing, marketing (yes, you need to do that, too) and so forth. Each step in the process requires a different ratio of analysis:imagination.

If you’re like me – naturally (almost compulsively) responsible and prone to following all the rules – you’ll need to make a conscious effort to color outside the lines, goof off, and consider “crazy” options and possibilities both in your stories and in your writing life. If, on the other hand, you tend to pay more attention to your muse than to deadlines, you’ll want to sharpen your project management and organizational skills.

Speaking to those of you who, like me, worry that your creative spark will be snuffed out by too much structuring, organizing, and good behavior, I urge you to take heart. The reality is that success as a professional writer relies heavily on your ability to play by the rules and deliver on promises. While natural creative genius is lovely, it won’t take you very far unless you can pair it with a strong work ethic, an efficient writing process, and a sterling reputation. Sure, there are a few renegades out there who will “make it” despite being completely unreliable and burning bridges all over the place; but they are rare anomalies.

··• )o( •··

So, please, don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re not a “Real Writer” if your writing process includes more dedication than daydreaming and more planning than pantsing. Don’t let anyone knock your love of spreadsheets, index cards, or character dossiers. Don’t feel guilty about your goody two-shoes habit of meeting deadlines and taking editors’ feedback sans indignant outbursts. These things don’t compromise your artistic integrity, they help you strengthen and preserve it. And, I can guarantee that they will make you a more sought-after team member/contributor/writing resource.

So, go forth and own your bad-ass, organized writer identity. Wear your reliability like armor, and wield your left-brained skills like a righteous sword of getting-things-done. Love your muse, but don’t undervalue everything else you can bring to the table.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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37 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Am I Too Organized and Boring to Be a Real Writer?

  1. I could not agree with your more, organisation is a wonderful thing in your work, home and life, to me this is normal , we can paint outside the lines if necessary, after all being working mum’s we spin plates all day long, but the basic organisation helps all day long everyday.

    Brooke

    • Hi, Brooke. You bring up a good point about mum’s spinning plates all day long. 😉 A few years back, I was part of a two-mom team working account and project management for a virtual web dev company. The company CEO used to joke that having worked with us that he was only ever going to hire moms from then on because we were both so efficient. We explained, only partly jesting, that the reason we were so efficient is that WE’RE MOMS … we just don’t have time to screw around (pardon the vulgarity). You remind me that my organizational habits are not only a result of my personalty, but a matter of day-to-day survival. 😉 TKS!

    • Thank you, Simon. I don’t believe I’m a control freak either, but I understand how my organizational practices and processes can look like that from the outside. I’m actually a very collaborative person who loves being part of a team … and I like bringing my chaos-to-order freakiness along! 😉

  2. I am a complete anal retentive, everything in it’s place kind of person. I get physically anxious when things are out of sorts, when my home is messy, when the to do list hangs off the door. Once everything is squared away, I am free to be creative. I literally cannot write if my life is a mess.

    • YES to everything you said. With a twelve year-old daughter, defeating clutter is an uphill battle at my house, but I do my best each day. And, every once in a while, my tolerance/ability to turn a blind eye reaches it’s limit and I go on a cleaning/decluttering/purging rampage. I always feel SO much better after one of those outbursts. It’s like I have my life back! 😉

  3. I am the same way, Jamie! And I also think it’s an asset! Writing and publishing are not JUST about being creative, after all; there are deadlines, structure, standards of criteria we all have to meet, etc. etc. I wouldn’t want to be any other way! Cheers to you for embracing it (for all of us)!

    • Exactly, Shana. I think many writers get caught up in the “romantic” side of writing, and are then unpleasantly surprised when they encounter the reality of a professional writing life – the rules and deadlines and all that “un-fun” stuff. 😉
      I also think that my internal organizer self is part of the reason I am a good student of the craft. As geeky as it sounds, I love studying – reading books, taking notes, analyzing, etc. Hmmm … hadn’t thought about that before. Thanks for that additional insight!

      • I can tend to get TOO caught up in the studying, note taking, reading up, and I sometimes wonder if it’s my organized/planning side, or just plain avoidance. I’m guessing it’s often a little bit of both.

        So good to hear that there are actually quite a lot of creatives out there who are just like me!

  4. You my tare yourself with a ‘control freak’ brush but I believe if you are, so be it. You are you, I am me and we all have our own idiosyncrasies. We are also all unique. I like to be neat and all things must be put back in their rightful place. My kitchen must always be spotless, my lounge tidy and I must always look my best. But, when I’m writing, or writing notes at all times of the day or night, there is no semblance of order. My whole character changes.

    • Hello, Jane. 🙂
      I don’t actually call myself a “control freak,” but I do readily admit to my Type-A/neatnik tendencies. But, as you so rightly point out, we are each unique and we need to embrace who we are the way we are – quirks and foibles all.
      Interesting that you tend to be so neat in one aspect of your life and not-so-neat when it comes to your writing. I bet that’s a common scenario for many people, but I wonder why it is. Maybe it’s part of how we inhabit an alter ego for the creative process.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. I would love to be more like you! Although to be fair to myself, chronic pain does make it much harder to keep life organized and on keel…

    • Hi, Barbara. Sorry to hear about your battles.
      I don’t know that anyone can learn to be innately organized, but I think people can certainly learn to use systems. And people can change. Growing up, my sister was a very messy kid, but now she’s nearly as neat as I am … on some days and in some ways, MORE than I am! So – there’s hope. I suspect that starting with some small aspect of your life/writing organization would be the most successful approach – like maybe confining your notes to a single notebook or reorganizing your computer files or something. Might be fun to experiment.

      Thanks for sharing & good luck!

      • I expect you are right…currently my goal is to get rid of some of the clutter that surrounds me! So thanks for the good luck wishes…I shall need them, I’m sure! 😊

  6. Dearest Jamie #HUGSS

    I won’t be in town until May 15, so if you don’t find me here, you know why. But every Sunday evening – because I’ll be in India and a day ahead of you – I promise to Pocket your articles! #HUGSSSS

    I am not ‘creative’ – I can be persistent, but I am neither a pantser nor a plotter. I don’t know what I am. I struggle to meet deadlines, although I have always prided myself on my strong sense of ethics.

    The last year has been disturbing….I guess.

    My mind is always littered with negative crap, which heavily impacts my productivity. I started seeing a psychologist – and will also see a psychiatrist after getting back – in order to restore my focus, my passion, my values.

    Oh dear – I am rambling…just in a bad place right now, I guess.

    But, dearest Jamie, I am glad you have embrace who you are….because YOU, my friend, are FABULOUS!!! #HUGSSS

    OODLES of love and hugs
    Kit

    • Hello, Kit!
      Thanks for the heads up on your schedule. I won’t worry now. 🙂
      I am sorry to hear of your continued struggles, but glad to know that you are taking all the right steps to put your world back to rights. That takes a brave soul … and one that is ultimately filled with hope, not despair.

      I am in no way qualified to offer any real advice on that front, but – as a writer – I will say that sometimes when I’m dealing with a challenge in my life I find it helpful (or, at least cathartic) to make up stories in which my characters are doing battle against the same challenge and/or a metaphorical representation of that challenge. I guess the concept kind of comes from that idea of “writing from your dark side” (https://nhwn.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/short-and-sweet-advice-for-writers-embrace-your-dark-side/)

      I will be thinking of you and sending positive energy. Have a safe and wonder-full trip. See you whenever you have time to stop by!

  7. I cannot judge, because I too, organize my books :). Fiction goes by author’s last name, then non-fiction is by genre; I LOVE Google calendar- I’m not sure how I survived before. I definitely think these traits help in the ways you’ve mentioned. I also think that sometimes, if your surroundings are organized and your brain is organized, those creative juices can become more organized in your brain and flow better.

    • I agree about creative juices flowing more readily in an organized space and brain. I recently read several articles about creative people who have adopted a wardrobe uniform in order to eliminate the need to decide each day which different outfit to wear. By paring their choices down to a single outfit (e.g., jeans, white T-shirt, blazer), they could free up their creative energy and brain cells for other, more important tasks. It’s an interesting idea.

      Thanks!

  8. Ah! now I understand how you manage to write such regular well-developed, organized and informative posts – besides, I imagine, managing the rest of your life! I’m rather on the opposite side, bar forays into mind-bending substances, plus I walk for exercise, not on the lookout for any muses. But I do realise that my aversion to filing, spreadsheets et al have been dragging me down ever since I finally embarked on trying to write seriously. And I see that my rebellious desk is not helpful at all. It’s a character thing I’ve been fighting my whole life, but now that I have to balance work with my writing projects, I expect I’ll finally force myself to clean up 🙂 my act a bit. Ouch!

    • I applaud your intention to “clean up your act,” but I would temper your efforts with an acceptance of who you are and what your creative process looks like. Being organized works for me because it’s part of my personality. You may find that a little organization applied to your natural chaos is enough to get you going in the right direction without upsetting your natural flow.

      That said, if you feel like the chaos is holding you back, by all means – get in there and clean house! 😉

      Thanks much & good luck!

      • Thanks for a well-balanced and wise viewpoint. I realise I can’t aim for forms of organization and neatness I admire in others, it goes against the grain! but I feel some kind of midway point would make me much more productive, but also ease in more creativity. So after reading your post, I prepared weekly planners all the way to mid-April 🙂

  9. Thank You – you just described me perfectly. I’ve gotten a lot of snark from other writers because I am organized and meticulous about schedules and planning. I needed to know I wasn’t alone today -Thank you again.

    • So glad my post helped you know you’re not alone. Sorry to hear you got snark for being who you are, but now you know some other writers (me and many of the folks who have commented here) who have your back. 😉

  10. I have to organise and structure my plot, I use to do lists, spreadsheets, notepads and flow charts if need be. I think because my plots tend to be quite intricate I absolutely have to organise my thoughts. and while I do work better when my house is clean and the washing is done, the reality is that sometimes the urge to sit and write things down surpasses anything. I also feel like I am wasting my time if I am doing anything other than write.

    • I’m with you – both on the to do lists, spreadsheets, et al (obviously) and re: turning a blind eye to my domestic duties if the urge to write strikes. I can ignore a lot of mess if I have to. 😉

  11. I swear, when I read your articles I have to remind myself it’s not me who wrote it! They are always so spot on with my personality, what I’m thinking/feeling, everything. Although I wouldn’t write it nearly as well as you do 🙂

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  14. Why did I not find this post months ago?!

    Personally, I’m somewhat along the borderline between “artsy free spirit” and “anal retentive control freak”. Some areas of my life – like my planner, my notebooks, and my pen collection – are obsessively organized. Other areas of my life – such as the bookshelf next to my desk that I’ve really been meaning to declutter – need a little bit of help. Thankfully, that borderline area seems to give me the best of both worlds. My super-organized spaces help to reign in my artistic side so that I can actually get use out of it, and my artistic side (sometimes) let me detach from the anxieties of my “not-yet-perfect” mentality about everything.

    That’s not to say that either one is always a benefit to me… But they do complement one another.

    • Sounds like you’ve got a good working balance going, there.

      You also reminded me that although I am mostly super neat & buttoned-up, there are places in my life that are somewhat less than organized. My car, for instance, which has become something of a joke with my family because one of them read something about the fact that you can learn a lot about a person by looking at the interior of their car. I dread to imagine what the mess of my car means.
      😉

      • Literally, I just borrowed my mother’s car the other day (she used mine while I had hers) and she cracked a joke about how my car “looks as bad as hers” and how she “expected it to look a lot nicer inside”. Haha. Too funny.

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