Writing, inspiration, and productivity: Or, why I needed really expensive file folders

I’m not sure how other people find inspiration, but mine apparently comes in the shape of pretty, overpriced file folders and a redesigned writing area.

I’ve been dragging my feet for a couple years now on finishing my book manuscript. I’ve worked on pieces of the project, but somehow getting it all together just hasn’t quite happened. Likely because I’ve been waiting for it to happen. Kind of like I’m waiting for the pile of laundry in my bedroom to magically fold itself and disappear into drawers. That hasn’t happened yet either.

I then, of course, read a book about how to write a lot. Titled How to Write a Lot. There’s nothing academics like more than procrastinating with a good book. That is, doing more research.

The trouble is, truthfully, that I haven’t been disciplined enough about guarding my writing time. To borrow a quote from How to Write a Lot, I’ve done a right terrible job of making time for “slapping [my] fingers against the keyboard to generate paragraphs.” On top of not effectively setting writing times, I’ve done a terrible job of keeping any writing times I set. Because the project isn’t new and shiny anymore, it’s easy to get distracted. There is always something more interesting to write about. Like writing about not wanting to finish writing my manuscript.

I also haven’t done a great job of setting myself up to succeed with writing. Over the holiday break I thought a lot about why my writing has stalled out in the past few years. In addition to doing a poor job of sitting down to write, I realized I’ve done a poor job of making space to write. Literal space.

I have a small city apartment. Which my two cats graciously allow me to occupy while I feed them. Because the apartment is small, there wasn’t room for a desk. I mounted a table at bar height because having a designated eating area made me feel like an adult. Since I’m 40, I kind of figured feeling like a grownup was of some social significance. Of course, aside from a six-month period in which I dated a divorced dad who didn’t seem to understand the concept of eating dinner on the couch, I have never used the table to eat at.

The bar table is a great place to pile stuff on, however, including my art supplies. I found myself painting a lot more when I had my easel and paints set up on it. I also found myself getting a lot more headaches – even when going solvent-free, oil paints off-gas enough to give me migraines. Getting old is really a pain in the a**.

When I didn’t have space for a desk, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, since I liked writing on the couch. This hasn’t exactly worked to plan. My couch isn’t exactly a space that says “let’s do work.” It’s more of a space that says “pick up your crochet project” (I might have a small yarn problem) or “let’s find a new British murder mystery series to watch” (my small yarn problem is a great enabler of my British murder mystery addiction).

I’m a visual and design-oriented creature. If I don’t feel happy or comfortable in a space, I won’t be very productive. I’m definitely not alone in this. Donald Norman, one of my favorite authors about design, points out in Emotional Objects that people work better in visually pleasing environments. So I decided that in order to write more, I needed a space set aside for writing.

In How to Write a Lot Paul Silvia kind of makes fun of people who use needing a better writing space as an excuse for not writing. Perhaps he’s got a point. But what he outlined as a lame-duck barrier, I took as a challenge. If one of the reasons I’m not writing is that I don’t like my writing space, the solution is to redesign my writing space. Obvs, as the kids say these days.

Also, shopping is way more fun than writing, so there’s that.

I punted one of my art-deco bar chairs (I’m still please about that $20 thrift shop find) for a glass and chrome shelf so I can keep books and folders and pens and paper better organized. I bought a pretty acrylic tray and pencil holder to keep pens and post-its and very expensive paperclips with cute pompoms corralled and tidy. I bought a magnetic chalk board I can ‘pin’ things to and write notes on. And I bought several sets of expensive-but-pretty file folders to organize papers and thoughts in. I have one set of folders for each project, so I can easily identify what project they belong to. (And it was a great excuse for buying multiple sets of folders. For the design-curious…. faux bois for my design and domesticity manuscript, black and white stripes for ad hoc projects, and patterned red dots for a collaborative art book project).

Of course, now having spent several days planning and shopping, there’s now no excuse for not writing. So I suppose it’s time to get down to it. And, when I reach a writing lull, I now have sorbet-colored pompom paperclips to organize my scribblings.

How about you—how do you keep yourself on track for writing? And, perhaps more importantly, what’s your “must have” design accessory for your writing space?

Procrastination pro-tip: responding to cool ideas and comments is a great way to take a break from manuscript writing.

Also published on Medium.