A disorganized column about staying organized
by Leonora Desar
This is not a sexy column.
If you are looking for zaniness, genius writing prompts, or personal confession you will not find it here (much).
I only wrote this because my deadline is fast approaching, and I have like 20 million and one notes. They’re all over the place—in notebooks, scraps of paper, toilet paper. Thinking about it just gave me a nosebleed. I’m not kidding. I’m bleeding on my keyboard, probably a sign that I should be wiping my nose and not trying to write this column.
The purpose of this column? To keep you organized. The real purpose? To write a manual for myself. For I am demented, truly I am. Have you seen my laptop lately? I am afraid to show you. You might just get ideas.
But I must show you. Throughout this column, I’ve pasted dark corners of my laptop. Think of them as the living room of my brain. There are lamps, throw pillows. Beanbag chairs and weird chachkas. Rugs, throw pillows—the literary books I tell my friends I’m reading and the real, funner books I’m really reading.
And of course, files. So many files. Word files, Excel files, PDFs. Stories in Sticky Notes. Files without order, in chaos.
A couple years ago, Meg Pokrass sent me some questions for an interview. The questions were great, but not rocket science. They did not inquire about say, particle physics, or ask me to solve for X. They asked me about my process. About taking creative risks. And as usual, I thought too much. Before long, I had accumulated twenty Word docs. To the plain eye these would look identical, but to me, the precious author, they did not. I mean, this one had a semicolon. This one, a comma. This one capitalized Keanu Reeves and this one called him familiarly, like an intimate or spoken word poet (keanu—).
This was before I was friends with Al. Al is the Webmaster of this column. He’s also the receptacle of my neuroses. In a situation like this, I would typically barrage Al with different versions and let him decide. Subject title: “Which is the best version??” Follow-up email: “Please read this one instead.”
But what I didn’t realize is that I had my answer. About my process. All I needed to do, to answer plainly and succinctly, was to print a screenshot. Not of my brain (too scary) but of my files (scarier).
In a way, this isn’t as terrible as it looks. I’ve numbered the files (most of them) according to Meg’s questions, in numerical order: one, two, three, four, five…The problem? Am I sending Meg the contents of “FINAL Email to Meg?” Or “ABSOLUTE final send to Meg?” You’d think “Absolute final,” but who knows? Often, in Dear Leo world, email is shorthand for “SEND THIS ONE NOW.”
You might also be wondering, what is Keanu Reeves doing here? In the interview, I talk about all my Keanu stories. It’s not so much I have a thing for Keanu, other than the movie Speed. I want to be with him. I want to be him. I want him to save me from myself.
In the film, Keanu saves a woman. The elevator’s about to crash and they’re all about to die. He looks at her. Reaches for her. He says, Look at me, and take my hand. I AM that woman. But instead of a crashing elevator there’s my brain. Its mess. Its chaotic filing system. Its fear that no one likes her stuff on Twitter.
In my fantasy, I take Keanu’s hand, now I never want to let it go. I say, Keanu, would you like to live with me?
He gives me a look. I’m not sure what this means: yes of course, or are you nuts? In the end, he humors me. He confesses he’s sick of Hollywood; he could use the change of pace. I offer him a Word doc. He crawls in. Secretly or maybe not so secretly, I hope he keeps doing what he does, saving people, saving me.
Are you still writing that advice column, he asks.
Yes, actually. Why?
Well, I noticed—please don’t take this the wrong way—that it says “DEAR LEO” at the top there, but there’s no, uh, practical advice. It seems that you’re writing about me.
I’m working on it. Er, the advice.
I didn’t mean to bust your balls.
He ducks into a PowerPoint. It’s less messy here than Word. We don’t talk about this, but I once used PowerPoint for nefarious purposes. At an old job, I’d spend my time creating PowerPoint “stories” to impress an ex. This was before Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, so I feel I should get credit. But Keanu, like my ex, is not impressed. This stages a mood. Things disintegrate from here.
The last straw is Keanu’s socks. Where did you put them? he says.
I don’t know, maybe they’re in PowerPoint?
He scratches his nose, always a bad sign. This is his version of a nosebleed, though it never gets that far. Oh, he says, I know, I think I left them in draft fourteen. You know, the one where I save you from that burning building?
Ah, I say, nodding emphatically, trying to remember what the hell I did with draft fourteen. Then I remember. I deleted draft fourteen.
But maybe I don’t need Keanu Reeves to save me. That’s what pills are for.
Before I get to the practical advice portion of this—it’s coming, I promise—I’ll tell you one more
In this (revised) fantasy, I get my hands on some NZT. NZT is a drug. It’s fictional. It makes you smarter (and more organized). It’s what Bradley Cooper takes in the movie Limitless. And like Bradley, I write a book. I do this in four days. No, I do it in three, because I’m way cooler than Bradley Cooper. I give advice. And not only do I give advice, I one-up myself: I give practical advice. You all appreciate me (instead of ignoring me on Twitter).
I get email. Emails. My Gmail grows in proportion to my ever-expanding brain. And even better, there aren’t side effects. In contrast to that lame-o Bradley Cooper, I don’t have to deal with potential brain damage, henchmen, or an aging Robert De Niro.
And a bonus: my laptop, which I organize, not because I am avoiding writing, but well, because.
In this fantasy:
But let’s face it, NZT isn’t real. And if it were it would be banned or consumed exclusively by the Rich. So what do we do instead? We clean our rooms, ahem, our files. We do the poor man’s NZT, otherwise known as suck it up. We enter what is now officially the practical phase of this column (phew!) where I teach you (and myself) what to do—and hand you a symbolic broom.
I know what you’re thinking: Leonora, this blows. Give me French Fry MFA. Give me some sexy teenaged witches. Give me goths and give me Love Island and even give me writing homework, but stop being my mom.
I hear you. I don’t like being your mom either. But cleaning house (and brain) is a pre-req for the good stuff.
I had five column ideas for today. Five! I know, I always say this, but it’s true. All five were sexy, or sexier. But they were scattered. Every year, I engage in this tradition: my husband buys us Christmas cards and I pilfer them. I use them for my own devices. I write notes on them, drawings. Then I lose them. And I lie, I say: “where are the cards, I need to send them out!”
(Translation: I need to finish that story/doodle I was writing.)
And eventually my husband finds them: under the bed, behind the toilet, and my favorite, “why is this all wet; this doesn’t look like it’s going to your mom!”
And one day, a future civilization finds them. They say, ah, this smells like genius. It has the handwriting of genius. The alpha and omega of genius. But damn it, I can’t read it. It’s ash. And there’s blood on it. (From Leonora’s nose.)
So until someone invents a “Search & Find” function for notebooks and receipts and misappropriated holiday cards, we are going to be the “Search & Find.” To make sure our genius is accessible. Here’s how (excuse me while I go and take a break and wipe my nose and figure this all out):
century millennia later:
Okay, I’m back!
In an ideal world, in an ideal brain, in an ideal Leo, I would have organized my files this way, for the interview:
Pay attention especially to final drafts, where we now have a
flawless pretty good sense of order:
In particular, note the dates. And ignore “like a normal person would.” I am not a normal person nor will I ever be. But sometimes I pretend. The point is to be progressive. Not politically in this case, sequentially. This way you won’t have to write about organization if someone decides to give you your own column. You’ll be able to easily see the Sex (and find Keanu’s socks).
Now do something dull. As you progress, label each draft: one, two, three, four, five…within each dated file. Put brief notes after to signify any important life or writerly events. For instance, in my own files, for this very column, you might find something like:
- last draft with long Keanu and short Keanu
- last draft without NZT
- first draft with new ending <redacted!>
If I miss long Keanu, I can retrieve him. If I want to go back to an NZT-less column, there it is. As you may have deduced, this column is not a license to delete. In fact, I advise you to do the opposite. Keep everything. Everything. The best way to ensure that you’ll miss that darling is to murder him. The point is to arrange things so you can salvage them: from “this sucks I hate myself” to “not bad.”
Speaking of darlings, our mission is not just to put things in their proper place, but to emphasize them. I want you to create a “packing heat” file (not to be confused with a hot mess file). As you cull through your weeds, you’ll end up finding heat. Heat is not necessarily polished, but it has spark. It has flame. It has energy and a beating heart. It might even be messy—no, it IS messy—but that’s the amazing thing about it. It might be a sentence, or a paragraph, or a comma. It might be an ellipse…A phrase quarantined in brackets (rescue me). It might be one, lone line in a Continent of Dull. Salvage it. Paste it in your packing heat file, along with all the other misfits. Relabel your most heated: “Island of Misfit Toys.” This is a hard label to ignore.
On the days when you can’t write, don’t feel like writing, don’t want anything to do with writing, play a video game. Then return here. Pick a sentence. Any sentence. A sentence that packs heat. Fire up a new Word doc. Paste that one sentence. Without looking at the original (or even thinking about it) begin again, anew. Don’t feel obliged to rewrite your old piece.
Go where the leads you, whether that be to Pushcarts or to Applebee’s.
A note on Christmas cards: At some point, you will be tempted. Your partner or your mother or even a more hopeful version of yourself might have purchased some, with thoughts of using them for their intended purpose. But we never do things for their intended purpose. We are writers. And one night, we’ll be summoned. The cards will call to us, we’ll traipse into the dark. We will unearth them. Shenanigans will ensue.
We won’t write “Dear Mom, Merry Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa” but gobbledygoookkkkwkkwkwkwkw.
Then, we’ll fall back into bed, where we’ll dream that Bradley or Keanu or maybe even Miranda July are awarding us our Oscars. I mean, our Pushcarts.
When we wake up, we’re faced with it. With gobbledygoookkkkwkkwkwkwkw.
Pushcarts will turn into rejections. Miranda and Bradley, Beavis and Butt-head. But not because our content isn’t brilliant. It is. It’s just that we aren’t de-encrypters. Or psychics. Or mad geniuses. At least when it comes to our own handwriting.
Meet the Mini-Drawer. This doubles as an editing and procrastination tool. After you write something by hand, wait an hour. Do whatever your heart desires. Ice cream, pilfering your honey’s card stash, wooing Keanu from my laptop to yours. Then read. That’s all you have to do. Reading text even once will do wonders for future you, if she’s ever so inclined to dig stuff up. But you may find yourself tweaking; that hour break (and Keanu wooing) has granted you a certain distance.
Another way to make organization more intriguing—or at least less torturous—is to do a Stephen King. I want you to create another file. Give this one the artful name of “Project Frankenstein.” In his book On Writing, King says that stories are the union of two unrelated things. In Carrie, King says, we have bullying and telekinesis. That infamous shower scene where mean girls from the 70s throw tampons. And then, the surreal.
An even unholier alliance is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the undead meet the drawing room. Or Bukowski’s Post Office, where misanthropy meets sorting the US mails. Or Miranda July’s wish-fulfillment story, “This Person,” where a narrator attends a dystopic picnic and thinks she’s getting everything she’s ever wanted (namely, for those assholes in life to apologize, for isn’t that what we all want, deep down).
My point is, don’t be too methodical. If you see two ideas that seem disparate, give them to Project Frankenstein. If your first thought is, what the hell do I do with these, or where is the delete button, then Frankenstein’s your man. Think of it as your marinating file. Just seeing the ideas juxtaposed will give you pause—zombies and Jane Austen, tampons and telekinesis, organization and Keanu Reeves. On a day when you’re fed up with a current project and need to cheat (cheating’s okay, in writing, at least) come back. Open Frankenstein and grab two distinct ideas from the monster’s maw.
Do it randomly. Or pick obsessions, like in my story “Flotsam,” where I marry the Haunted Mansion to my crush on all things V.C. Andrews. This stemmed from a dream where a writer whom I loved (and still love) was telling me I was dull. I wanted to escape, to run away. I wanted to go to the Haunted Mansion. I wanted to feel the walls pressing down on me so I could feel alive.
I wrote about the dream, even though I mostly wanted to forget it. Then years later I took a class. Stuck on what to write, I dug through my “Writing Practice” file. I would recommend naming a file this, by the way. It avoids intimidation. For instance, the kind incurred by a “My Brilliant Prose” file. I opened the doc, remembered the Haunted Mansion, and was struck by my desire to return. Only I didn’t return as me. I returned as a non-dull, 15-year-old who missed the 90s, even though she had never lived there. Who missed V.C. Andrews, even though she had only known her through her mother’s paperbacks. Who wanted to feel the walls pressing down on her so she could feel alive.
I didn’t have my “Project Frankenstein” at the time, but my subconscious recalled that somewhere in “Writing Practice,” a few docs away, was an unfinished V.C. Andrews homage. The two ideas merged. It happened organically, which is great, but sometimes we can’t be organic. Sometimes grass-fed, locally raised meat isn’t available, and we need to plan. This is where Frankenstein comes in.
A great example from film is Keanu’s Matrix. Here, the familiar bends within the framework of the surreal. The familiar: that sense we all experience of disconnect, of not belonging to our lives, of is that all there is? And the surreal: yes, you’re right, this ISN’T all there is, you’re living in a simulation, so what are you going to do?
The matrix is metaphor, literalized. This is a fancy way of saying, I’m going to take whatever you’re feeling and make it real. Feeling small? Not just a feeling, you’re shrinking. Feeling restless? Maybe that’s why your feet find themselves literally running away, at night. Feeling trapped? Well, I could make you the protagonist in a story about a guy who goes to work and sits despondent in his cube all day, or I could put you in The Matrix.
Metaphor is a way of elevating what’s familiar. The surreal gives a story oomph. It defamiliarizes things, while heightening the familiar core. Would we relate to Neo more if he said, Hey guys, I’m feeling kind of bored. This IT job sucks. I haven’t gotten laid in weeks. I wish I could meet Morpheus and take a nap.
Or if Neo’s feeling of being trapped was actualized. In this case as an invisible prison.
I use the surreal often when writing about my life. My family is interesting but not TOO interesting. Often, I find myself trafficking in the fantastic, as a way of delivering resonance that would elude me in realism. Clichés especially are more forgivable when dressed up in the surreal. A dad who cheats on Mom a lot? Eh. A dad who cheats on Mom and literally turns to flame, symbolizing his fiery, chaotic nature? Decidedly less eh.
If you’re stuck, don’t worry about writing Keanu’s next blockbuster. Pick one obsession. Betroth it to something dull. The challenge is not to write something brilliant—okay, maybe it is, but don’t worry about that for now. For now, the plan is to get these ideas to connect, to walk on down the aisle, to smooch—before anyone can object.
King says that sloppy language stems from fear. We commit that most egregious of sins—adverb usage—because we fear that we are not getting across our meaning. We overcompensate by throwing the literary equivalent of bricks. We do this meanly. Cruelly. Wantonly.
It’s the same deal when we avoid organizing, or being creative with our organizing by writing surreal stories. Getting our house in order is part discipline, part purpose, but it’s mostly pop psychology—Am I cut out for this? Can I DO this??? We ask that every time we’re faced with our lost drafts. It’s the real reason we avoid them.
This is the real takeaway. So what do we do about it? If you remember my seventh column, you might remember good enough. It’s what my old shrink told me when I showed her different drafts from different time periods and in my view, different brains. She agreed that the old writing brain was better, but that the second was “good enough.” To tame fear, always aim for “good enough.”
Better yet, pretend you are a lawyer. Or a toilet-maker. Does the toilet-maker say, I wonder if I’ll be able to do it, or will this toilet get me in the end? They do not.
To bring things down a notch, lower the bar literally and pop a squat. From henceforth, all organizing endeavors will be toilet ones.
Leonora Desar spends a lot of time toilet-bound. She was going to write a complicated bio, but has decided against it, since this would involve sending multiple versions to Al, who is ready to cut her off. Her stories have appeared in River Styx, No Tokens, and in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, where Keanu saves her from herself.