Friday, September 6, 2019

Notes from a messy desk.

About once a week someone drops by my desk at work who's never dropped by my desk before. I suppose because I'm so much older than everyone else in my agency and I am somewhat large and foreboding, people are afraid to talk to me. Or maybe they're just being respectful. Whatever that means.

Nearly everyone who stops by has pretty much the same reaction. They might not vocalize that reaction, but I hear it just the same. "Your desk is a mess," they say. "It's covered in briefs and headlines and paper and newspapers and books and more books. And usually about 11 bottles of seltzer.

What I realized after all these years and about 32 million attempts at being neat is this:

Being messy is productive.

At least, being messy is my productive process.

Writers--even writers low on the writerly Pantheon like copywriters--have one basic thing to do. Many years ago I put it to a friend this way, "I coalesce other people's ramblings."

What I mean is that writers take in a lot of input. In days of yore, real writers like Shakespeare or Herman Melville or Thomas Wolfe spent their lives learning the central mythologies of Western thought. They knew the Greeks. They knew the Bible. They knew of the Roman wars and the Manichaeans and the Zoroastrians. They knew the stars and the seas and more.

All that stuff was grist for their mills.

Copywriters like myself aren't nearly as lofty. But we, too, need to take a lot in.

Usually, a simple brief (as if there is such a thing) is accompanied by about 12 other documents. You might want to read the client's annual report. You might want to read something on the subject you're meant to write about that was written in the Wall Street Journal or the Times. Or your boss.

99% of that input won't make it into what you write. But to write, you have to have read it. 

It takes a lot of knowledge to make something simple. The great Dizzy Gillespie once said "It's taken me all my life to learn what not to play." 

Writing, while it's about style and craft, is mostly about order. Hierarchy. 

What comes first. What comes next. How to tell a story. How to persuade someone.

Sometimes you need a bit of information from here. A quotation from there. A statistic from somewhere else. Who knows where you'll find all that information, or when.

But I get most of that from a messy desk, when I'm looking for something else. And I'll keep it that way.

Besides, I need the seltzer.

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