The Secret Delights of Disorder

Meg Wolitzer embraces her messiness and, at 53, finally realizes why

by Meg Wolitzer
mind illustration image
Photograph: Josh Cochran

I have never understood highly organized people. All-out neatness seems to require superhuman dedication and concentration, similar to the mind-set required of those who aspire to walk barefoot over hot coals. No matter what I’ve done to temper it, a low-level disorder has reigned in my life. My sixth-grade teacher, who appeared to love me in all other ways, could not abide my messy desk, which, when I was asked to tip it over, released a torrent of “lost” library books, Kit Kat wrappers and secrets of the universe. After one desk-tipping session, my teacher plaintively said, “You’re such a good student. Why do you do this?” I hung my head; I had no idea why.

Flash forward a million years. True, I no longer sit at a child-size desk, but I still don’t keep certain things in order, and for a long time this left me frustrated and mildly ashamed. Just as I couldn’t explain my desk to my teacher, I have had a hard time explaining to myself why, as an adult, I keep my papers in “bale of hay” form instead of dividing them into color-coded files. Whenever I have to retrieve something from the cabinet, I end up on the floor of my silo—I mean, my bedroom—with a bale in my lap, sifting slowly through it.

I’m not trying to make excuses, and I don’t recommend disorder as a way of life; but sometimes, as I look for what I need, I come upon interesting things I don’t need. Recently, a 20-year-old letter reminded me of a lost friendship and made me remember how people used to write letters to one another, which made me want to jot down notes for an epistolary novel. (True, the jotted notes probably got stored in the silo, too, and will not be found again until I need to go looking for a dental claim form.)

Not long ago, hearing me complain about not finding something, a friend offered to buy me a consult with a professional organizer. As the date approached, I imagined the organizer sitting beside me, and this was like picturing someone in bed with me whom I really didn’t want there. In childhood, when they ask you to dump out your desk, you have to do it. In adulthood, you do it only if you’ve found that chaos doesn’t suit your way of life. And I started to realize that some degree of chaos really doessuit my life—that it might even be helping me. Coming across certain individual items activates my thoughts. I occasionally feel a burst of emotion upon finding a drawing made by my child. It makes me get up and go talk to that child, who looms over me now, deep voiced, grown. Then I return to my pile, finding treasures, making plans. What I finally understand at 53 is that the amorphous collection in front of me is basically a replica of the brain inside me: not sequential, not orderly, but full of possibility. I wish I could have explained this to my sixth-grade teacher. I have no idea if the professional organizer would agree with me, because I canceled that appointment and went out for a walk instead, leaving my blissful anarchy behind.

Meg Wolitzer is a novelist whose most recent book is The Uncoupling. Her new novel, The Interestings, will be published in April.

First Published Tue, 2012-09-04 14:30

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