Things are messy around my house. Yesterday’s dishes are stacked on top of the previous day’s dishes. My son sprained his ankle at an inopportune moment—in November, that is—and is on crutches. An old friend who tends to spill things just dropped in and needs a place to crash. He hasn’t told us when he’s leaving.
But all this mess isn’t bugging me (at least not too much). What’s bugging me is that my NaNo novel is now sprawling into tangents and subplots and loopty-loops and front flips and mad dashes.
It resembles a canvas that a gaggle of preschoolers are fingerpainting on together. Then, while the teacher isn’t looking, the ornery little devils find a box of feathers, glitter, Cheerios, pasta shells, and they toss it all into the mix.
Now a stern teacher might turn around in a huff, interrupt the proud creative glee of these unbridled artists, and yell at them to clean up their mess. I sympathize. We’re conditioned from an early age to honor cleanliness, whether it’s keeping a tidy house, coloring in between the lines, or neatly ordering a novel’s plot. Part of me wants to start sprucing things up in my novel right now, but I believe the only way to get good ideas is to get a lot of ideas and then throw the bad ones out—after November, of course.
The creative process just isn’t neat, no matter how you approach it. Writers tend to write amidst stacks of paper and books. Artists tend to create with speckles of paint on their clothes and the floor. Their work environments mirror the exploratory states of their mind as they search the pathways of their imaginations. Without chaos, there is no creation. Just look at a kitchen after a feast.
Now many gifted and creative people are perfectionists, so the pandemonium of the creative process can be a source of anxiety and self-criticism. Some people get so turned off by the tumult of their novels that they quit, wash the dishes, and feel a great sense of accomplishment as they gaze at a sparkling sink.
But when we signed up for NaNoWriMo, we set the audacious goal of writing a novel, not scrubbing surfaces clean.
I advise you to say yes to mess in this final homestretch. Messiness trumps neatness right now. Traveling down the random, unplanned paths of your imagination leads to breakthroughs.
As the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle said, “Making pictures and creating art can sometimes be a messy job. But that’s ok. I’ve grown to enjoy the spots and dots that my work sometimes leaves behind and occasionally, without even realizing it, the inadvertent mess or the ‘mistakes’ I make, end up seeming more interesting than I ever would have expected.”
See what globs of plots you can toss into your stories this week. Splash paint and flip feathers up in the air in your descriptions. Think mish-mash. You’ll have plenty of time to embrace your inner neat freak in revision.