Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paperwork, Be Gone!

I don't have all the answers; there are still many de-cluttering problems I haven't figured out yet. So, being the crowd-sourcing type of person that I am, I reached out to the broader writing community to find out how other writers handled their clutter problems.

Sometimes you just can't do it alone. Writer Loren Rhoads found her answer in a professional organizer.

Paperwork, Be Gone!

by Loren Rhoads

For 10 years, I edited Morbid Curiosity magazine.  It collected true first-person essays, which I published annually in the spring.  The last issue appeared in May 2006, after which I collected my favorite essays into an anthology published by Scribner in 2009.

During the magazine years, I kept a paper copy of every draft of every submission I’d ever received, whether I eventually published it or not.  I kept every web page I’d printed out as research.  I kept reams of correspondence, particularly from difficult would-be contributors and/or all the prisoners who’d ever gotten in touch.  I kept copies of every invoice I sent and resent to the deadbeats who wouldn’t pay for the magazines they’d ordered for their shops or distribution schemes. Most of the paperwork was in rough order, but there were duplicates and redundancies and stuff I just didn’t need any more.

It felt like, to use the vernacular, an epic heap of fail. I told myself that I couldn’t tackle it, because there was no way to overcome it by pecking at it an hour or two at a time, as watching my daughter allowed.  The real truth was that I didn’t want to wallow in all the unhappiness, bad memories, and feelings of inadequacy the paperwork represented.  My magazine was a success, in that it was beloved and developed its own cult.  I just wasn’t as successful at the business of publishing it.  I naively wanted to believe the best of distributors and shop owners, especially if they were enthusiastic and complimentary. I didn’t want to look at the record of my struggles.

Luckily, a friend of mine started a business as a professional organizer. I hired her to come by one day to help me master this disaster.  It was the best money I’ve ever spent.

On that magical day, Lilah went through all seven boxes of papers, as well as the four jammed file drawers, without judging, reading anything, or becoming involved in any of it.  She made piles for me: one for each issue, with reviews, ephemera from the readings, photographs, and fan letters.  I decided to pull out the best parts of those piles and make a scrapbook, so I could look at my triumphs when my spirits needed a boost.

She also made piles of each year’s receipts and invoices.  Filing that stuff away was the best experience of my life. The unpaid invoices went into the tax paperwork, never to be looked at again.  When the IRS’s suggested length of time passes, I’m going to pitch those files in the bin without even opening them. 

Lilah made a pile of edited manuscripts, any hard copy illustrations that the artists hadn’t wanted back, and advertisements for each project.   Among that stuff were the rejected manuscripts or things I’d started to edit before the contributors became too challenging to deal with.  I simply threw those things away.  Now I can forget the people who were mean to me when I dared to edit their deathless prose. Every time I recycled a sheaf of papers, laughter bubbled up out of my chest.  I said over and over, “YOU are out of my life.”

In the five hours Lilah and I worked together, I managed to throw out three full boxes of paper.  We whittled the keepers down to three boxes and a file drawer, along with two miscellaneous stacks that I needed to read more closely before recycling them.

Two weeks after the organizer came, I finished. My curbside recycling bin was crammed full two weeks in a row, but the purge has been very healing.  I cannot believe the feeling of liberation in culling all this stuff.

In the end, I can forget the frustration and depression and anxiety that marred the triumphs of my publishing business.  I only want to remember the good parts of running the press.  I have thrown all the bad memories away.

I know it can be intimidating to turn your paperwork over to someone else to handle, but trust me, they will be working too fast to judge.  Because there’s no emotional baggage for them, they can be efficient and ruthless.  Unless you empower them to actually throw things out, you will still be able to make the final call and rescue anything you need to.  However, once of the worst of the organization is done in macro-scale, the little decisions are easier to make.  Throwing things away takes on a momentum of its own.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a friend who is starting her own business, there are professional organizers who can be hired.  More basic than that, you could hire a high school kid or trade organizational chores with a friend.  Anyone who isn’t emotionally bound by your paperwork is an ally. Agree first what the payment will be, how long you will work, and when you will take breaks. Then pull up your recycling bin and get to work.

 Loren Rhoads is the author of the space opera trilogy In the Shadow of the Templars. The Dangerous Type comes out on July 7, 2015, followed by Kill By Numbers in September, and No More Heroes in November. You can learn more about the series at or Morbid Curiosity magazine at

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pens, Morven, Really?

I can hear you screeching now: "A two-part blog on PENS?!!"

Yes. A two-part blog on pens. Sort of. The blog posts were about more than that. They were about how little bits help, how sometimes things get messier when you're decluttering (pen traps all over the house), how you can make it a family/household project -- and that's just a few of the obvious themes!

Those blog posts were also about finding out why you're so cluttered to begin with. Is it that you buy too much Stuff? (Did your search yield multiple boxes of 50 pens that you purchased at the warehouse store?)

Why did you buy too much stuff?
  • You watch the Home Shopping Network.
  • You like to go to the Mall.
  • You love eBay, Amazon Prime, and
  • You subscribe to too many e-newsletters and go for the sales.
  • You buy birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day, Christmas, Hannukah, and Easter gifts for everyone you know. You have gifts, wrapping, and cards stashed away
Is it because you can't find the stuff you already have? ("Gee, I didn't know I had two 24-roll packs of toilet paper! What's this doing in the kitchen cabinet anyway?")
  • You can't find it because there's no place to put it.
  • You keep misplacing things because you're too scattered.
  • You keep misplacing things because you don't have a system.
  • You just can't throw things away.
So now, at the end of the Pen Phase, think about why things are cluttered. Write down what you noticed. If you did this as a family/group exercise, get input from the other participants. They might have noticed something you didn't, and, best of all, they might become aware of the problems your household has and how to solve them.

That's enough for now. You have your homework. Get to it! And if you come up with other reasons, let me know. I'd love your input.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pens and Other Multiplying Entities: Part 2, Dispersal

In my last post (Pens and Other Multiplying Entities: Part 1, Capture), I described how to capture pens, pencils, and markers. Now I give some hints on what to do with them.

Rehabbing Your Captures

Before you determine which ones you can keep, try this trick.
  1. Add about 1/4 inch of rubbing alcohol to the bottom of one of those glass jars you used to trap the pens. 
  2. Put the pens point down in the alcohol for about an hour. Then take them out and wipe the tip with a rag (if you have a rag bag...) or paper towel. 
  3. On a scrap piece of paper -- can't find one? We'll solve that problem later -- scribble with the pen. If it won't write, throw it out!

    "That's obvious," you say. Oh, yeah? How many times have you found a pen that wouldn't write on the first try and set it aside to fix it later? (You didn't? You must have a mild case of Packrititis.) Going through this step, giving the pen that one last chance, helps you to throw it away without guilt, and without delay.
  4. Repeat with the rest of them.
For pencils, mechanical or wooden, it's just as easy. Round them up. If they're wooden, sharpen them. If they're mechanical, find the leads that go with them. Can't find the sharpener or pencil leads? Disorganization can lead to clutter, and not just because things are lying in a jumble, but because the next time you're out shopping, you'll say, "Oh, that's right. I couldn't find the pencil leads. I'll buy more."

And maybe you can't remember if they're .07 or .05, so you buy both, thinking you'll return the ones that don't fit. And maybe you misplace the returns. Or the receipt. Or you just never get around to returning them. Get it? You need to organize. At the end of this post, I'll add some links to articles on organizing your desk.

Dispersing Your Extra Writing Implements

Determine which ones you'll keep. Put them in a separate pile. What do you do with the extras?
  • Take some back to work (that's probably where they hitched a ride home with you to begin with). 
  • Leave them somewhere. One person who had promotional pens made for a local business used to "accidentally" leave them at the post office and ATMs, hoping that people would pick them up.
  • Pass them on. Do you belong to any organizations that could use them? Some people are squeamish about handling others' belongings, but as long as you didn't chew the ends, a quick swipe with a cleaning cloth should do it.
  • Donate them. If they're in good condition, find out if there are any local organizations that could use them. Every non-profit needs office supplies. Maybe, like you, they've been plagued with rogue pens who hide on them, but they don't have the time to set traps and capture.
  • Some organizers suggest leaving some in your car. I don't. Cars get too hot (and cold) where I live, so they don't always work when I need them. They also can end up on the floor where you step on them, and they can leak into upholstery. Pencils? They work under almost any condition. I leave a couple in my car at all times, in case the point breaks on one.  

Rehoming the Keepers

You've discovered that the preferred habitat of the pen and pencil is not necessarily the starkness of the writing desk, homework table, or even kitchen. Some of them like to move around. That means that you need a permanent pen hostel for every room where your traps yielded significant captures.

Instead of buying holders, why not recycle something you already own? As I said, coffee cups make great holders. If you're crafty (or have kids who are), make some. Google craft project pen holder for ideas.

Guys, there's no reason you can't do this, too. Think the designs on that link are too feminine? Take an empty can (preferably one that was opened with one of those can openers that leave no sharp edges) and cover it with a printout of your favorite book cover, hobby, sports team. All you need is a printer and glue.


Here's an idea: If you can't find a place in your area for your overwhelming collection of extra pens, send them here OR take them to another area yourself.

Right to Write

Darn. I just found out that one of my favorite fables might be a myth:

Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pens and Other Multiplying Entities: Part 1, Capture

I always have a pen and a scrap of paper with me in case the Muse hits. Correction: Usually. I don't have them with me in the shower, or if I walk out to the mailbox, but 99% of the time, you'll find I have a pen. People who know me know that. ("Ask Morven. She usually has a pen.")

The problem is that pens don't stay with me. They move. The two pens and a pencil that I keep in my handbag can dwindle down to one or multiply to ten. Some of them end up in my work bag. Or on my work desk. Or vice versa: Sometimes when I'm gathering my stuff together for work the following day, I'll realize that I have brought all my work pens home.

At home, pens that were perfectly happy sitting behind the keyboard or in that cute little pen groove on my monitor stand suddenly disappear. I grab one out of one of my pen holders -- what, you have only ONE? Confess, you have more, don't you? -- and, when I straighten my desk the next time, I find twenty. I think they deliberately go off somewhere where they can have some privacy and, um, get to know each other. By the time I find them, they've multiplied.

This can drive you crazy, distracting you from your writing, besides creating a clutter problem. Even worse, while some of them are hiding, they dry up!

So here's what I suggest. This is going to be one of those bite-sized decluttering tips that will help you get in control and ease the pain of decluttering, whether it be the pain of taking the time to do it or the pain of letting things go.

Trapping the Pens

I'm not going to tell you to go buy desk organizers because the last thing you need right now is more Stuff. Instead, find some things around the house that you can use to hold pens just while you get them under control. This might be a good time to go through your coffee cups. Any that you don't absolutely love or that are chipped or otherwise aren't making the grade are good candidates.

Don't have any extra cups? Okay, just while you're getting your writing implements in line, consider using glass jars or even empty produce containers (you lay the pens on their side). (Tip: Remove the produce first.) You need one for each room. Yup, one for every room, including the bathroom, garage, and basement, if any.

You don't need to bait the pen trap, though seeding the trap with a pen or pencil will help other residents of the household remember that those are pen traps, not things that need to go in the recycling bin. If it helps, label the trap. This is a good use for scrap paper. Can't find any? Ah. I see another blog post in the future.

For a week (or month, if you're really serious), every time you find a pen, pencil, or marker, put it in the nearest trap. Make it a game. While you're waiting for the coffee to brew, look around the kitchen and see if you can find any. Pens are wily creatures; they can be hiding in the junk drawer, the medicine cabinet, or, if you have a cat, under the refrigerator or sofa.

In my next blog, I'll tell you what to do when you've captured them.


I disagree with her suggestion to leave a bunch of pens in the car, but otherwise the suggestions in the link below are similar to mine.

Pens & Pencil Clean Out

If you don't want to craft your own pen cups, here are some interesting ideas.

Organizing the Pens and Pencils: Pencil Cups and More

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why Declutter?

In my first post, I touched on a couple of reasons why I've started my decluttering project. The longstanding reason is encouragement -- ahem -- from my spouse.

But you're not married to my spouse. What reasons would there be for you to declutter? Look at some of the factors that have stirred the "small house movement."

The small house movement (also known as the "tiny house movement") could have early roots in Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden; or, a Life in the Woods, published in 1854, talked about getting back to the simpler life. For him that involved building a small cabin, with just the necessities.

Where Walden's experiment was rooted in spiritual and philosophical aspirations, the current trend seems to have risen to address the need to find a way to live in an increasingly crowded world, though the need for simplification in a complex life is a strong motive, too.

Let me say here that I don't think I'm a candidate for a small house, for many reasons. Even if I pare down my books to the bare minimum, and find homes for things I no longer use, I have too many different interests to fit in one room.

But I am a candidate for a cheaper house. Eventually I'll want to retire, or at least go part time on the day job. I'll have a lot more choices if I can fit into a smaller house. It will be a lot easier for me to sort things and disperse them (notice I didn't say dispose of them) now. Moving will be cheaper; I can't expect friends to move me, so I need to consider how expensive hiring movers (at least for the heavy items) will be. Having fewer items should decrease the cost.

So think about that. What do you really want to do in life? Do you want to get out of the rat race and follow your passion someday? That goal will be a lot more reachable if you can exist on less money. You can exist on less money in a smaller house, or if you take up less space in a larger, shared house. Either way, you need to have fewer things.

A more-recent incitement for me to declutter was wanting to be the person who actually goes through my stuff. After all, we can't take it with us, though maybe someone could start a modern grave goods trend where your survivors rent a front loader and just dump your possessions in over your coffin... (Let's face it, some of our possessions probably won't burn safely, so I can't see the crematorium going for it. It would have to be an option only for burials and mausoleums.)

I don't regret having gone Big -- it's been wonderful -- but it's not sustainable forever. I'm downsizing, and I'm embracing the journey.


Wikipedia's page on the small house movement:

Tumbleweed Houses, the web site my niece showed me when I didn't understand what she meant when she talked about the small house movement:

Real Simple, a magazine you might find inspirational

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Decluttering Project

Oh, why oh why am I starting another blog when I can't even keep up with my first one? (

Because a lot of people have been asking me not only what I'm doing, but how and why.

So what is decluttering? It's a word that I picked up from the internet that describes what you do
when you get rid of the things you no longer need, when you pare down the clutter, when you engage in Spring Cleaning on a grand -- or perhaps, superficial -- scale. (Although in my case, I am indeed cleaning everything I am getting rid of. More on that later.)

I've been going through everything I own and deciding whether I should keep it or not. Why? It started out as a response to my husband's complaint that I have Too Much Stuff. And he's right. I have my first grade reading book. I've found a few things I had that were so old that the rubber deteriorated (rubber bands, spare dishwashing gloves). And yes, I have books that, though not antiques, don't have an ISBN, and paperbacks that cost 75 cents.

Yet now my decluttering has taken on a different aspect. I've seen a few older friends and relatives who are no longer able to get around without assistance. They can barely clean the cat's litter box and need someone else to do the grocery shopping. Infirmity hits without warning. If I were to become unable to pull down boxes from the attic or carry things to the car to transport to the recycling center, what would become of them? All those precious memories would probably be trashed because there wouldn't be anyone who would know enough to go through them.

Rats. I'm getting a little morbid there, but seriously, I'm thinking ahead. *I* want to be the one to go through things, sort them out, disperse them. *I* want to pick up that box of matches in my travel memorabilia box and remember the Acacias Etoile Hotel in Paris or Finally Michael's in Framingham. (It's actually been a lot of fun seeing those things again!)

And so I begin this blog. Why did I say "Decluttering for Writers"? Because I'm a writer and many of the things I'm holding on to (like old matchbooks) are for research. I mean, who knows? I may want to write a story about Paris set in the early 80s and I'll need to remember all this, right?

And why "and Other Packrats"? Because some of the other things I'm hanging on to are for psychological/sentimental reasons. That might be your reason for being a packrat. It's taken me a long time to come to terms with giving up those items and maybe my handling of my rationalizations can help you, too.

Gotta run. I have some matchbooks to photograph...