Monday, November 24, 2008

Mental Clutter

Sherlock Holmes, the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, expressed an interesting view of the memory. Dr. Watson wanted to know how the detective could remember such peculiar details and make the intricate connections among them. He explained that the brain was like an attic. It only has so much room to store things. If any bit of information had nothing to do with his work, he would not let it in. If a bit turned out to be “clutter”, he had to throw it out to make room for new information.

From what I learned about the brain in my psychology classes, it seems to have an endless capacity for storing information. However, I have always thought this comparison of the brain to an attic space to be quite useful. If I can find a use for some new information, I invite it in. Otherwise, I block it out.

Friends are continually amazed that I could have passed the same stores hundreds of times without noticing them. Why would I? There are only several stores on the main route through town that have any use for me: the food store, Wal-mart, the library, Home Depot, the chocolate store, the post office, and the gas station. If I need a specialty store, I will look in the yellow pages to locate it. This enables me to go on my way without the distractions of extraneous buildings that are not on my list of errands.

I had been in one particular friend’s house a dozen times before I noticed the huge widescreen television that occupied a large portion of the den. I had to see it because we were watching a movie on it! “Wow, that’s some big TV you have here,” I commented. “How could you miss this monstrosity?” she questioned. I was there to see her, not her t.v.; therefore it didn’t register.

I picked up a copy of the classic "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser and have been happily devouring its advice. There is a whole chapter devoted to "clutter"! What he means by that is verbal clutter - extra words that don't add any meaning to one’s writing. But he also, in his 30-year anniversary edition, adds the idea of psychological clutter, stressing the burden of extraneous thoughts on trying to get clean ideas out on paper.

This suddenly put in perspective something a writing friend had said about her clutter preventing her from being creative. As simple as I have tried to keep my mental processes, my physical attic is full. So are all my closets and drawers. I am one of those who “boxes” her clutter and puts it on a top shelf of a closet, under the bed, or in the attic.

As I open up a box, a flood of memories comes pouring out, as a droplet of gas enclosed in a small space will spread out to fill a whole room. Like the physical box of stuff, the memories associated with them have been compartmentalized into a small portion of my brain. I might think my brain is de-cluttered, but really I just have put the clutter away to be dealt with later. As I deal with each thing, I can process the idea that goes with it. My daily de-cluttering time thus has become part of my mental writing time, because it helps de-clutter me spiritually.

I have been imagining my house completely streamlined, with only a few beautiful things in sight, fitting the form and function of each room. Would such a house be boring? Would such a person be boring?

For Sherlock Holmes Fans:

48 of the 60 stories in The Canon of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are out of copyright and can be downloaded in text format at 221 Baker

Sherlock Holmes, the movie, will be released in 2009.


Loren Christie said...

Full attics are much more interesting, especially when friends can find a gift in them.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

This is my favorite comment of all those I have received thus far! I was thinking about developing this into a part II. Maybe going into my attic will help me think about that. I was also thinking that a box of clutter could actually make for a good book - say, a story about each item that was in it.

Anonymous said...

No - such a home, such a person, would NOT be boring. I always think of the pioneer women and how creative and productive they were with so little on their shelves. But you expressed the mental clutter idea exactly. There is a book you might look into, "Happy Are You Poor" by Dubay I believe. I find it inspirational. Also, a quote I like from the editor of Real Simple, she strives for a life that is, "calm, beautiful, organized and meaningful." - Julie