As long as I’ve been an artist I’ve yearned for a spacious, organized, beautiful studio to create in. Instead I’ve always felt cramped and cluttered, the sheer weight of stuff — in piles, in drawers, in cupboards — creating an irritating psychic hum that I can’t escape.
Like the sound of a jackhammer at the next house over, it’s something you get used to, but it’s a constant drain.
When I see someone else’s well-organized, uncluttered studio, I feel a rush of many emotions at once:
Envy (I want that, too!)
Shame (There must be something wrong with me that I can’t create that…)
Despair (I’ll never have a studio like that…)
For years I’ve felt intense embarrassment whenever someone enters my workspace. The fact that it’s upstairs makes it easier to keep informal visitors out of it, but it’s not possible to keep everyone out, and I cringe every time someone steps in the door. I don’t want to see the look in their eyes. I imagine they will think less of me when they encounter the truth…
“I’m an artist, not a housekeeper,” I’ve learned to say, and this is true. But beneath this truth is another one that I can’t avoid: a person can be an artist, and have a clean, organized, uncluttered studio!
Oh, how I long to be that kind of person!
Transforming Identity & the True Solution
Making that kind of identity transformation is not easy. If it were, I’d already have the kind of studio that other people search for pictures of to pin on their “Studio Porn” Pinterest boards.
For a long time I’ve been convinced that the true solution would be found in more: more and better organizational systems, more and better containers, more space — if only I had the money to afford a warehouse, a loft, or just a larger home with three bedrooms instead of two, so I could use two whole rooms for my studio!
More recently I’ve been coming to terms with the opposite idea: that the true solution will be found in less.
Less stuff will mean I need less stuff!
Less stuff means fewer containers and less furniture to store it, and less time to put it away.
Less stuff means more floor space and airspace and mental space.
Coming to this realization has been huge, but still, letting go of my stuff is hard. Sometimes it’s stuff I cling to because I think I might want to use it again, and I’ll be so frustrated if I don’t have it when I want it. But it can go deeper than that.
Reasons We Hold On
Sometimes letting go of stuff means acknowledging a mistake, like the hardwired Ikea lights I bought when I moved into this place… then never had installed… I feel a weird sense of guilt (or false guilt, really, since I haven’t actually hurt anyone and am not truly culpable), a feeling that I should be using this thing, whatever it is. So I hold onto it… but still don’t use it.
Of course, if it’s still in my space, I’m bombarded regularly with that same false guilty feeling! When I let it go, I’m no longer reminded of the mistake.
Sometimes letting go of stuff means turning the page on a chapter of my life that’s over, but that I’ve been reluctant to completely leave behind. Like the dozens of full-size samples of my ketubah prints that I paid good money to have archivally bagged with foam core boards, to display in my booth at wedding faires. I haven’t done a wedding faire since 2009, and have no desire to do one ever again, yet there’s still a fear of burning bridges.
I’m learning, though, that space and freedom are more important to me than bridges to old paths I’m no longer interested in walking.
Sometimes something gets stuck in my space because I can’t figure out where to take it. I’m loathe to send anything to landfill if I can avoid it, but what the heck do I do with the two old halogen photo light sets, for example? The reflectors and stands are perfectly good, but three out of the four lights themselves — the piece that the lightbulb screws into, with a cord that plugs into the wall — no longer work, and are probably not fixable, nor even worth fixing.
In cases like this, if I set a clear enough intention to let the thing go, eventually I find a solution. Freecycle. RAFT.
I’ve also learned that in order to clear out my own space, I have to be ruthless, which sometimes, yes, means landfill.
You’re Ready When You’re Ready
I’ve made multiple passes at clutterbusting over the past several years. Each one has been good… but not enough to get me the studio of my dreams. For that, more drastic measures were required than I was capable of taking at the time.
I just wasn’t ready to let go of enough to get me there.
Now I feel like I’m finally ready to go the distance. It may take me much more than the month of April to get there, but I have a sense of calm and ease this time. I’m finally ready to release my grip on so much that I was clinging to before.
I think holding onto stuff gave me a false sense of security. Something has shifted lately, so that the stuff I’ve been clinging too feels more like chains constricting me and weighing me done than like safety. Letting go feels like freedom.
I should be clear: I’m not dispensing with all my worldly goods. I am, however, acknowledging that, as Ann, one of the members of The Great ClutterBust put it, everything in my life is borrowed: my stuff, my home, my body. I own nothing — I’m just borrowing it for the time I get to use it in this life.
Knowing that everything is borrowed is helping me to choose more carefully what I want to surround myself with.
It’s like a library (another idea from the brilliant Ann): I don’t want to borrow every book, just the ones that are relevant, uplifting, or useful, and that I plan to actually read during the check-out period!
I’m painfully aware, all of a sudden, of just how many “overdue books” I’ve been hoarding…
Community: the Real Power Boost
Some time ago I went from ready to eager. Suddenly I was champing at the bit to clear out my excess stuff.
Even with my new state of readiness, though, I knew doing it alone would be rough going. So I did something really smart: I rallied a community around me, and created The Great ClutterBust.
There are 31 of us in The Great ClutterBust as of this writing (and more continue to trickle in). We share “before” and “after” pics of our spaces. We cheer each other on. We share resources. We empathize.
Most days there’s some kind of live session, either preplanned or spontaneous, in which those who are available can check in to say what we’re planning on tackling, then we go off and clutterbust in our own spaces, together. In today’s “live” ClutterBust session people cleared out closets and shelves, I wrote some wedding thank you notes (mental clutter that’s been weighing me down!) and drove my packed-to-the-gills car down to RAFT, where they happily took everything off my hands, including those old photo lights!
As the brilliant Ann pointed out, we used to think “Score!” when we found some wonderful object to bring into our homes. Now we’re thinking “Score!” each time we get rid of something!
And astonishingly, we’re having fun! This herculean task I’ve been avoiding for so many years has become fun! Who knew?
That’s the power of community. We energize each other. Our enthusiasm is infectious.
(Even husbands are getting involved! When I first told Miracle Man of my plan to run The Great ClutterBust, his response was “But I don’t want to clutterbust!” I assured him he didn’t have to. Then, what do you know, he started getting fired up by what I was doing, and joined in! Other members have reported similar husband-buy-in.)
Unearthing the Studio of My Dreams
Before the official start of The Great ClutterBust, someone posted in our private Facebook group a report on what she referred to as her “desk archaeology.” Oh my goodness, what an apt metaphor! My desk, every drawer and cupboard and shelf and surface in my studio (and home!) are like archaeological sites that my job is to dig through, sorting the metaphorical dirt from the treasures.
This is a big job. A Very Big Job. But shovelful by shovelful, I am unearthing the studio of my dreams, and that feels so good.
Wanna join us? There’s still time. The Great ClutterBust runs through April 30th. Click here to be part of the movement.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!
Melissa – the GUILT! How crazy is that. Two months ago I subscribed to one of those craft of the month subscriptions. I used the first box, the other two are literally stacked on the floor next to my desk and they taunt me with every passing day. The chances of my ever doing either of these crafts is slim – it was a wish that I’d become a world class crafter that made me buy them and the hundreds of dollars of other craft stuff in my closet. But now I realize I took on too much. I should sell those kits whole on eBay, recoop the loss and move on. But it makes me feel like a fool for buying them and a failure for not following through.
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Oh, I empathize, Cinthialil! I have so much stuff like that still in my home, waiting to be unearthed! Letting them go is so freeing. They provide me an excellent opportunity to practice self-compassion! 🙂
I’ve just read about The Great Clutter Bust and find it really interesting but perhaps not for the reasons you may think and here’s why…I don’t have clutter! Yep, there it is out in the open and there’s a reason for that…are you ready…oh boy here’s a confession for you….I’m a neat freak…OMG I just admitted it, phew, I need to lay down or have a stiff drink, may be both, lols. Well, I’m a recovering neat freak, I’m an awesome work in progress, always will be 😉
Isn’t it interesting that there are so many similar emotions attached to “oh look at this clutter” and “everything in it’s place” (does that make sense?). For me as a child I thought “if I keep everything neat and tidy then maybe they’ll (parents) will notice me, sadly it followed me into adulthood, I had to be the perfect homemaker, clean house, clean kids, clean, tidy, clean tidy, neat….everything even my career…a bookkeeper, geez. I became so engrossed with filing, putting away everything all the time that I stifled my creative side for many heart breaking years. I had all this material, yarn and couldn’t bring myself to pull it out and use it “because it wouldn’t be tidy”. Odd how we get so wound up in what others think about us that we some how strangle the ‘awesomeness that is in us’.
I’ve realised (finally) that a little clutter is good, it means I’m creating, making another beautiful bear, quilt, knitted or crocheted whatever and it’s okay. Will I ever truly get over the compulsion to “put that away, now!”, no probably not but now I stop breath and then keep going, sometimes I deliberately leave it out overnight (OMG) then in the morning I continue sewing and more importantly smiling.
Hugs to everyone remember you are awesome =)
Melissa Dinwiddie says
I’m so glad you shared this, Janet! I have a neat-freak mother, and spent my life feeling like there was something wrong with me that I didn’t “inherit that gene.” How I longed to be a neat-freak! And yet, when I’ve talked to neat-freaks, they feel as chained by their way of being as cluttery types feel chained by ours!
I guess the lesson is moderation, and learning to moderate your natural (unhelpful) tendencies to create a more nourishing life. 🙂
Kim Stubbs says
great stuff (or unstuff) Melissa! And perfect timing. I’m there. Even have 3 sets of ikea lights myself that Ive been carting around to 3 homes now, thinking they’d ge great ‘somewhere/sometime’. Livingroom has been my studio, complete, with of course, excuses when people visit for the first time. Now, is my time too. Within a month we are moving. Our wish list – a studio (not shared with another room) and for hubby, yes, a good & large garage. We found it.. The house itself is 80’s, but thats okay, the studio and garage couldnt be a better fit. Today is a to be a good packing up studio stuff, and after your read, I know I will be decluttering more effectively. I cannot think ‘bigger space’ (although it is), so keep, keep, keep. but rather, leave the space, dont fill it.. if I hadn’t needed it (whatever it may be) in 30 years of painting, most likely, I do not need ‘it’.
THANKS, Melissa. xk
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Haha! What is it about those Ikea lights??? I so hear you on the wish list, too — for years my studio was my living room, and I coveted a studio I could close the door on! I’m grateful every day to have that, and am so pleased to be bringing it closer to the studio of my dreams.
And yes, “leave space, don’t fill it.” That’s a huge challenge, but my goal, too!