In the terrific documentary about his work, The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, the collage artist points out that he doesn’t want his file boxes of source material organized too much, that he specifically avoids organizing them, so that he can find unexpected things when he starts searching. “He depends upon that chaos of stuff, of things lying around.”
“Keep your folders messy,” Steven Johnson says in Where Good Ideas Come From. This is also the secret to what he calls his “spark file,” the document he keeps on his computer to generate ideas:
The key is to capture as many hunches as possible, and to spend as little time as possible organizing or filtering or prioritizing them. (Keeping a single, chronological file is central to the process, because it forces you to scroll through the whole list each time you want to add something new.) Just get it all down as it comes to you, and make regular visits back to re-acquaint yourself with all your past explorations. You’ll be shocked how many useful hunches you’ve forgotten.
Film editor Walter Murch, in his brilliant book, In The Blink of an Eye, writes about how different kinds of editing machines affect his process of piecing together movies out of hundreds of hours of film. The most convenient and efficient machines — the “random-access” machines that can pull up any individual scene with a few keystrokes — are not necessarily the ones that are the most helpful to him.
“The machine gives me only what I ask for,” he writes, “and I don’t always want to go where I say I want to go.”
Like Letscher with his collages, Murch wants the material to guide his work, to tell him what to do next. Linear editing systems, in which he had to load a whole 10-minute reel of film in order to find what he was looking for, gave him many more moments of serendipity:
[I]n the mechanical, linear search for what I wanted, I would find instead what I needed—something different, better, more quirky, more accidental, more “true” than my first impression. I could recognize it when I saw it, but I couldn’t have articulated it in advance.
There are several paragraphs in Murch’s book about the importance of fighting against the touted “features” of digital tools, such as speed. “The real issue with speed,” he says, “Is not just how fast can you go, but where are you going so fast? It doesn’t help to arrive quickly if you wind up in the wrong place.”
Here’s writer Irving Welsh, on why he doesn’t organize his record collection:
“I don’t organize my CDs and vinyl by genre or alphabet anymore…. Having it all haphazard means I can never find what I want, but the benefit is that I always find something else, which is cool. I believe that art is as much about diversion as focus and planning.”
In her Autobiography, Agatha Christie talks about the importance of messiness when re-visiting her chaotic notebooks:
[I]f I had kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labelled, it would save me a lot of trouble. However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old note-books to find something scribbled down, as: Possible plot—do it yourself—girl and not really sister—August— with a kind of sketch of a plot. What it’s all about I can’t remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else.
The theme, again, is that speed, efficiency, and convenience (a.k.a. the opposite of “trouble”) is often at odds with creative serendipity.
This is exactly why I still keep paper notebooks and make time in my writing process to dive back into them time and time again: because I often don’t know what I’m looking for, and even if I do, what I actually find is more often than not better than what I set out to find. If I was simply able to execute a full-text search on my notebooks, and pull up exactly what I was looking for, that’s all I’d find: exactly what I was looking for. And the real art is in finding what I didn’t know I was looking for.