I write in chaos. On my desk today there’s a tennis ball in a pile of foreign currency, a taxidermy bat, toy soldiers, free toothpaste samples, a Buddha found on a Los Angeles street corner, five mugs and some butterflies. Although I tell myself that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because he didn't clean a petri dish, obviously the mould in those coffee cups isn’t going to finish my novel.
But minimalism makes me shiver. My fingers itch at Instagrammed photographs of ‘Marie Kondo’ inspired desks or bedrooms, and I worry about the bin bags of memories that must have been discarded in pursuit of empty space. Who needs a music collection gathering dust when there’s Spotify? Books when there’s Kindle? Photo albums when there’s Facebook? I do, I do. Please. I want to keep hold of my memories, spin them in my sweaty fists when I feel lonely. “The world forgetting, by the world forgot,” as Alexander Pope put it. “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”
I hoard for the same reason that I write: to store memories, consolidate my identity, and tell stories. Even when decamping to a café for some writing I will bring a seashell and a ballerina, or a soldier and seaglass, to ground me. In Moments of Being, Virginia Wolf wonders if it is possible that “things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence?” She describes her past as physical: “I see it – the past – as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions”. While our memories don’t always come to us on demand – names hover tantalisingly out of reach just as we’re trying to make introductions, past failures or traumas rear up at the least convenient moments – objects, at least, are a way of prompting and controlling our recollections.
Perhaps this is all a pompous way of justifying a pile of dusty toys on my desk. Perhaps in ten years time I’ll nearly suffocate under unread magazines and become the star of one of those daytime reality TV shows about people living in unsanitary conditions. For the moment though I’d rather argue that my desk is an avenue lying behind, a ribbon of prompts to the odd, disconnected scenes and emotions. The mess isn’t chaos at all, but a way of keeping hold of the past and rousing the future (except the coffee cups and that wine glass, which I’m going to put in the dishwasher right now – they’re actually a bit disgusting).
Guardian Fiction: Book of the Day
From the author of the Orange Prize long-listed, The Pink Hotel
Cathy is a young woman who escapes her feral childhood in a rundown chalet on the East coast of England to become a curator of natural history in Berlin. Although seemingly liberated from her destructive past, she commemorates her most significant memories and love affairs – one savage, one innocent, one full of potential – in a collection of objects that form a bizarre museum of her life. When an old lover turns up at a masked party at Berlin’s natural history museum and events take a terrifying turn, Cathy must confront their shared secrets in order to protect her future. This is an exquisitely crafted, rare and original work.