On the Excavation of My Desk
David Ulin Digs Through Stacks of Memories, Literal and Figurative
There is a photograph, taken in 2017, of my desk as it looked until recently: monitor, laptop, stacks of papers, various derelict technologies, magazines, books. It resembles a forest—or better yet a city, loose towers arrayed around a small square of open space. This was during the time I was spending a semester in Las Vegas, where I had a different, and much cleaner, desk in the small apartment I rented not far from the campus of UNLV.
I took the photo by way of comparison, so I would remember what I’d left behind. I wasn’t using either desk very much: the one at home because it was too cluttered, the one in Nevada because I had a small breakfast table in the front room where I preferred to write. I could set up my computer and spread out notes and papers on the rounded surface, everything (or so I thought) accessible to me. It was then that I first began to imagine what it might be like to clean my office, to remove those ancient piles and discard the detritus, to get rid of the Kindle and the Sony Reader, to deconstruct and excavate the evidence.
Like many writers, I am a packrat, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am lazy, or that I don’t like to throw anything away. I’ve long bought into the notion that messy people are smarter or more creative, self-serving, yes, but also validated by a University of Minnesota study that found being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. The reason, I’d suggest, is serendipity, for mess requires a certain openness, a willingness to give over to improvisation, to respond to what is there rather than what has been predetermined, to learn more than to know. Do I need to say this echoes the process of writing? It is what I’m doing at this very instant, typing sentences, tearing them out, working my way to expression, to thoughts and language I could not say I had until I (yes) discovered them.
The excavation, when it happened, started as an accident. Saturday before Thanksgiving, stymied on a deadline, looking for a reason to walk away. I could feel the constriction, not just the desk but also the books stacked in the corners of my office so that merely getting situated in my chair felt like climbing into the cockpit of a plane. Sometimes, I embraced that image, as if I were a pilot navigating a sky of language; it allowed the illusion of control. Others—as when my wife joked, You better hope you’re not in there when the earthquake hits—I would imagine myself as a contemporary Collyer brother, buried under tons of accumulated drift. The Collyers died in 1947 within days of one another; they were such legendary hoarders that firefighters now use the phrase Collyers’ Mansion for a dwelling like the brothers’ Harlem brownstone, so dense with debris it must be excavated in the most literal sense.
For them, collecting was (or became) a mania, but I can’t help thinking we share common roots. All the stuff on my desk, I had kept it for a reason; it was inertia that prevented me from throwing it away. Something similar, I choose to believe, must have been true of them. Did they ever look around and wonder: What have we gotten into? I’d like to suppose they did. Certainly, I’m familiar with that feeling, and never more than after I began to dismantle the first stack: newspapers in which my writing had appeared, scratch pads partially (or never) filled, bank statements and financial documents.Much of what I uncovered carried an association, often one I’d overlooked. That manuscript by my friend? It was as if it had never existed.
I retrieved a box of garbage bags from the kitchen and began to fill them. I went to the Big Box store and purchased storage bins. I found a manuscript a friend had asked me to read so long ago the book had since been published and gone out of print. I took down another stack, and then another. Now that I was underway, I felt crushed by the weight, piles collapsing into more piles, crumbling not like forests or cities but little mountains, residue settling as if it were alluvial fall. What have we gotten into? An accident indeed.
I tossed out everything, or almost everything. Dried up pens, hundreds of business cards, many from presses or publications no longer extant. Old interview notes and lesson plans. My laser printer, 15 years old and unused for at least a decade. It had filled a corner of the desk as if it were a monument, stack of file folders (tax returns, primarily) teetering on top. Now, that space was rendered clear as a memory erased. And yet, the more I dug, the more I found myself encountering something unexpected: an excavation less of forgetting than remembering. Much of what I uncovered carried an association, often one I’d overlooked. That manuscript by my friend? It was as if it had never existed. Then I came across it and it made me think of him. So too, a number of other artifacts—letters, bills, essay ideas scrawled across bits of paper. Each one told a story, or a piece of story. Each one brought me back.
I like to fool myself that memory is impermeable, that we hold onto what’s important, that it marks or moves us in some way. If that’s true, though (and I think it is), so too is the inverse: that like the elements of a messy workspace, we lose sight of what we most wish to remember until we stumble upon them again. This, I’d say, is why I save so much, although who knows, really, whether that’s the case?
For decades, I’ve kept pocket notebooks, not journals but more freeform, in which I jot appointments, directions, contact info, sentences, observations, fragments, thoughts. Many of these, too, sat in loose stacks beside my computer, microcosms of the larger desk. Fourteen years, it had been fourteen years since we’d moved in; nothing here had ever been reorganized. What this means is that I kept uncovering ghosts, reminders of who and how I used to be. Financial aid applications and elementary school reports for my children, both in their twenties now and out of the house. Insurance statements from a family health crisis. A letter I once wrote to the owners of a house my wife and I had sought—unsuccessfully—to buy.
What was that I was saying about remembering? The further I progressed, the more complicated it became. For everything I let go, that had at one point seemed important, other pieces stuck to me. My grandparents’ passports, keepsakes long since buried (just as they were), now recovered and restored to life. A sheaf of notes on yellow legal paper, outlining a book I had forgotten ever dreaming: an unanticipated gift. To encounter those pages was like listening to a cascade of echoes; the title was the same that I’d been using for another piece of writing I was working on. They felt like a message from someone I couldn’t quite remember, the touch of serendipity again. Resonance, the flow of process, writing as an act of mapping, an ongoing excavation of the interior.
I set the notes aside to read more closely once the cleaning was complete. And then it was: six days, five storage bins, eight bags of trash. Books relocated from the corners, desk clear, or clearer, or more organized. I created folders and arranged them on the uncluttered surface; I could tell you what was in each. The feeling was like the exhalation of a long-held breath.
As for my faith in mess and creativity, vision as an expression of disarray, release from conventionality, well … what I discovered is that there’s not much difference between excavation and writing. Or at least I want to imagine that’s the case. Everything on that desk, I found by chance; it did not emerge out of a plan. I simply began and let myself follow where the process took me, from disarray to form. This is what we do when we are working, moving from chaos to a kind of knowing—or if not knowing, then engagement, reckoning. Disorder may provoke creativity, but the miracle of art is that it leads to order, even (or especially) if we recognize that this is fleeting and will disappear. Art, William S. Burroughs once told me, makes people aware of what they know but don’t know they know. Art and excavation, too. It is the gesture that’s essential. It is in the seeking that we find reprieve.