Joan Rivers and Twyla Tharp, Organized Artists

I saw the hilarious and disturbing  Joan Rivers documentary this weekend. One of my favorite parts was seeing Joan's low-tech joke library. Take a look:

Joan is onto something.  Though artists have a reputation for being messy and spontaneous, many have organized workspaces because their art demands it.

Organization is in part about being prepared for the moment when insight strikes.  It's about creating the conditions for creativity to flourish, so that when you enter into creation mode, your physical world is set up to support you. Being organized also creates the mental order that many people need to be able to put aside mundane things and enter a creative head-space.

An organized workspace, for artists an non-artists alike, needn't mean office-standard manilla file folders and labelmakers.  In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp describes the  unconventional system she uses to support her creativity*:

Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me...

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet... Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box….

As different as their systems (and their art forms) are, Joan and Twyla's methods are fundamentally similar.  When they are ready to create, neither the comedian nor the choreographer wants to spend time searching for things -- they want to be able to quickly access what they need and get down to creating what they want to create.  Both feel grounded knowing that their creative works-in-progress have a safe home outside of their heads.  That's one sign of a working system - it makes you feel better.

No matter what form it takes, a good organizational system supports you to do your best work by allowing you to put your brain power where you want and need it to be. For some people that system will be a cardboard box of ideas, and for others a card catalog of naughty jokes.

Do you have an unconventional organizational system?  If you're an artist, how do you organize your workspace?

*With thanks to Merlin Mann for introducing me to this passage.