Screw Tidying Up: Real Joy Comes From Embracing Your Mess

Writer and humorist Jennifer McCartney talks about letting your inner slob spark joy and calls BS on the KonMari movement with her new book The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t all Over the Place

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The Joy of Leaving Your Shit All Over the Place

Author Jennifer McCartney. (Photo: Greg Naeseth)

Unless you’ve been living under a pile of stuff, you’ve heard of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and her KonMari method of organizing your life. In a v. simplified nutshell, it involves communicating with your things to see if they “spark joy” in your body and saying lates to the things that don’t. Spoiler alert: you end up throwing out a lot of your shit. Jennifer McCartney is the anti-Marie Kondo. She thinks it’s chic to leave your home in its naturally messy state, argues that worrying about clutter is a giant waste of time and urges people to stop throwing out all their worldly possessions in flurries of decluttering. In short: she’s our kind of gal.

While her book The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place ($19.50, Countryman Press) is a hilarious, F-bomb laden satire, she has a point: letting yourself be messy if you want to be is liberating and can open you up to a way more authentic life than exhausting yourself trying to make your apartment 24/7 Instagram-ready. We chatted with the Hamilton, Ont. native and New York Times bestselling author about how she’d never part with her sprawling book collection, why socks don’t have feelings and whether you’re an Einstein or a Mussolini.

The book is a satire but do you really ascribe to the “leave your shit everywhere” philosophy?
Yes, I definitely do, but it took me a while to get here because I think, like everyone else, I was convinced by Instagram and magazines and the KonMari method that you should be neat, and that neatness was the attainable goal. I bought The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I threw out all my stuff and I was like, “This is great, I’m going to be a clean person” and then very quickly I realized that it’s all nonsense and you shouldn’t talk to your things and your socks don’t have feelings.

How did you go from that realization to writing your book?
I was talking to some of my friends about it who all loved the [Marie Kondo] book and then we realized it works for like a week. We were joking that we’d all been brainwashed into thinking that being tidy is an attainable goal and that there should be a book about how being messy is actually the key. So it’s just about embracing your mess.

What do you think about the guilt that can be associated with not having a Pinterest-worthy home?
The book is geared towards women and I think especially as women, there’s always been this expectation that you keep a good home and that everything is very organized and that if somebody stops by unexpectedly, your house is beautiful and clean. And now it’s gone beyond that to where even when people aren’t around, you’re supposed to be Instagramming your coffee table and your mantle and the pie you just baked, so there’s this expectation now that it’s this 24/7 beautiful world that we all have to pretend that we live in and really it takes a hell of a lot of work and nobody really has time for that. Given the choice, you’d be watching YouTube videos of baby goats and not, like, polishing your candle sticks.

You wrote on Lonny.com that if you visit a person and their house is messy, they’re showing you they feel comfortable and don’t need to put on airs. Do you think that embracing our messiness instead of trying to hide it makes our interactions more authentic?
I do think being able to be around people when they’re messy is a treat and they’re definitely honouring you and it means they trust you. It also gives you more of a window into their lives. It makes me think about when you go to the Air BnB website and there are all of these really austere, technically clean and minimalist places but they just look so depressing. Whereas you can find houses that are these incredible treasures packed with people’s stuff and they have character and there are oil paintings and textiles—those are the places you want to stay in, and not that they’re messy necessarily, but they’re cluttered. I think that person, even in a rental listing, is being authentic because that’s their real house where they live.

Is it important to be accepting of yourself either way, whether you’re naturally a neatnik or a messy person?
Definitely. There are people that are [naturally] neat—I don’t understand it but good for them—but the book is about how society has come to view those people as the best people, and neat as the proper way to be. So the book is for the, I don’t know what percentage, but I’m going to say 95% of people who are actually a bit messy. It’s about saying that’s OK. There’s another way to be.

What do you think about the language often used in conversations around the KonMari method like “goddess” and “magical?” Does that imply that messy people are awful monsters?
I think that’s the way people are viewed but one of the things I talk about in my book is about how there are a number of very famous people that were very messy. Albert Einstein was a bit of a slob, his desk was packed and piled with papers. Whereas as someone like Mussolini—very neat and tidy, loved to file papers. Or the character of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, he was very neat and tidy. So the joke is: who do you want to be associated with?

The Joy of Leaving Your Shit All Over the Place
You mention science that supports the idea that messy people are more creative.
There’s a study investigating creativity that put one group of people in a really messy room and one group of people in a really neat and tidy room and the people in the messy room, for example, would consistently choose new menu items whereas the people in the clean room would choose classic menu items. Or if the messy people were given a project, they would come up with more creative solutions than the tidy people, so even just being in a messy room can make you more creative.

How do you know when you cross over from being just a regular messy consumer to a hoarder or an unclean person?
I think everyone’s got a messiness threshold. Some people are mildly cluttered, some people are full-on hoarders, so I think you have to find the balance that you’re comfortable with. The book says if something dies in your house, you should get rid of it. Or if a shampoo bottle is empty, you can get rid of that. Garbage is garbage but it’s when you start deciding the embroidered throw pillow that your grandmother made is clutter and should be thrown out, that’s the line you should recognize. It’s OK to keep stuff that has meaning for you!

What do you think of the KonMari way of holding items to your body to see if they spark joy and then parting with them if they don’t via a verbal goodbye?
I think it’s silly. If it works for you, that’s fine, but the people that find my book are usually people like me who tried it and then were like “what the fuck am I doing?” or people that naturally wouldn’t do that in the first place.

Is there something you tossed when you were trying to KonMari your life that you regret getting rid of?
I got rid of an old dress that had belonged to my mother that I wore for a dance in grade 12. At the time, it fit me. It doesn’t fit me now. But I kept it because it had these nice memories and I got rid of it because I was like “I’m never going to wear this again” and now I think that’s kind of sad. My mum kept it so that I could wear it and, who knows, maybe some day down the line I could have given it to somebody and they could have worn it and enjoyed it. I don’t really know what was going through my head when I decided that was clutter.

What’s something you have that Konverts would want you to give up?
All of my books. That’s the most insane part of that whole idea is that your books are clutter which, to any book person, is sacrilege! I keep all my books and I love them and I’ll reread them and I like looking at them so that’s definitely something that I don’t agree with.

Do you think that not worrying about de-cluttering and tidying up is liberating?
We’re on the planet for such a short amount of time, it seems like such a ridiculous and privileged thing to worry about. Like, “Wah, I bought too much stuff, boo-hoo.” That’s a nice position to be in so my view is: I’m going to enjoy my little, cluttered one-bedroom apartment and not complain about it and not spend hours of my life worrying about it either.

What do think about the consumerism piece?
I think buy whatever you want. If you’re at the store and there’s a sweater that you want but you already have sweaters, like who gives a fuck? Honestly, we’re all going to be dead soon. If this sweater will bring you a small amount of happiness, do it. There’s so much to feel guilty about, why do we do this to ourselves?

Are there any other activities pegged to this modern domestic goddess thing that you call bullshit on?
I think ironing your clothes is pointless. But that’s probably a minority opinion.

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