Illustration by Steven Salerno
A Writer's Way Around Housework
Alumna finds absolutely nothing uplifting about ordinary housework, unless she can toss it off with a bit of creativity.
by S.L. Wisenberg
Most writers I know are very good at procrastinating. The luckiest ones get out their frustrations through housework. After a wasted day of not writing, they can at least take pride in their shiny kitchens and sparkling bathrooms.
Unfortunately I am not thus inclined. When Ive finished a full days dance of avoidance with the computer screen, all I have to show are a bunch of crumbs on the kitchen counter, dining room table, desk and the paths in between. And maybe a slew of newspapers and books in disarray.
Maybe I shouldnt be so hard on myself. After all, I have successfully avoided becoming the wraith Virginia Woolf referred to as the "Angel of the House," a woman who makes sure all is neat, clean and proper in her domestic domain but does not develop herself as a person, especially an artist.
I was raised in some ways like a boy when it came to indoor chores (I had no outdoor ones). School was important, college and a career were important, cooking was a hobby and someone else always changed the sheets, made the bed, vacuumed the floors.
Yet the lowliest chores sweeping, washing dishes, cleaning the toilet are the very tasks in which the most evolved among us find the deepest meaning. Im always reading about some big important monk who swept the floor every day or a disciple seeking the meaning of life and being handed a dishrag. Its easy to find transcendence in redwoods and sunsets; the trick is finding it in stacking the laundry and giving it your full concentration.
I appreciate these holy-person-and-dishes stories, but I still have trouble with the mundane, the tedium of a diet and daily sit-ups, the regularity of bill-paying and, yes, making the bed.
However, I enjoy the more glamorous household tasks cooking without recipes, decorating for parties, arranging my ceramic mugs and bowls for display, making small shrines where I can leave my personal stamp.
At one time in the 80s, I actually enjoyed making the bed, but my way. We were in our 20s, and my boyfriend would get up before I did. His bed was a simple affair mattress on the floor, no top sheet, a blanket. I would pull the blanket up and smooth it out and then commence to decorate place an issue of the New Yorker somewhere in the middle, add a few carefully arranged seashells, a few pennies, whatever he had around that inspired me. This activity appealed to my intellect the centerpieces were always aesthetically placed and always contained a hidden meaning or joke. Something only I could do.
I am not proud of this weakness of the ego. If I were a better person, I would have made the bed in a competent but anonymous manner and been done with it. Once, in the 90s, my sheets were in such a shambles that I messed them up even more and put an egg beater on top of them. Maybe not bad as conceptual art, but it didnt answer the question: What about the bed?
I like riddles that end conceptually, impossibly. I ended one short story with: "What would you do if you were inside a brick house with scissors and a piece of paper? Answer: Cut the paper in half. Two halves make a whole. Crawl out of the hole. That is art." But that is not useful advice. At some point you must live like other people. Somebodys got to turn that squalor into a clean, well-lighted place, and youre the only one home. Ive heard that Flaubert advised writers to live like a bourgeois so they could save their wildness for their art. (I think he had live-in help.)
Oddly enough, I like the mundane chores that come with the writing life: buying stamps and office supplies, filing, revising, editing and revising again. It helps if I save some of the revising for my neighborhood nonsmoking café, where I like to sit at the middle table next to the wall, facing the window.
There I dont even mind busing the dishes myself. And I dont mind performing that one never-ending chore that most everyone loathes paying bills as long as Im sitting at my table with a single decaf skim cappuccino and conversations to overhear and friends to greet now and then. I think I could even grow to like housework if I could do it in the café.
Sandi Wisenberg (J79) of Chicago is the author of Holocaust Girls: History, Memory and Other Obsessions (University of Nebraska Press, 2002). She is a visiting scholar in gender studies at Northwestern University.