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From Phyllida's Desk

Writing Dirty

In a recent post, I talked about the problems of trying to write while earning a living at the same time. The issue comes down to the ability to write—that is, write well, produce good prose, the best you can—and work at a full-time job.

But the ugly secret nobody talks about is as old as the change from nomadic hunter-gatherers to villagers: housework.

I haven’t done any serious housework in years. Why? Apart from the obvious reasons—it’s horrible and I hate it—the main reason is that I wrote my two published novels during those years. I was working part time and I was writing. Really writing. And while I have read about women writers of a certain generation, Joyce Carol Oates for example, who would take a break when the writing got hard and do some vacuuming, that is about as appealing to me as wearing scratched contact lenses.

These days, I don’t know anybody who can afford not to who does her own housework. In my mother’s generation, perhaps because they were still enjoying the liberation from coal stoves and washboards, there seemed to an acceptance of housework among middle-class women that has completely vanished. Of course, the concept of the “housewife” whose job is housework has also vanished.

I’ve never had a housekeeper, partly because I couldn’t afford one. I was spending my money on other, even more essential items: rent, food, clothing and psychotherapy. I know a woman who stopped seeing her shrink and employed a housekeeper instead, saying she’d rather have a clean house than be sane, but I have only recently reached that point. And now that I’m perhaps sane enough to stop the psychotherapy, the house is way too dirty to expect an innocent woman anticipating some light dusting and vacuuming to risk her own sanity and health by tackling this monumental accumulation of dust and detritus. Plus, my savings on shrinkage have evaporated in an orgy of conference registrations, out-of-town performances and travel.

For me, while clean is, in the abstract, preferable to dirty, there are other factors in the equation. When my mother was slowly dying in the last years of her life, I had people come in to help for a few hours on weekdays. As most of us know, Medicare only pays for skilled nursing, and most elderly people in their deteriorating final years simply need someone to help them shower and dress, to be with them constantly, to take them for walks and to prepare their meals. Could I have done this? Actually, no. Not all of it, all the time. My “discretionary” income went to the helpers, and it was money well spent.

But some of those people, kind as they were, did some long-term household damage, what I think of as anti-housework. The large woman who broke my one intact dining chair by trying to shift it along the carpeted floor while sitting in it. The woman who microwaved cheese—uncovered—and burned some deep holes in the door seal. The woman who tried to close the front door over the doormat and permanently changed the angle of the hinges, making it impossible to lock the top lock from the outside.

Having people come to your home on a regular basis causes problems as well as solving them. It’s a wonderful sense of freedom to feel self-sufficient. And for people like me, it’s scary what suffices. Quentin Crisp is famous for saying about not dusting, “After seven years, it doesn’t get any worse.” Well, I’m in my ninth year, and I’ll agree with Crisp: it’s hard to tell.

The only reason I’m thinking about it now is that I’ve signed up for Verizon FiOS and realized, belatedly, that, OMG, they’re going to run wires in my apartment! If ever an apartment was meant to be wireless, mine is it, but everything I’ve read implies that FiOS is the best option these days, especially for the essential, the computer broadband service, and that most delectable and addictive of luxuries, television. Now I’m contemplating how to move the dusty bookcase holding 200 dusty books and the daybed heaped with the clothing that doesn’t fit into my overstuffed dresser and the papers that don’t fit into my overstuffed filing cabinet that I can’t weed because the shredder keeps jamming…

And all the books and papers on the worktable by my computer, the dictionaries and anthologies, the biographies and histories, the saved newspaper and magazine articles that I used when writing Phyllida and Pride/Prejudice and might refer to in blog posts or my upcoming conference presentation in June. I still need this stuff. I do! And it has nowhere else to live because my bookshelves are full to overflowing, with books laid horizontal on top of the shelved vertical ones, and more books stacked on every free surface.

Please don’t lecture me about throwing out. Books are like children: even after they’ve grown up and moved away; even if you never see them or hear from them, you don’t disown them, strike them out of your will and tell them they can’t ever come home again. They haven’t done anything wrong; they’ve just gotten on with their lives. But books once read and loved are flesh of your flesh and always will be.

When Jane Austen lived with her sister, Cassandra, and their widowed mother in Chawton cottage, Cassandra did Jane’s share of the housework. She recognized the fact of her beloved younger sister’s genius, and that she had no such talent herself, and gladly accepted the extra burden of tasks that would have used up Austen’s free time and energy. There was a cook, and a close family friend, Martha Lloyd, who increasingly took on the duties of housekeeper, but the Austen women had regular chores to do, every day. They were never rich, and after the father died, poorer still. In Chawton cottage, a godsend for Jane after the years of unsettled renting and staying with relatives in Bath, there were all the demands of life before indoor plumbing and running water, electric appliances and packaged foods.

We think of Austen as a “lady of leisure,” limited only by pre-Victorian ideas of what was suitable for a woman to do. She did not have a full-time job, or any “job” as we think of it, yet she still needed relief from this most irksome and tiring of daily obligations. Austen, like me, had limited resources of energy. And she knew what was important. She couldn’t have foreseen her early death at 41, but she had the urgency of all creative people, the inner knowledge that the essential thing is to create, that everything else is just “buttoning and unbuttoning,” as a suicidal eighteenth-century gentleman expressed it.

There’s still “discussion” among scholars about why Austen didn’t write from the time of the family’s move to Bath in 1801 until the settling into Chawton in 1809, but the reason is clear to any writer: a lack of routine, or any regular time and space to call her own. Claire Tomalin writes in her biography that as soon as Austen moved to Chawton, “It was as though she were restored to herself, to her imagination, to all her powers; a black cloud had lifted.”

Writers like Austen and me do our best work—the only acceptable kind—as our first job of the day. Whether we rise at 7 AM or noon, whether our workday begins at 8 in the morning or “first thing in the afternoon,” as mine does, we must devote our fresh, rested minds and bodies to our writing. Dusting, vacuuming, laundry, and all the other stooping and bending jobs are exhausting and draining, deadening to the body and soul. If we’re going to do them—a big if—they come at the end of our workday, and are allotted only the dregs of whatever spirit or spark remains in us.

When I die, and I hope it’s a long way in the future, I’m delighted that my accomplishments will include Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander and Pride/Prejudice, and perhaps one of the dirtiest apartments in Brooklyn. If nobody ever said on his deathbed “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” that goes double for housework.

Yet wouldn’t it be nice to have both the writing and cleanliness? Well, yes, and wouldn’t it be nice to be thin and also eat as much bacon, ice cream, salami, potato chips and popcorn as I want? Most of us have to choose one or the other. I made my choice long ago, and I have no regrets—although I have gained a few pounds.
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