Writer’s Craft #59 – Women with Clean Houses Don’t Write Epic Novels

Justine Graykin, author
Justine Graykin

Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com

I once heard a famous director advise a group of aspiring filmmakers, “If you’re a man, get married. It will help to stabilize your life, and give you the support system you need to focus on your career. If you’re a woman, don’t get married. Because then you’ll be expected to keep house and provide support for your husband and his career.”

A blanket, sexist generalization, to be sure, but one which has an uncomfortable ring of authenticity to it. Writing is a full-time occupation if you want it to be more than merely an entertaining hobby. As such, it demands a great deal of time and focus. Long hours of research and revision, social networking and promotion, which doesn’t leave a lot for the other demands of life.

In any given household, somebody has to earn the bread and keep house. If there are kids and/or animals involved, labor increases by a factor of two with every added dependent. Laundry, meals, errands, dusting, cleaning the (*gak*) bathroom; it all has to be done. And in a hetero household, guess who usually does the honors? Including, nowadays, at least a few slices of the bread-earning, too. So, when does one write?

If you’re a member of the 1%, no problem. The bread is cake, and as for the rest, that’s what servants are for. (And if you’re the 1%, you don’t need to worry about getting published or promoted, either; chances are you already own everything you need.) But if you’re the rest of us, you have to figure out priorities. What comes first?

Bread. Got to pay the rent/mortgage. So you either have a job, or you’ve married somebody who does. If you’ve eschewed kids and/or pets, you’re ahead of the game. If not, there’s only so much you can shrug off without risking serious jerkdom. Then there’s all the rest, the laundry, meals, etc. Let’s presume the family is willing to take up some of the slack there. Nice idea. But the reality is that kids and working spouses generate more than they can keep up with, which is why wives/mothers were invented.

Thus we come to the solution that I and countless other writers (and assorted victims of art obsession) favor: To Hell With It. Cobwebs festooning the corners? Dust pumas under the bed? Floors that crunch underfoot? So what? The laundry goes from body to hamper to washer to clothes basket to body again without being sidetracked into closet or drawer. No problem. Why scrub down the stove and the counters? They’ll only get dirty again. Okay, we stop short of being shut down by the Board of Public Health. But who gives a rat’s backside if the linens match? And making the bed? Please. Life is too short.

And I have novels to write.

25 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #59 – Women with Clean Houses Don’t Write Epic Novels

  1. hehehe… i don’t have kids but I do have 4 parrots, and I challenge any child to keep up with them (parrots poop on average every 20 minutes)

    I’m not the cleanest person, but I can’t write unless everything is in order. I vacuum every day (a must with parrots), and give the kitchen a wipe down. If I don’t, I get too distracted by all these things.

    My main character does likewise; folds his underwear and puts it in the drawer each week.

  2. Ever try writing with a messy, wailing baby on the floor? Hell, you change his damn diaper and give him that pizza crust from last night to chew on. Gets rid of the pizza crust and he’s happy as a clam. What?

  3. Have you been spying on my house? (Glancing around…the avalanches of papers and journals that used to be stacks…the stacks of books (still mostly stacks)…the kitchen counters and kitchen table–solid clutter of useful things and…er…mail… and that description of clothing care sounds eerily familiar.) The Kid is now 28 and seems to have survived WriterMother quite well. The books…continue to emerge before they yank the advance back for late delivery.

  4. This makes me feel so much better about the state of my house! I have two school age kids, and when they are at school, I write. I don’t tidy or cook or hang washings or do anything domestic. When the house is empty I am at work. So no housework gets done. Then when they get home, being a mum is much more important (and more fun) than being a housewife! So, yes, if it’s a choice between tidying that floor and tidying that paragraph, the words win every time. (The other solution of course is – earn enough from your epic novels to pay a cleaner…)

    1. It was a dirty secret that had to be gotten out to air. We all feel like our houses ought to be like the ones we see on the media as “normal”, or that we need to be held up to standards set down by friends and acquaintances who entertain. Truth is, you aren’t alone with your dust pumas, spider jungle-gyms and the dishes in the sink. Throw out the guilt! A spotless home lasts about a minute and a half. An epic novel can endure eternally. Which do you think deserves your attention more?

  5. You have no idea how much better this post has made me feel. No husband or kids, but 2 dogs, and oy The Hair–if it reaches critical mass, the spark of Life may spontaneously, well, spark, and I’ll have even more pets to deal with.

    I do put laundered u-wear in its drawer. But I don’t fold it.

  6. I’m not a published novelist, I’m not married, I have no children, and the only pet is a single cat, and I still follow this principle.

    I never understood why anyone makes their bed, except maybe if you have guests coming over and you’ll be giving them a tour. Who’s going to see your bed? Anyone you’re close enough to get into it with should be happy the sheets are reasonably clean and leave it at that.

    1. Chances are neither of you are paying much attention to the state of the sheets, presumably having other things on your mind. And even if they were clean before, they won’t be afterwards.

      A dear friend of mine, at one state in his bachelorhood, didn’t bother with sheets at all. He had this cozy nest of pillows and blankets that he slept in, and would periodically take it apart to launder and air out. He is now that most rare bird, a successful musician. He prioritized practice over domestic arts, and it paid off.

  7. To quote the novelist and essayist Rose Macauley [1] , After the first six months, the dust doesn’t get any worse.

    It also helps not to have been socialized to a proper feminine horror of spiders.

    I’ve only made it to 5.5 months myself, before I realized I could no longer breathe through my nose and had to break down and buy a vacuum cleaner. Alas, I have lost the tolerance for the truly magnificent clutter of my teens and twenties.

    [1] This comes from long ago memory, so the attribution may be completely wrong. The sentiment, however, is eternal.

  8. You know, everyone is having fun with this post, but home duties really do cut into the writing time especially if you have kids. Kids need time and it is not just the cooking and cleaning. What I realize is that a bit of stoicism is essential to it all. Some things just have to be done and there’s no getting around it. I love my writing but I love my kids as well so I have to find a balance. And at least in my household there is none of that women have to do the work nonsense. As a matter of fact, because my wife and I both work day jobs full time – she during the day and me in the evening – most of the cooking, shopping, and laundry falls upon me. When I have to do these things I just have to take it as my destiny and use the time to ponder how to construct the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, book. It’s all a part of the great grand show we call life. I have five sons. What can I say? I have no choice but to be committed. I am no less devoted to my writing than anyone else on the planet, but somewhere along the way I realized that living life was a part of being a writer, and that I had to try to do what essential duties came along in my life with as much zest as I give to my prose. Not always easy, I assure you.

    1. Bless you John for weighing in on this! My husband worked nights until our oldest was five, playing “househusband” like you. It’s more common than people realize, especially among writers. That’s why I added the caveat at the beginning of the piece, acknowledging that it was a crass blanket generalization.

      But more to the point, making the kind of choices and sacrifices you’ve made, embracing all areas of life including keeping house and raising your boys, might cut into your writing, but in the long term it will make you a broader person and a better writer. As much as we joked in the comments about the wailing baby on the floor, you’ll note that the point of my essay was about neglecting the house, not the kids.

      Like you, I know I am “writing” even when I don’t have pen to page or fingers to keyboard. One can (and does) compose sentences, wrestle with plots, explore characters and weave ideas while engaged in household chores. Inspiration can come any time, even while folding and putting away the underwear (ahem).

      In order to write well about life, one must first live. Good luck to you and your family!

    2. We’re all deathly serious; it’s part of what Virginia Woolf called “Killing the Angel in the House”—that malignant silencer lodged in the writer’s psyche that says we cannot write unless we’ve tended to everyone else’s needs first. Something no longer restricted to women, if ever it was.

  9. And the warning message to would-be spouses … be prepared to clean house if you marry a writer, folks. 🙂

  10. I have been working on the first novel I intend to publish for less than a year. I have gotten inspiration while shopping and cleanning the house. And yes, I fold my underwear. But since my constant writing began, the floor has grown dusty and clothes go from my body to the wash and to the back of a chair so I can throw them on. My clothes are now always wrinkled. But writing comes first.

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