When I think of topics for this blog, I type them onto a green digital sticky note on my desktop. (Spoiler alert: Look for blogs on Perry Mason, portals, terra preta, copperhead snakes climbing trees, and the (puzzling) topic loosely known as “I’m going to make everything all right.” Whatever that means.) This topic was listed as “the middle class artist.” It’s been knocking around a long time, and around 10 p.m. I started thinking it was about time I drafted it.
Of course I didn’t sit right down to write. I never sit right down to anything. I drift toward it, approach it obliquely. If I were to watch myself coming at my subject, I imagine I’d look a lot like a friendly beagle an old boyfriend used to have that got hit by a car as a puppy. Both Dawson’s gait and face (the dog’s, not the boyfriend’s) were always a little off. You were never sure that Dawson was coming to you when you called because his head seemed to be headed to something just off to your left. But in the end, he’d be right there in front of you, looking goofy, but full of beagle good will.
(See, I’ve just spent two paragraphs not writing what I said I’m writing about. I’ve broken the first rule I give my writing students: Your whole story is in the first line. Nail it!)
This is what I did after I decided to write this, but before I sat down:
–Read an online news story about a woman who beat up another woman with a (ahem) sex toy out loud to my husband.
–Played two blues songs and five Chopin pieces on the piano. With repeats. (They were Chopin mazurkas, though. I’m not very advanced.)
–Organized my brand new box of colored pencils into ROYGBIV order because they came all mixed up.
–Put away a couple of (super-early, on-sale) Christmas gifts I bought at the bookstore.
–Tidied the living room, including dusting the coffee table and arranging the remotes.
–Checked sheets in the dryer. Restarted.
–Checked cat litter level in the cat box. Swept up scattered litter.
–Filled cats’ bowls.
–Mopped up the leaking dishwasher water.
–Set my phone to charge.
–Removed sheets. Put towels in dryer.
–Discovered door to garage was open. Worried about mice/snakes that might have gotten in.
–Read some blog posts.
–Let a cat jump up on my shoulders. She’s really too big. I made her get down. It was like wearing a fur Humvee on my neck.
–Threw away some spent flowers. Washed the vase.
–Thoroughly scrubbed the tart pan that held a quiche I baked on Saturday (because dog clean is NOT the same as clean, clean no matter what the dogs say).
–Wiped down the kitchen counters and island. Put out a clean dishtowel.
–Ate 2 squares of dark chocolate.
–Took Biotin, Cal/Mag, Vitamin B and daily fiber therapy (I know–you’ll just have to get over that. DFT changed my life.)
–Refilled the napkin stand with paper napkins from the pantry. Also got a new roll of paper towels.
–Took a napkin and squished one of the inch-long worm/caterpillar thingeys that get inside this time of year.
–Folded my hang-dry laundry.
–Ate 1/2 cup of cantaloupe.
I sat down to finally start writing at 12:05 a.m. Exhausted.
Now, there are a couple of things going on here. Well, many things going on.
I’d really like to dump all the blame into the comfy lap of a book I read 24 years ago: What To Expect When You’re Expecting (probably the 2nd or 3rd edition–now I bet it’s in its 850th). When I was pregnant with our first child, I read the cover off that book, and all the others on pregnancy and child-rearing that I could get my hands on. There weren’t nearly as many as there are now, thank goodness, or I’d be truly confused. (The Internet had only recently escaped Al Gore’s head back in 1991, and I wasn’t even on CompuServe–though I think my husband was.) Here’s one of the things that I remember from the book: It advised the new mom to tidy up and get ready for the next day before going to bed, while the baby’s asleep. Something about being ready so you’re not overwhelmed. Now it’s possible I’m misremembering this (this happens to me all the time!), but I definitely picked it up from somewhere and it stuck.
So every night I still try to reset my life back to zero. No dirty dishes in the sink or socks on the floor. Laundry at least corralled to the laundry room. Kitchen wiped down. Toys put away (back in the day–now it’s cat toys). Living room set to rights. Sounds reasonable, yes? You would think it’s not a big deal to do, and, as far as actual time spent in action, it’s not so much. And if I have done all my writing during daylight hours, it would be a quick half hour, and I’d be in bed before midnight.
But…That’s a big IF. It’s an if that has little to do with housecleaning/childrearing advice. Then again, maybe it does–just a little bit.
Every day, I’m torn. That’s where the whole the middle class artist part comes in, with a big, heaping helping of resistance on the side.
Years ago, as I was finishing my first to-be-published novel (the first two I wrote are buried in unmarked graves), I was bemoaning the housework/writing balance thing to my husband (he’s working at least three jobs at any given time AND is a very helpful guy at home). He asked me if, when I die, I want to be remembered for keeping a tidy house, or as a good, skilled writer.
I proclaimed that, of course, I wanted people to remember me as a writer!
But…There’s that but, again.
A tiny voice inside me said, “I’ll be remembered as both, dammit.” I couldn’t say that out loud, though, because a part of me suspected that it might not be possible. That was almost twelve years ago, and I’ve been struggling with it ever since.
I never knew artists, writers, or musicians when I was young. I didn’t know what it meant to have a true passion for creating something out of nothing. That was for other people. It certainly wasn’t forbidden to me by my family–it was simply unfamiliar. It felt out of the realm of possibility to me. I had no idea that–in my twenties–I would discover that I wanted to spend my life doing something that demanded solitude, concentration, play, diligence and practice, practice, practice. I couldn’t imagine that I would have to make rejection my friend. While I was familiar with the idea of persistence (I had stubbornness in spades.), I couldn’t see the long arc of an actual career as an artist. (Or craftsperson, if you see writers that way, as I do.)
Is it that keeping a home and raising a family is antithetical to being an artist? I don’t think so. As a Cancer (yes, that astrology stuff), I’m deeply rooted in my home surroundings, my family, my animals, my mementos. And food. My pantry is always full of something. My home and family are my sources of strength. They give me superpowers. But they’re also demanding. There are few jobs that demand the constant creativity, daily reinvention, sense of humor, flexibility, and, Lord help this woman, organizational skills, that making a home and raising a family demands.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes I end up serving both with equal energy. Sometimes I find myself playing them against each other. Sometimes I neglect one. When I’m feeling really overwhelmed, I neglect both. Those are bad times all around.
It’s not just about having a clean kitchen. It’s about honoring two worthy pursuits. There’s nothing more important than the people we hold dear. There’s nothing more important than doing the creative work that we’ve been given to do. It’s an impossible conundrum.
I could argue that all the time I spent tidying before I sat down to write this was just time spent organizing my thoughts. Though reading online stories and checking Facebook was obviously just procrastination. I suspect that it was all mostly resistance–resistance to committing words to paper. Resistance to stepping out of the comfort zone of my kitchen and writing down things that you might disagree with. Resistance is a powerful thing.
What if I have taken all the wonderful things about creating a home, and made them an idol–an idol dedicated to my resistance?
That’s a terrifying thought. It’s possible that my family would have survived and might have even thrived in more chaos than I was willing to allow into the house. What if I was actually supposed to have written 24 novels by now, instead of five? I guess that’s the part where resistance gets me to play each against the other. “What is it you really value? It can’t be the work. That wouldn’t be right. That would be selfish. Egotistical. You don’t want to be that way do you? What would people think?”
Yes, resistance is real, and it’s made up of insecurity and ignorance and, weirdly, ego. It’s a cruel master, and I know I feed it way too often.
What we do with our lives should never be about what other people think. When I die, will people think I was a good writer? A more compelling question to me is, “When I die, will I feel like I was still learning every day? Did I love well? Did I live with passion?” I want the answer to be yes.