Thursday, November 20, 2008

Work with Boundaries

I thought about Linnea's remark on the neat-o, peachy things about writing after raking three bags' worth of leaves Monday. I don't normally rake the yard or hire somebody to do so, although I'll accept the work if anyone wants to volunteer. (Our oldest son sometimes does when he drops by, oddly; maybe he thinks his aging parents are decrepit and need the help.) Raking seems to me a waste of time and energy. Leaves biodegrade and fertilize the lawn, and while they're on the ground, I think they look prettier than dried-up fall and winter grass. Also, raking is one of those jobs that have no limits. There are always more leaves. So I imposed an arbitrary limit of three bags, mainly to remove the leaves from the driveway, because they get slippery after rain.

I was reminded of a housecleaning advice book I had years ago, called NOBODY SAID YOU HAD TO EAT OFF THE FLOOR, blurbed as the psychiatrist's wife's guide to housekeeping. I used to read lots of guidebooks about housekeeping in search of the magic formula that would enable me to keep the place clean with no work. Likewise, I find it hard to resist buying yet another instruction manual for writers, in hope that one of them will contain the secret of writing a bestseller with minimal effort. Anyway, one of the first principles this author propounded about cleaning the house was, "You will never get it all done, because it is infinite." After 42 years of marriage, I've learned to put that principle into practice along the same lines as my approach to raking the leaves. I've decided which elements of housecleaning are really important to me and how many hours a week I'm willing to spend on those activities. (Not many.)

One thing I like about my day job as a legislative editor is that the work is not infinite (although sometimes it looks that way during the January crunch of the General Assembly session). Eventually a bill gets printed and either advances to the next stage in its life cycle or gets killed. The work has a limit. Similarly, that's one of the things I like most about the craft of writing. The work has boundaries. It is not infinite. More leaves will fall. The dog tracks up the kitchen floor several times a day. The bathroom gets dirty every week. A book, though, reaches a point where I can declare it finished. It gets printed (or formatted into an e-book) and offered to readers. To show for my effort, I have a concrete object I have created. While the creation of order, even on a domestic scale, is a wonderful thing, the product is inevitably ephemeral. The order produced by means of the words in a book lasts somewhat longer. In my case, it may not be the Great American Novel (which my father once asked me when I was going to write), but it's a visible and tangible accomplishment. Within the past week I finished—for the present—two short pieces of fiction and submitted them to editors, one of whom has already sent an encouragingly worded revision request. Now, that's a welcome ray of warmth in a cold season!


  1. margaret I'm like you, hate housework, and at the moment it seems I'm the only one in the house that sees when it's messy, everyone else have actually developed the art of walking around the mess rather than picking them up. It never ends.
    Congrats on the revision request.