A post on housework? Isn’t that scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel? Well that’s certainly what housework feels like, isn’t it, but let’s see how we get on. There’s no doubt that housework can get in the way of creativity for at least two important reasons. Firstly, housework always needs doing, day after day after day, ad nauseam. No matter what your individual standards of cleanliness may be, it’s always there, dirt renewing itself with almost supernatural speed to master you, because you will never master it. And into the bargain, it’s a negative payoff too, in that no one notices when you do it but everyone notices when you don’t. You may try to glean a little satisfaction for your efforts by surveying the clean carpet, shiny kitchen surfaces, oh how nice they look, but it will probably be fleeting as you notice more and more that needs doing, now you’re really in the zone – of looking. Looking at the skirting boards that need repainting, or noticing the grubby windows, or casting your eyes upwards and seeing the drapery of spiders webs in the corners of the room, and then there’s the finger dirt around the handles of your doors, and you may even drag out of your subconscious, kicking and screaming as it comes into the seering light of day, the fact that you really should clean behind your cooker, that dark place where you never look. Cue the film theme music for Jaws! If you brave behind the cooker, what nasties will you find there? You may easily feel like the lovely late Joan Rivers:
‘I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.’
For most people doing housework feels grungy and unrewarding, always there, joylessly waiting for you, cold and unappealing with a mood attached which feels something like this:
rather than a picture of glowing enjoyment of the supposedly happy housewife of the past, with everything spick and span, as neat as a new pin:
So unless you happen to find housework therapeutic, as admittedly it occasionally can be, there is no doubt that doing our chores cuts into our precious spare time, time when we could be creating with something to actually show for our efforts.
Here is a poem by Rose Milligan, entitled ‘Dust If You Must’, which illustrates the point of there being more to life than housework:
Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?
Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.
Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.
Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.
The second reason why housework gets in the way of creativity is a paradoxical and somewhat subversive one, known as resistance. If we do some housework it stops us from beginning a session of painting, crafting or writing, and that may be just what we subconsciously want it to do. We want to use the housework to stop us creating because we have some performance anxiety, what Steven Pressfield addresses in his book, The War of Art, which I’ve talked about in a previous post. Resistance is a tension and aversion that can develop within us at the prospect of sitting down and getting on with our creative work. It’s there because our work is very important to us, we want to get it right, give it our all, we want to be in the right frame of mind for it and sitting down to do just this can be intimidating. We’re a bit like an actor getting nervous with stage fright behind the scenes just before we tread the boards to play our part, word perfect. And in this moment, doing the dishes can suddenly seem like a preferable option and the rising curtain can wait. Pressfield argues we must battle on, and do the work regardless of how we feel. We must win the war. Personally, I believe that resistance can also occur through being daunted at the prospect of opening up the sheer excitement of writing, or the relaxing rewards of painting and the visual delights that can ensue. It can be a case of not being quite ready to enter that ‘exalted’ world where time slows and becomes irrelevant. Don’t we have to prepare ourselves for that?
But to turn devil’s advocate here, I am going to argue that housework can have some benefits for the creative life, and that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Some of these reasons are more serious than others, but let’s see what comes out:
1. Sitting down to work at a tidied and dusted writing desk or in clean studio can be conducive for a fresh start. And if you’ve done some basic housework first, like doing the dishes, or hanging out the washing (my pet hate, which I must admit my hubbie usually does) then in a symbolic way, knowing that you’ve ‘got your house in order’ can mean you have a respectfully clean, uncluttered ‘place of being’ from which to suitably enter your higher fictive world or your dreamy painting zone.
2.There are many that claim housework has health benefits. Yes, right, I know. But if you’re interested here are a couple of articles:
These benefits focus on relaxation through mindfulness as well as housework functioning as a physical work out. Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to be in the moment, smelling the lemon-scented disinfectant and enjoying the wet shine as you sweep your cloth over the kitchen floor. (Although I would defy anyone to be happily mindful while cleaning behind a cooker). And yes, you can work up a sweat vacuuming the whole house. And there just may be some transferable skills that relate to creativity, like seeing the whole picture then focusing in on the details, but I’m getting an image of barrel scraping here…
3. But lets look at what artists may be able to get out of housework:
Feast you eyes on colour, the colour of your crockery, the colour relationships of your soft furnishings, the pastels, primaries, complementaries, or the pattern of the bubbles in the washing liquid froth.
Look out of the kitchen window as you work at the sink and enjoy the changing textures of the seasons. If you find a spiders web, marvel at the structure. If you find some mould, examine the pattern, what does it remind you of, before you wipe it away? If it reminds you of a landscape texture, how would you recreate it in paint? And while you’re slaving away cleaning, you can be planning out your next painting in your mind.
You can enjoy examining your collected artefact, ornaments, whatever you want to call them. As you dust them, as you pick them up and clean underneath, you can re-appreciate what you see in them – maybe they might give you ideas for a still life? I’m doing one at the moment of two little Turkish bowls that I bought in Dalyan. And looking at the towels and collected pebbles in my bathroom, I have an idea jotted down for another still life sometime, using the colours I juxtaposed in my mind. And if all else fails, you can always test yourself on colour mixing, flex those particular muscles. I did this the other day, when I noticed some dust on a tissue in my hand was Paynes Grey with a hint of violet – and yes, that’s purple tinted dust!
4.And what about writers, well I can find more benefits here:
Think character, plot and conflict.
Maybe you could create a character who has obsessive compulsive disorder and spends all their time cleaning… in an effort to eliminate all dirt in their environment. Just think of all the wonderful details you can come up with, as well as the horror of it, because housework never ends. That tiny speck of grease on the cupboard door they can’t just leave alone having seen it, no matter how hard they try. Or they’ve just cleaned their house to their own satisfaction, at least for now, but then a friend calls round – they thought they’d call in while walking the dog, and the dog defiles the kitchen floor with its muddy paws and God knows what else it’s picked up. How they react with such intense anxiety. How they live in crippling fear of germs and bugs, how they may sleep at night knowing they might have some microscopic dust mites crawling around beneath them, which they enlarge in a Kafkaesque manner in their mind’s eye. How much their housework cleaning obsessions must bind them, hold them hostage, and how they inevitably become more and more self-isolating.
Maybe the character is a hoarder, and you can explore why, how did they come to this? What do they hoard and why? Maybe they don’t do any housework because of something that happened in their childhood? And the filth piles up around them. Housework is something most of us to learn to accept, why haven’t they?
Think about a character finding something key to the plot while doing some housework. Maybe they’re cleaning a dead relative’s house for it to be put onto the market and find a box under the bed, a box of secrets, long held onto. Or cleaning their own house, they find something incriminating that their partner has stashed away. Or an old letter flutters out of a book being moved on a bookshelf. Or doing an extra thorough spring clean, they find some formerly unknown information on the back of a framed picture – it might change their whole life…or they find a poisonous chemical they know they didn’t buy, secreted at the back of the kitchen cupboard when they are being extra attentive and doing a proper sort out. Why is it there?
And what about the conflict between partners who share the same living place– you can write so much about the conflict that housework duties engender, that bubble and bubble away, until one day the pot of boiling water spills over. It doesn’t sound much, bickering over housework, but there is so much underlying it – issues of equality, fairness, justice, appreciation and of course, housework grievances can be used to project deeper personal conflicts. A criticism of ‘You don’t lift a finger around here’, can become, two hours later, after crying and shouting come to no avail, a declaration of ‘I’m leaving you!’ Or a little dispute over who is going to do the washing up can lead to a knife attack. So housework can come in handy to build on underlying tensions in a relationship in an innocuous, but highly feasible way, due to it being so much part of our lives.
As for more independent inner conflict, a character might be still doing housework the way their mother or father always taught them, even though they hate it and even though that domineering parent is dead and gone. So why can’t they let go of this resented influence? What’s holding them back from change? From freedom?
Housework, being part of life, can be used in these ways. But failing all this, you can always nip out for a coffee with a friend or go grocery shopping instead! Just make sure sure you do some art or writing when you get back…
Any thoughts on this most welcome!
(Pics from pixabay)