The Writer’s Holiday Household

Because so many of us on the Holiday Writing Challenge are dealing with juggling our writing and multiple holiday events and jobs and families, I decided to run an older article today on “Household Have-To’s.” I think during the holidays it is especially appropriate.

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Families: what would we do without them? Writers want to keep up with their homes and families, yet also write, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough time. Maintaining our homes (even if we have no Martha Stewart aspirations) and keeping our families fed and clothed can consume so much time that the would-be writer finally throws up her hands and shelves her writing dreams for “later,” when there will be more time.

“Later” won’t come. Sad, but definitely true. There is only now, and without making some household changes, there won’t ever be time to write. As seasons come and go, your chores and responsibilities will change, but the time to write won’t magically materialize. You have to make it appear.

Planned Procrastination

Like many new writers, I didn’t think I could sit down at the keyboard unless the dishes and laundry were done, the carpet vacuumed, and the children happily entertained with Play-Doh. I had tried writing before polishing off these household chores, but the anxiety and guilt got the better of me. And, of course, since I felt guilty, I must be doing something wrong. Right? So I returned to my “work now, play later” philosophy, washing dishes during my prime creative time and writing late in the day when I had no energy left. Not until years later, when I realized writing was also work, did a paradigm shift occur. Then I finally put household chores in their place.

Elaine Fantle Shimberg, author of Write Where You Live, says, “If you can put household chores in their proper place–something that must be done eventually–you can make and stick to a writing schedule that works for you. Do what needs to be done as it needs to be done, then do it as efficiently and effectively as it needs to be done and nothing more.” (Unless your mother’s coming to visit.) She called it “planned procrastination.”

Does It Have To Be Done?

How do you decide what has to be done and what doesn’t? It’s a personal decision, but look critically at how you spend your time. Are you working around the house doing things no one ever notices (rearranging the photos, painting daisies on all your flower pots, alphabetizing books by author?) Then stop it. In most families, spouses and children notice when there’s no food to eat, no clean clothes to wear, and you’re out of shampoo. Pretty much everything else is optional.

So decide what is critical to you, then stop doing everything else. Personally, I need the house picked up before I can work, but dishes in the sink can wait. You may be the opposite. Experiment. Try leaving certain jobs undone while you write–or undone altogether–and see what really bothers you and what doesn’t. Perhaps you were raised to mop the kitchen floor every Saturday, so you’ve done it for years. You may discover once a month suits you fine, with mini wipe-ups between times. Remember the purpose of the experiment: time saved is time you can spend writing. 

Organize!

If you organize your household have-to’s, you’ll find more time to write. Do you run errands several times per week and wander around stores trying to remember what you need? Then combine your trips into one morning, make lists before you leave home, map out an efficient route, and easily save yourself several hours per week. If you have a choice, run those errands in off-peak times. Save at least an hour each week by not visiting banks, Laundromats, pharmacies, post offices and grocery stores in the evenings, on weekends, or just before closing time.

Consider boxing up or throwing away all your clutter gathering dust. Clear off desks, kitchen counter tops, bathroom counters and cabinets, coffee tables, and dressers. Cleared surfaces are faster to dust and make you feel in control of your home. File or trash the clipped recipes, old medicines, and past issues of anything. Put away appliances you rarely use, like the bread maker, juicer, blender, and toaster oven. Make space to work. Then appropriate that saved time to write.

Supper Time!

Food shopping, preparation and cleanup are NOT one of the household have-to’s you’ll be allowed to skip. So streamline and enlist help. Put a grocery list on the refrigerator and insist that everyone add his requests to the list in writing. (No more of this “Hey, Mom! We’re out of…”) If it’s not on the list, you don’t buy it. Train family members to add items to the list when they use the last of it. As soon as your kids have drivers’ licenses, make grocery shopping (with the list) one of their chores. (It pays off! My oldest daughter met her future husband this way. He was her carryout boy for a year before he actually carried her off.)

Streamline your cooking too. If your children are too small to help, then fix double or triple portions when you cook, and freeze a meal or two. Why spend two one-hour periods cooking two meals of meatballs, when you can cook that amount in one hour, freeze a meal, and use that saved hour for writing? If your children are ten or older, they can take turns cooking and cleaning up afterwards. My children, from ten on, were assigned one night per week to cook and do dishes. (That way the sloppy cooks had to clean up their own messes afterwards.) There are great kids’ cookbooks, and my children enjoyed trying new things. If they wanted to cook something special, they added those items to the grocery list.

We All Live Here

Anyone who lives under your roof should be helping with chores. Even the youngest child can pick up toys. Elementary children can make and change their beds, take out garbage, do dishes, vacuum, and fold laundry. Older children and teens can grocery shop, scoop snow, wash cars, and mow the lawn as well. Rotate the chores as much as possible. No one enjoys cleaning bathrooms, so make everyone take a turn. “Many hands make light work,” my grandma always said. And she was right.

After you decide which chores really need doing, schedule those tasks according to your inner clock. Don’t waste your most alert hours sweeping floors and washing dishes. If you’re mentally sharp in the mornings, write first. If you’re brain dead upon awakening, clean toilets then–and write late at night when your muse comes out of hiding. I have found, after writing a couple hours, that washing dishes or sorting laundry makes a good break–and is unfun enough to prod me back quickly to the keyboard!

You own your house. Don’t let it–and its tasks–own you. Take a hard look at your current household have-to’s, and see where you can cut or streamline. Make the changes. Then spend that “found” time writing instead.

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