This morning, my friend Susan Petrone posted this on Facebook:
Financial advisers always say to “pay yourself first,” i.e., put something into your savings first and then pay your bills. I’m off one day a week and it’s supposed to be my writing day but it’s turned into doing chores and laundry and grocery shopping etc. etc. day and if there’s any time left before the kid gets home from school, write a few sentences of the next book. I need to start paying myself first. Gonna go write for a couple hours. The laundry and other chores can wait. See you later.
I learned that lesson in 1992 and I remember the night it happened. Don and I were hunting around for something to watch on TV and stumbled across a one-woman performance on PBS. We came in toward the end of the monologue and had no idea who was being played. All we knew was the woman was a writer and she was talking about Shakespeare’s sister.
This was back before Wikipedia and IMDB answered every question within 20 seconds. I now know that the monologue was based on the writing of Virginia Woolf. The part about Shakespeare’s sister came from A Room of Her Own. Here, compliments of Wikipedia, is a summary of what changed our lives.
In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, “Shakespeare’s sister,” to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school.” Woolf’s prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother’s hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith’s chances of fulfilling her promise with “but.” While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.
Okay, I was not only sent to school, I remained there until I was massively educated. I married very young but I also married very well. Don has not only encouraged my every ambition, he has backed it financially and emotionally. He is a prince among men. My entire adult life would have been different — and less — without his support and enthusiasm and confidence in my ability to do whatever I set my hand to.
Now back in 1992, I started talking about an idea for a short story but hadn’t written a word. Why not? My son had just started first grade, so he was at school until three. I was unemployed (big recession at the end of George H. W. Bush’s administration) but we had always lived frugally on Don’s salary and he’d been telling me to take a year and see what I could do with the story.
So what was holding me back? My own choices about the way I spent my time.
(I will not dignify my habits with a clinical term like OCD, but I do like a routine and I need my surroundings to be not just neat but clean. My father’s mother, for whom I am named, died long before I was born; Mary Doria bequeathed me nothing but her Italian housewife’s dictum, “Soap is cheap. There’s no excuse for dirt.” Dad told me that his mother would wash the windows, the walls and the floors every week and that was the standard I failed to reach for decades. I was 45 before I realized that my grandmother lived in a three-room apartment on the south side of Chicago, whereas I had a seven-room house in the suburbs of Cleveland, so she had a whole lot less to keep clean. But I digress.)
After listening to Virginia Woolf’s words, my husband and I decided it was time for me to take my short story idea seriously. Whenever I was tempted to fritter my time away on things that could wait, one of us would murmur, “Shakespeare’s sister.”
I learned to ignore the siren call of a messy closet yearning to be organized. There was a severe drought in 1992 and I allowed major elements of landscaping to die of neglect. I never left dishes in the sink, but I learned to tolerate the presence of clean ones in the dishwasher and would not take time to put them away until I was making dinner. I found out that wet clothes left in the washing machine don’t start to smell until about three days have passed. Judith Shakespeare would whisper in my ear, “Just rewash them when the chapter is done.” And I bought all of us more underwear.
Back in graduate school, I learned that I have just four good hours a day when I can concentrate on demanding mental tasks. While writing what became The Sparrow, I learned to guard those hours like a Doberman — no PTA projects, no appointments, no distractions. My cerebral cortex was squeezed dry at the end of those four intense hours, but that left plenty of time for relatively mindless chores.
Although I never got outside to water those dying shrubs… They were ugly anyway and a pain in the ass to mow around. We just cut them down.
I recognize that I am lucky and privileged. In many ways, I’ve led a charmed life. I know that the demands of work and family can militate against dreams and ambitions and the life of the mind. I understand that poor health and a poor economy can knock a person down over and over. But if you want to write — if you need to write — consider taking Susan Petrone’s advice.
Pay yourself first. Let the chores wait.