My teaching year has finally ended–HOORAY!–and I took the first ten days or so to clear my head by clearing up around my house and repainting my living room. Even though this is a habit I developed in college, it’s still fascinating to me how productive physical labor can soothe the overtired mind. All the house cleaning and renovating is done for now–no, not really done by any means!–but the major projects have to wait their turn at the rate of one a year, in early May, until they’re all finished and the cycle begins again.
Writers are splendid avoiders when it comes to writing, and I’m no different in that. I have learned to accept my restless piddling in the mornings, but if I didn’t restrict myself to one big project to bridge my teaching year with my writing summer, I’d wind up spending the whole precious season working on the house instead of on a book. The lure is powerful, because when you paint or clear out stuffed closets or plant a row of knock-out roses along the fence, the impact of the work is immediately visible and, with only a little care, lasting. Not so with writing. A book’s whole life can’t be taken in with a glance or a few snapshots. No matter how many reviewers, if a writer is lucky, might describe the just-published book as “an instant bestseller,” that book took years to write, and so to the writer, the commercial success will feel like a splendid reward, but by no means an immediate one. And in the long view, none of us will live long enough to know if a book has truly lasting impact. Only four or five or six more generations can determine that.
This is another reason the immediately gratifying household project is so important. I’m nicely settled now into my home office, which I call my writing cave, thrilled to be back at my true work, but when I’m tired or edgy because the story has snagged a little, I can go sit in my living room and take pleasure in the results of my labor. After a while I start to feel really blessed to have it both ways–the immediate as well as the hope of the lasting.