I owe much of my writing career to Saturday mornings that began with frosted flakes cereal and cartoons. My father was a stickler for Saturday morning chores. Chores done promptly after breakfast and thoroughly each and every week. Friends would ring the doorbell or, in my teenage years, call to ask if I was ready to go shopping in downtown Boston. “Not done with my chores yet,” meant they had to wait just a little bit longer.
When the rest of my family grumbled about chores and cleaning, I said very little, preferring the look and feel of swept floors and the smell of Old English furniture polish. This weekly routine continued long after my brother and sister had each left for college and I was the last child left. I believe it was the simple act of Saturday morning chores that lent itself to an appreciation of routine.
In college, my roommate laughed as I insisted on cleaning every Saturday morning. Newly married, I toted laundry up and down the steps of our fourth floor walk-up apartment each and every Saturday. After the kids were born, my attempts at creating the same routines in my own household had a shaky foundation. By the time the kids were old enough to help out with cleaning, Saturday morning practices, meets and part time jobs caused disruptions so I switched to Friday. But as the kids got older nearly no one came home after school, preferring to visit friends or head into town for pizza or there were piles of homework that needed to be completed. I dug in. All Chores Must Be Completed by Sunday In Order To Receive Allowance, I proclaimed. In return, I got shoddy, rushed work, masked with bleach or pushed under beds. Complaints that we were the only family in New York State without a housekeeper did little to dissuade me, but it still felt like a losing battle.
And so, one morning last week, with music blasting from pandora, as I mopped the kichen floor, wiped down kitchen cabinets, stacked newspapers in recycling and ran the vacuum, I realized my youngest was still sound asleep in bed while I did the chores. The sounds of my cleaning did little to rouse her. From what I could tell, it elicited little guilt. It was Saturday after all, her day to sleep in. I picked up the broom. Ive failed her, I thought. Failed all of my kids. And not just about helping them grasp the value of maintaining your household, but about the importance of routine. I had failed to demonstrate how daily habits can ultimately help in creating order in our domestic, professional and academic lives.
What some might call neuroses (or one friend even calls OCD), I call routine: Whole wheat pancakes every Sunday morning, a Dvr’ed episode of House Hunters with cookies and tea every Tuesday at 9:00, Friday night date night with James, and then, of course, my Saturday morning grocery shopping and chores. I hate when these weekly routines are disrupted. I take great comfort in their predictability.
As a freelancer, the importance of routine is particularly crucial. In my first few years of writing, my plan of action was to write after I had gotten the kids dressed and fed, washed some breakfast dishes, and put in a load of laundry. But, by the time I completed those tasks, it was time to start on lunch, put clothes in the dryer and get dinner organized. If I added errands or a doctors appointment to the list, I lost the entire day. I believed I could only concentrate on my writing after I made sure everyone else was okay. It’s a trap into which many women writers fall.
Many years ago, a writer friend gave me the book, A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood by Judith Pierce Rosenberg. I read it from cover to cover and then observed and asked questions of other freelancers to figure if what worked for them could actually work for me. In my observations, I made particular note of my husband.
A freelancer since college, he is incredibly productive. Up each morning at 6:00 a.m., he makes his way to the studio, spends some time on correspondence, some time on his students and the rest of the day at his easel. He somehow manages to illustrate and teach with little disruption to his schedule. He doesn’t cook dinner or do laundry however. Doesn’t know the names of the kids’ teachers or college roommates, rarely gets together with friends, and often forgets my birthday (and his), but in terms of output, he is a master. Not exactly the type of balance I was seeking, but his discipline impressed me.
After many failed attempts, I finally made the leap. I established a routine for my writing. My work would begin in the morning, preferably after exercise and breakfast, when I was at my peak mentally. I would save all of the mind numbing work for the times when I could switch to auto pilot. I would not go out to play until I had completed my writing chore.
Not suprisingly, my productivity increased. Now, instead of one book a year, I’ve managed to complete two, and sometimes three. I am not sure my father could have ever imagined that the unglamorous, monotony of weekly chores that added polish and sparkle to our home, now adds the same to my writing.