Part of the process of moving is opening drawers and lifting lids you may not have touched for years. Other activities may be preparing household plants and opening closet doors.
Although we have lived in this home for only six years and had moved from a large house into this much smaller apartment—which meant serious weeding out—the acquisition of books and artwork, furniture and clothing, memorabilia and notebooks, statements and documents has continued unabated.
Along with the required careful search through possessions, there is real satisfaction in the process of cleaning. When I was a young girl, one of the weekend chores was cleaning my room and helping my mother with the basic household duties of sweeping, scrubbing and dusting from the living room to the attic.
As a child, I did these chores with reluctance but, since my weekly allowance was partially based on completion of my household duties, I accomplished the tasks and postponed my weekend activities until Saturday afternoon. As a mother and homemaker, my job was care and feeding, tidying and cleaning, washing and ironing—I soon taught my children (and husband) the joy of ironing their own clothes.
Despite the aura of being dutifully house-proud, I have always found the effort of deep cleaning—as in “cotton-bud spotless”—nearly as rewarding as writing a well-crafted sentence or completing a novel. That feeling of a job well-done, good enough to pass the toughest inspection, accomplishment on the most fundamental level—whether the job was a sparkling porcelain sink or refreshed and repotted plants on a thoroughly scrubbed balcony.
Spring cleaning is also a satisfying displacement activity when the perfect sentence that will bring a story to its natural and hard-to-forget ending eludes every effort made. At least, the dust kittens are banished to the dust bin and the silver tea service gleams like new.
The similarities between deep cleaning and final editing are evident. If only we could approach our own writing with the same diligence and vigor that engages our enthusiasm for sparkling countertops! The difference, of course, is our personal investment in the object of our attention.
One of my writing mentors, Daniel J. Langton, an American poet of Irish descent, extolled the virtue of “killing your darlings.” We all write descriptions, sentences, whole chapters and books we believe to be stunning, perceptive, cunning. In the process of creation, we lose sight of our principle objective: to communicate a story we want others to hear. Dan Langton encouraged his students to write simply, with authenticity.
Another of my mentors, George Price, asked this of his students: “Why use a fancy multi-syllabic word, when an Anglo-Saxon word will do?”
I keep both of these suggestions in mind when I am making those troublesome final changes and cuts, as well as my own: “If this doesn’t advance the story, cut it out.” There is a fine line between clean prose and bare, just as there is a line between sparkling and rubbed raw.