In order to write, one must kill the angel of the house, claimed the great Virginia Woolf. This angel “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily.” Woolf’s main point in her essay “Professions for Women” is that a woman, as a writer, cannot be sweet on the page if her gut tells her otherwise. She has to be honest.
While this advice remains essential for today’s women writers, what I took from Woolf’s essay, when I read it years ago, was the idea that killing the angel of the house gave me the license to write instead of emptying the dishwasher or changing the sheets on the bed. Killing the angel became synonymous with not cleaning when I’ve set aside time to write. Cleaning is a distraction that leads only to more cleaning (there is always more!), while writing leads to more writing, and even—possibly, miraculously—to a finished manuscript.
And then, last week when I walked into my writing studio, I found a mysterious puddle of liquid in the middle of the room. I discovered a leak in the closet where I store all the trappings of Christmas–the wrapping and tissue paper and gift bags. Not only did I have to fix the leak, but, before I could write, I had to revive the angel. I had to clean. I mopped up the water and emptied the closet of the gift bags I had stuffed with more gift bags, the bags I had stuffed with wads of tissue paper. The bags folded on the floor were soaked and had to go. Out of the closet, gift bags filled the room.
I had just watched a documentary about a bipolar hoarder who murdered five of her boyfriends. I didn’t want to be a hoarder. I wanted to purge. I wanted my studio to be clean and orderly so my writing felt free to wander, to go wherever it liked. (And so I wouldn’t lose my mind and find myself, somehow, in the throws of a murderous rampage.) The hill of bags had to be addressed. I refused to be a bag lady before my time.
The dangerous thing about bags, I realized, is how easily one can stuff them. You cram things inside them and it seems you’ve done something with your stuff, but all you’ve done is put in a bag. Or two. Or three. They proliferate like dust bunnies, like the little packets of chili flakes that come with pizzas.
My house is filled with bags of books and notebooks, bags of shoes, bags of lotions and gym clothes and vitamins. No sooner have I managed to empty the contents of one bag than another fills. Maybe it’s the way I live, always going from here to there. From the house to the coffee shop to the bookstore or the yoga studio, moving, always moving. But I digress.
My writing studio was a mess of bags. I called up my grown daughter to talk with her while I cleaned. “You have to fold the bags,” she said. “Fold the tissue paper. It won’t take up any space that way, or hardly any.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. She is often right about such things.
“But not right now,” she added. “You don’t sound like you’re in the right space for it. Go to a cafe and get some food. You can write there.”
I did as she suggested. And now, a few days later, I am writing at a coffee shop. I still haven’t tidied my studio. Instead I put my laptop and journal in one of my handy tote bags and left the house. Maybe bags aren’t so bad.
Then again, it might be time to switch to boxes.
But that decision is, I suppose, best left to the angel of the house.