A Modest Enlightenment

“Stories about women’s enlightenment often feature damage to domestic equipment.”

I found this parenthetic remark by a modern Buddhist teacher in his commentary on the koan called A True Person of No Rank. The domestic equipment in question was a doughnut pan, whatever that is. Its newly enlightened owner rushed off to her Zen teacher to present her enlightenment, and later became a “famous teacher” herself.

I don’t know if writing is equivalent to enlightenment, but it seems to have the same effect on household efficiency. Most of the women writers I know, or whose blogs I read, complain about the pile-up of housework that occurs when they take large chunks of time to write. I notice that the more successful ones usually report ignoring the pile to do the writing. We amateurs use it as an excuse for why we didn’t write.

Both ways of dealing with dirty dishes exist, of course, but I think they miss the deeper relationship between scutwork of all kinds and writing. Scutwork is, by definition, menial and repetitive. Dish after dish into the dishwasher. Or in the office, memo after memo into the files. Sweep the floor again, just before they track more mud in.

In other words, it’s the maintenance of order. A lot of us are willing to admit doing trivial tasks to avoid facing the blank page in the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) But why are those tasks preferable? Because doing them, we accomplish what, at the moment, we can’t accomplish with our writing. Mostly it isn’t the blank page that scares us off. It’s the roily-boily mess on the dozens or hundreds of already-filled pages that were supposed to be a book but look like a dog’s lunch. Rather than plunge into that abyss and be lost forever, we put a load of wash through.

So, the washing machine is churning. What now? Like the psychiatrist dealing with a phobia, we may inch just a little closer to the neurotic fear. The desk is in a state of chaos. Chapter outlines have fluttered to the floor, and sticky notes encroach on the keyboard. The character list has become a bookmark on which coffee-mug rings make the Olympic symbol. We straighten up the desk. In doing so, we will have to read at least some of each slip of paper, to find out which pile it belongs in. The names of characters and places fill our minds with detailed images and inch us toward our fictional world.

The next step may be the most dangerous. A lot of that paper should not have been put in the piles or the files; it should have gone into the wastebasket. The abortive outlines and mad, scribbled notes on every possible plot twist or additional detail that might conceivably, someday, end up in the final draft need to be out of your sight, if not burned to ashes. You are where you are. By all means, reread a little of the last chapter to get a good run-up to the current one. Just don’t start over. Planning and outlining were all very well in their time. Re-planning and re-re-planning are avoidance.

Your washing (or your doughnut pan) have done the trick, no smashing required. At this point, you scroll down to the blank space below your last word – and write. Feel free to make some doughnuts later.

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About Heidi Wilson

I'm currently writing a mystery that takes place in New Hampshire and a novel about an artist who's working in Ireland and Hell. Former incarnations: stock market economist and professor of Greek. Go figure.

Posted on September 11, 2016, in Heidi Wilson, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I used to make donuts as gifts for my father. Fried in deep fat. (Couldn’t afford to buy him anything!) Back when I only dreamed of being the next Erma Bombeck. Now I face a dog’s lunch of an outline for a murder mystery. It was a long journey from there to here. And I’m not certain where “here” is. But I don’t remember ever smashing my donut pan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicolette p Strandskov

    First: I believe you can buy a doughnut pan at King Arthur Flour. It’s a way to make a sort of doughnut without deepfrying (basically a muffin pan that’s sort of like a Bundt pan.) Second, you reminded me of a song my daughter sang when she was in a feminist women’s chorus; the part I can remember was “She pounded her kitchen stove into bits!” Third, my grandmother made terrific doughnuts and also wrote and sold poetry and essays — but as far as housekeeping, she did what she had to and no more. Something’s always got to give! Thanks for linking to this from DorothyL, I enjoyed it. — Nikki in Maine

    Like

    • Oh, dear. King Arthur doughnut pans must produce something rather like lite beer. What is the point without the fat? I’ll bet your grandmother didn’t make them that way, especially if she was a writer. We’re rollicking folk, we are!

      Like

  3. Eleanor Ingbretson

    Do you live in my house? Are you a pretty butterfly on my wall? How do you know the weird machinations of my mind?
    Oh! You were writing about yourself. Well, that’s all right, then.
    I don’t get the doughnut pan. Must be something that needs tending.

    Liked by 1 person

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