“Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.” After reading this opening sentence, a younger, punk-er me would’ve put Spark Joy by Marie Kondo (aka KonMari) firmly down and gotten on with her life. The current, slightly older me accepted that the line is a good opener for a book on decluttering. The slightly older me is also better at the “buffet” approach to information. I hate mango, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at red velvet cupcakes just because they happen to sit next to the mango on the buffet table.
Besides, I knew what I was in for when I picked up Spark Joy, having read its predecessor, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up during one of my recurring minimalism phases. Sometimes, in the middle of a life dominated by deadlines, it really is soothing to sit down with a coffee and read about proper sock folding techniques. (This is not a joke. Pages 98-99.)
I like to think that I have a halfway decent handle on house organization: I know what I own, I can locate most things within a minute or two, and I know the critical masses of both chaos and order that tip my stress threshold. Still, KonMari’s book did inspire me to a couple of organization sprees, which were useful in a household still reeling from a cross-country move.
Then, as I was contemplating this blog, my mind went back to a poem by Charles Bukowski called Air and Light and Time and Space (once excellently illustrated by Zen Pencils). The poem is a dialogue between Bukowski’s narrator and an unnamed party, who recently sold a house, bought a studio and is excited about finally having “a place and the time to create.”
Boy, does Bukowski let them have it.
He says that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with it,” and if one’s going to create, they’re going to create “in a small room with 3 children while you’re on
welfare,” “with a cat crawling up your back while the whole city trembles in earthquake,” “blind, crippled, demented,” or “with part of your mind and your body blown away.”
A younger, punk-er me was a big fan of this poem, and entirely on the narrator’s side. The current, slightly older me has experienced enough burnout to know things aren’t always this straightforward.
(As an aside, “Things Aren’t Always This Straightforward” is one of the most frequent, most frustrating lessons of combined age and mileage.)
It’s great to have this romantic image of creativity as an unstoppable wave destroying every obstacle in its path, unquenchable fire burning you from within, intractable force compelling you to make art no matter your circumstances. To be fair, sometimes, it’s exactly like that. I have a couple of poems, blogs, even short stories written in the heat of the moment. The first and last pages of my novels tend to be written around 3 am, my head abuzz with story and sleep long gone. There are pages in my longhand manuscripts that are barely legible because of how fast I was writing, or with imprints of the sentences visible just as well on the following page because of how hard I was pressing down on the pen.
That was creation that would’ve happened in the middle of a crumbling city, and that did happen in the middle of deadlines, sleep deprivation and hand cramps. Those were the moments of fire.
“Moments” being the keyword. That fire doesn’t last – not for me, anyway. It’s a good thing too, because I don’t think I could survive it, not for the hundreds of hours it takes to write a novel. Plus, there are other important things in my life that wouldn’t survive that fire. Family is one of them. Basic financial stability is another. I tried being a starving artist once. It didn’t work. Because starving is a terrible condition for making art.
This brings me back to Marie Kondo, and her statement that life truly begins once you have put your house in order. To briefly elaborate on what she means: it’s not about having a pristine house, or cleaning all the time, or having as few things as possible, or optimizing your housework routines. KonMari’s idea of a house in order is a house that “sparks joy.” What kind of house you need to run, what things (and how many of them) you need to have in order to achieve that – that’s up to you. In most things, she’s delightfully non-prescriptive. Yes, I’m aware that I’m calling non-prescriptive a person who has illustrated instructions on how to fold socks… but at no point in her writing did she make me want to shout “you don’t know my life” and fling the book across the room. What she did make me want to do was take a look at spaces I live and work in, and make small changes that make me happier to live and work in those spaces.
I don’t know if there are artists and writers out there whose creative ability does not depend on any external circumstances, absence of limbs and presence of cats on their backs. I also don’t know if life does begin when your house is in order.
Some things I do know to be true for myself, though:
- On the days when I feel the fire in my veins, I couldn’t give two flying ducks if my house has collapsed around me while I write…
- …but on the days when I need to rely on the Butt In Chair method, it’s easier when I don’t need to push a pile of laundry off the chair first.
- On the days when it’s hard to focus, it’s best if there’s nothing spare on my desk that could distract me…
- …but also, when my entire view for the day is my windowsill, I appreciate that it’s decorated with a couple of things I love.
- Finally, stepping away from my work to clean or put things away is a time-honored procrastination method…
- …but when I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the art that needs creating and promises that need keeping, visual chaos can be that last straw that renders me incapable of doing anything useful at all.
Does this make me a hack? A wimp? The kind of person Charles Bukowski’s narrator would spend a few more pages slapping around?
Maybe yes. Maybe no. But why should it even matter? I’m not worried about being a hack or a wimp, or failing to live up to someone else’s standard. The two things I aspire to be in this life are:
- a decent person
- an authentic creator
And I fail to see how creating a comfortable living and work space for myself invalidates me on either of these counts.
That’s not to say that I don’t have the inner voice of my younger, punk-er self, who mourns the times when things were much more straightforward, and universal life advice could be summed up in snappy quotes. Well, I’ve got a quote for her too.
P.S. And seriously, can we all just agree to lay off that poor sod in the poem, the one who is really excited to have a studio? They probably paid a lot of money for it. Let them enjoy themselves, goddamnit.