It’s no secret that I once cleaned houses for a living. I held this job for 15 years, off and on. I kept quitting, and then, needing money, I pulled my rags and mops and gear out of the closet and started up again. I cleaned a lot of houses. Two story houses, fancy houses, houses with lots of glass, houses with lots of mirrors, houses with furniture that was a nightmare to dust, houses with pots and pans never cooked in – I could go on. While mopping and making beds and folding sheets and cleaning sinks and bathrooms, I thought about my writing, which I had left on my desk in order to come to work, in order to pay my rent and bills. Sometimes, often in fact, while engaged in some physical activity, an insight regarding some sticky point in my novel would come to me, and I’d strip off my yellow rubber gloves and scribble it down on a notepad I kept in the pocket of my jeans.
My clients knew I was a writer. Many of them had copies of my books. I dusted my own books. I was pretty sure this was not how it was supposed to be for a writer who’d been reviewed in the New York Times, but it’s how it was for me, so there was nothing to do but roll with it.
One day, on my knees scrubbing an upstairs toilet (I highly recommend knee pads), my client came bounding up the stairs with a Newsweek in his hand. “Nancy,” he said. “My cousin is publishing a book. Her first novel.”
“That’s great,” I answered.
“She’s in Newsweek,” he said.
“That’s pretty good making it in Newsweek with her first book.”
I silently congratulated myself on my equanimity. I’d been writing for years and here I was cleaning a toilet while being told about a debut novelist featured in Newsweek. There was no need to be jealous. Even though I didn’t know any other writers who were cleaning houses for a living, there was no need to get a funk about it. Sometimes not getting in a funk was seriously hard work, but on this day I was actually doing quite well with it. On this day, I was peaceful and calm as I plunged the toilet brush up and down and scrubbed around the rim.
During my first book tour, I’d been advised by a (probably) well-meaning poet to never tell anyone that I cleaned houses for a living, or that I hadn’t been to college. “But it’s the truth,” I said. He slowed his voice and said, as if speaking to a child, “What I am trying to tell you is that no one is interested.”
That hurt. I also happen to think it’s not true. People are interested. People like to hear about struggle. They like to feel that their dreams are attainable. And after having worked so hard to be known as a writer, was I supposed to live a fictional life? Was I supposed to lie? What would I say when people asked (and they did ask) what university I’d attended, and what university I taught at? I didn’t follow the poet’s advice. I can write fiction, but I can’t live fiction.
Still, there was a wound. It hurt to feel so far on the outside. It hurt that I still scrubbed other people’s toilets for a living, but as I scrubbed this one with my client standing over me, Newsweek in his hand, I gave myself a huge invisible pat on the back for being OK with this scenario. Big break for my client’s cousin. Good for her. It’s not easy for any of us. I flushed and spritzed cleaner behind the toilet so I could clean that grimy place, intimately known to so few.
“She got a three-million-dollar advance,” my client said.
“Yeah. Three million.”
“Three million?” I sputtered. “Geez.” I ran my rag behind the toilet. “You could have picked a better time to tell me this,” I said.
He laughed at that, but seriously, he could have picked a better time to tell me this.
But here’s the thing. No writing life is perfect. No creative life is how we imagine it before we begin. Once we’ve begun we find that out, and some of us still go on, and some don’t, and some rattle around in between doing it and not doing it. And that’s another place we all occupy. We do it and we don’t do it. We thrive and we struggle. We are published and we are not published. We write and we don’t write. It’s all of a whole cloth, or cleaning rag as the case may be.
My life as a housecleaner actually served me well. I didn’t know it at the time. Now I am supremely grateful for it.