Thursday, September 15, 2011


Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night because your heart’s pounding hard enough to crack ribs? And, if so, did you ask yourself silently—as to not wake your wife—“Why the hell did I buy this house?”
Last March, Alicia and I moved into an old in-need-of-attention-but-good-bones type of house and have been fixing it up ever since.
It’s been a lot of fun.
Okay, that last sentence was a complete lie.
It has at times been rewarding, but has mostly been a lot of work and tons of debilitating stress that has not been good for the writing.
That’s the truth.
At first it was like we moved into hell, especially after Alicia’s ACL surgery, which we foolishly scheduled two weeks before we closed on the house. She was on crutches for most of the work. Friends and family helped with the move and offered to do more, but proud masochistic perfectionist I-want-it-done-my-way me sent them all home after a day or two and put the load squarely on my own back. Needless to say, we are still working on the house six months later.
            Why did you buy a fixer upper if you don’t want stress in your life? I hear you asking.
            Well, we are fiction writers, so we we’re definitely on a budget. But mostly, the house spoke to us. It’s an odd home that the original owner built in 1950 by hand, which we know because we found the blue prints in a closet. There is a ‘great room’ with huge wooden beams and a cathedral ceiling. The other rooms are cozy. The bricks on the outside stick out here and there making the overall appearance very old-world. It looks nothing like any of the other houses in the neighborhood. And the corners in some of the rooms smell like old books in a forgotten library, which is a smell we enjoy.
Needless to say, we loved it just as soon as we set eyes on our brick Tudor-esque home. We loved it even when people warned us about the work needed; even after we sneezed through the incredibly dusty condition in which the previous owner had left it.
            My 13-year-old nephew walked through and said, “Don’t change too much or you’ll lose the history.” Even kids could tell.
            But soon after moving in, I started to examine more closely the houses of other people and it seemed as though everyone’s yard was landscaped better than ours, our neighbors’ roofs had less wear, their windows were newer and more energy efficient, the paint on their trim was more recently applied, their electricians hadn’t found live sockets buried in the walls, their kitchen sinks were actually glued stationary to their counters, they didn’t hear little midnight animals scratching in the attic, and I began to wonder about our purchase—the house we loved so much when we envisioned living there before it was ours. The more I occupied and examined what we had purchased, the more flaws I found.
            When friends started to visit in the middle of the fixing up, they would say, “It’s not nearly as bad as you made it out to be!”
            At first I thought they were just being nice. But looking back, I’ve come to believe that they were being truthful. They were satisfied with the present look—albeit maybe because they didn’t have to live there, nor had they invested their money in our project. Whereas I knew that the present state didn’t yet match our vision for it, and therefore felt it was completely unsatisfactory.
            They call this all-or-nothing thinking, and I am more than a little prone to it.
            The house is in what I’d call livable condition now. The rooms are modestly furnished. Alicia has been reunited with her piano and is writing wonderful new songs. We’ve added a pellet stove to warm up the forthcoming New England winter. With the help of a riding lawn mower and dump cart, I’ve tamed the yard into passable submission, which seems to have greatly pleased the neighbors. Our vegetable garden mostly failed—although a few well-fed rabbits would disagree—and at least it is semi-weeded. We’ve planted three Japanese maple saplings and circled each with protective rocks. And Alicia and I have been keeping our home much cleaner than we ever kept our apartment in Collingswood, NJ.
            We purchased the house hoping to create an oasis—a place for writing, music making, good food, and harmony. The type of space Alicia and I need to thrive as artists and maintain our sanity. A place to write our novels. A place to be us.
            When guests come—especially since we have no guest room and must blow-up a mattress that just fits between the TV and the couch—our living space shrinks considerably and the extra bags and jackets and shoes and tracked-in dirt throw off the aesthetics and order of the place, which can be disconcerting for me, and usually results in a few hours of cleaning as soon as the guests leave. But we love having guests.
            Last week, my mother was here with her Scottish terrier, Wally. We went antiquing at Brimfield and then she helped measure and pick out new curtains and the necessary hardware for the ‘great room.’ This was fun. It was also very stressful. Indecision and price comparison made it feel like a high stakes poker game. My mother can be quite anal about her house as well, and the fact that I’m so particular about mine—especially after the first eighteen years of my life were spent swearing I would never ever be like my mother, A.K.A. Mrs. Clean—kind of blows my mind and makes me believe that maybe nature and nurture are equally strong forces.
            Over drinks—well, I was drinking whiskey and Mom was drinking water and making remarks about the size of my whiskey drink, as I assured her it was just a lot of ice—Mom and I talked about my extreme need to keep the house orderly, and whether that might be a problem.
I said in my own defense, “The first thing people say when they enter is usually, ‘There’s no clutter.’ Which of course is intentional. We are trying to de-clutter our lives and minds.”
            “That’s the German in you,” said my mother, who has apparently assigned our traits and quirks to the various nationalities that make up our patchwork heritage. “Many of your ancestors were the same way. It’s also what makes you a good writer.”
            I’m not sure being part German is what makes me a ‘good writer’, but I think my extreme need to create order and balance is definitely one of the reasons I need to write.
            Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night because your heart’s pounding hard enough to crack ribs? And, if so, did you ask yourself silently—as to not wake your wife—“Why the hell did I become a fiction writer?”
Writing is an attempt to make order out of chaos, and that’s exactly what we have been doing with the new house. It’s why we moved from a small apartment in Philadelphia’s suburbia where we knew many people to a more rural (rural for this Philly boy anyway) existence where I know fewer people—where we could spend much more time alone hiking in the woods and mountains of New England. We needed space to think. We needed to feel as though we could stretch out physically and mentally, and our residence and workspace really affect our ability to do both. We needed to feel as though the living/working space was ours to do with as we pleased—that we had the ability to control our surroundings and to live the way we feel is best for us.
Simple things have really made a difference: eating meals outside, writing in our yard near woods where we occasionally see hawks and deer and porcupines and skunks and rabbits. Stargazing from the hammock—and there are a surprising number of stars visible, considering how close we are to Worcester.
            As I spent the summer working incredibly hard through the starts of many many writing projects—at one point I had upwards of a dozen novels going—desperately trying to settle into the right one, trying to find a rhythm, a character I believed in, battling the serious depressions and anxiety that writing problems inevitably spur when I cannot readily make order out of chaos, wanting to have my next novel done NOW and have it written perfectly—as all this went on, the house became a metaphor, a constant reminder, and maybe even a teacher.
Just like there is only so much time and energy and money that I can put into our home at any given time, there is also a limit to what I can give to my writing.
            When I moved into our new home, I really wanted to fix everything immediately—to have a perfect house—without struggling and stressing for the necessary amount time. And that’s an impulse I have to fight when I’m writing too.
Learning to enjoy the process takes time.
So does learning to wait when necessary, even when you are so ready to work, so ready to complete the task. Learning to believe others when they say they’ve liked what you’ve done so far, and being okay with the present, even if you suspect the future will be much better. Learning not to compare your work in progress to the work of others, which is maybe the most debilitating thing an artist can do.
            We’ve fixed what we can in the house and are finally enjoying it, even though the basement occasionally floods, and the gutters don’t really work, and we can’t seem to get the chipmunks out of the stone foundation no matter how much cement and cayenne pepper we apply. But I’m learning that home ownership is a long race and you can live happily within the house as you fix it up. It’s good to admire the work in progress—to maintain that original excitement, even as you become well acquainted with the flaws. And occasionally, you can even have people over to admire what you’ve done so far.
            I’ve come to think of the house as living art that never will be finished.
Maybe that’s the beauty of it.
            I’ve also settled into a new writing project. I’m doing 3000 words a day and trying to be okay with that, no matter how those words seem when I read them over. I’ve been working through doubts and fears and troubling thoughts of having bought into the wrong idea, because mine, at times, seems to need more work than or is nothing like the ideas of others.
I tell myself, “That’s what makes your book special. Because it’s you. Flaws and all. You are a work in progress too. And so is your next protagonist, who you are still getting to know and like. Channel all of your experiences and feelings into your work. Make order out of chaos.”
I’m pushing myself, trying to take my writing to a new place—maybe a new level—and that can feel overwhelming at times.
But I can do the work, I keep telling myself. I can control my attitude and outlook when I work hard at taming my mind. And I can make this book unique. I can make this book authentically me, if only I tackle one thing at a time and keep moving forward.
            I recently came across this quote:
“It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow
            Why did you pick a story that is hard to tell?
            Why did you choose to practice such a difficult art?
            Why did you select such a precarious way to make a living? I hear some of you saying.
            Did I mention I’m a fiction writer?
            So to all of you out there struggling with your current writing projects, I feel your pain. As my wife often tells me, the only way out is through—and maybe this is the perfect battle for you.
Learning to enjoy the process—I’m thinking that’s the trick.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Awesome post! Spot on, really.

Scott Humfeld said...

Fascinating and enlightening. Life, of course, is a work in progress and, to me, it seems like the journey is what is interesting more so than the destination. Often the destination leads to another journey.
Great post, Matt.

Alicia said...

PS, You are the hardest working man I know.

evanjamesroskos said...

ah, house repairs. i love that your house sounds EXACTLY LIKE OURS. except ours was built earlier and then had an addition put on by an artist who knew little about construction. We've also found crazy things, as you've heard. You're not alone!

also, replacement windows will do wonders and might get you a tax credit.

PK said...

I think the house works as a metaphor for whatever project you may be working on in your life, creative or otherwise. For me now, I've begun to think of learning Thai as kind of the house I'm working on. My ability with it would absolutely blow the mind of me two years ago, because when you're driving the car at night, you can never see very far into the future. Making gradual progress is something you can't detect until you've been at it for a while. And yet lately, I am more aware than ever of all my shortcomings with the language, of how far I still have to go with it, and of how much more I want to improve and get better.

If it was easy everyone would do it. If it was easy it wouldn't be rewarding or satisfying.

Anonymous said...

PPS - you are also the most talented person I know!

Awesome Post!

PK said...

"After a time I asked him warily, 'Then how was it possible for you to write the book?'

He thought for a moment, brought back from his reflections. 'It was only possible for me to do it,' he said, 'because it was necessary. I either had to write the book or be reduced to despair; it was the only means of saving me from nothingness, chaos and suicide. The book was written under this pressure and brought me the expected cure, simply because it was written, irrespective of whether it was good or bad. That was the only thing that counted. And while writing it, there was no need for me to think at all of any other reader but myself, or at the most, here and there another war-comrade, and I certainly never thought then about the survivors, but always about those who fell in the war. While writing it, I was as if delirious or crazy, surrounded by three or four people with mutilated bodies - that is how the book was produced.' "

- Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East

You aren't the only one, brother.

kent said...

From the writing end, reading this post was good timing for me. Thanks. Also, Carissa and I walk by people just mowing the freaking lawn and we swear off ever owning a house. This blog hasn't strengthened the pro-home-ownership battle much.

BD said...

I too suffer from perfectionists' disease, Q! Sometimes it's paralyzing--two months after moving to a new place in Brooklyn, things are still in boxes!! I'm glad that the writing oasis that you share with Al is coming together, little by little. said...

Regarding going "through" a writing project: There's a children's book I have for my kids called "We're Going on a Bear Hunt." Have you read/heard of it? "We're going on a bear hunt, we're going to catch a big one. We're not scared!" Then the family comes to obstacles, like a lake or a forest, and they recite "We can't go over it. We can't go under it. We have to go THROUGH it!" It's a testament to where my mind is (with two children under five) that I recite this to myself sometimes and use it as a source of inspiration.

(The only problem is that the family does find a bear and they actually are scared and run back home and decide not to go bear hunting again. But if you ignore that whole last part, then it is still a little metaphor for life. Maybe not so great for writing, though....)

Great piece! Good luck with the house.

Anonymous said...

love your house, love your writing, love you...Mrs. Clean