Lessons from a Messy House

We’re having an unexpectedly chaotic summer.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all… Originally, when my husband and I were thinking ahead to June, July and August 2012, we envisioned long, leisurely days of not being stressed out by either of our jobs (he’s a high-school teacher, I’m a writer), spending time with our teenage son and, at most, exerting ourselves by finally *really* cleaning out the garage — in between devouring bowls of our favorite Ben & Jerry’s.

Then, my 90-year-old father-in-law had a health issue and needed to be moved into a place that could better assist him with his special diet, exercise requirements and medications. He had been living independently, with the help of both of his sons bringing him most of his meals and taking care of his chores around the house, for five years — ever since the passing of my wonderful mother-in-law — so this move was a big change for him.

Turned out, it was also a big change for us, since we were now put in charge of cleaning out his townhouse from top to bottom…a task that has proven more time consuming than any of us imagined. (Let’s just say, my father-in-law is an “enthusiastic collector” of many, many items!)

So, while I can’t say we’re having the calm, work-free summer we’d expected, I will admit to having learned these five valuable lessons while cleaning. Lessons that are also surprisingly applicable to the manuscript I’m preparing to revise this month:

1. Less is more.
Even the best ideas can get lost in a sea of extraneous prose. You know, like those really cool airplane goggles that you got in France back in 1952, which would be awesome to display on your shelf…if only you could find them from beneath the rubble in your closet. Get rid of what you don’t need. Keep only what you truly love or think is incredibly functional. And (speaking as someone who tends to over-write) even then you may still have too much.

2. If something doesn’t work and you can’t fix it, throw it out.
Sometimes, I’m just not sure if I’m ever going to use a particular item again, so I stick it in a drawer (or leave it in the middle of Chapter Four, scene two), but as soon as I realize I’m either not going to use it or it quite simply doesn’t work, I need to get rid of it. There is no reason to wait. Really.

3. You need to be able to do a smooth walk- or read-through.
Ideally, you want to be able to zip from room to room — or from scene to scene — without a lot of distractions pulling you out of your stroll. If you find you’re having to stop in the middle of every other step to pick up some crumpled papers left on the floor or you have to swerve to move around a haphazard clump of unwashed laundry (or, um, an awkwardly worded description), it will keep you from enjoying the atmosphere.

4. If you’re stuck or overwhelmed by one section, move to another for a while.
There are certain rooms/scenes that I might not feel I’m making good progress on during a given day. Thankfully, there is plenty of work to do when both cleaning and revising! Sometimes, spending a few hours getting a different area in order is just what I need so I can figure out what to do with another section.

5. What you apply to one project, you can apply to another.
This is probably the lesson I’m most grateful for — I’ve learned things by revising one book (and by cleaning out one house) that I can put to direct use in another. That tendency I have to use too many ellipses…and to overly “quote” things that don’t actually need quotation? Well, I’ve been on the lookout for those vices already in my new manuscript. And toning down my packrat tendencies and reorganizing our garage at last? I feel I’m better equipt to do it now — with or without the help of Ben & Jerry’s — although that’s always been a good motivator for me!

What are you doing this summer? Any big home projects? Fun trips? Family events? Please share! :razz:

About Marilyn Brant

Marilyn Brant is a chocolate addict, a music junkie and the USA TODAY bestselling author of ACCORDING TO JANE (2009), FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE (2010) and A SUMMER IN EUROPE (2011), all from Kensington Books, as well as a number of light romantic comedies, including THE SWEET TEMPTATIONS COLLECTION (2013) and PRIDE, PREJUDICE AND THE PERFECT MATCH (2013). Her latest novel -- a coming-of-age romantic mystery called THE ROAD TO YOU -- was just released in October 2013!
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12 Responses to Lessons from a Messy House

  1. CateS says:

    Not envying you… because I’ve been there & done that… a couple of times…. many trips to Goodwill .. B&J’s would be a motivator to me!

    • Cate,
      Thank you!! Trips to Goodwill and the Salvation Army are on our list of stops this coming week…and so is another run to the store for more B&J’s ;). Thank goodness for ice cream!!
      Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

  2. Edie Ramer says:

    Marilyn, ‘messy’ could be my middle name. People could introduce me as “Edie Messy Ramer.” I should put it on my books. I might get a lot of followers that way. lol

    My husband is worse than I am. He has a jean jacket from when we were dating and he weighed about 40 pounds less than he does now that he won’t get rid of. I have paper copies of old books I will never publish and shouldn’t keep – but I really like parts of them. Still, I should get rid of them. And my old clothes too.

    I’m sorry about your fil. It’s a hard decision for everyone, but I hope he makes friends there and it’s good that he’s getting the care he needs.

    • Oh, Edie, believe me…I have a TON of personal experience in messy. Somewhere, I still have my old AFS sweatshirt from 1984…and all of those cute, sentimental drawings my son made for me when he was three ;) LOL about your husband’s jean jacket! I understand. And I was just going through a box in our garage yesterday that had manuscript drafts from short stories I wrote years ago — still don’t know what to do with them, but I’m torn between throwing them out and hanging onto them for a little longer. It’s easy to see how all those boxes multiply!
      xox
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …The Journey Begins in Real Time…

  3. Misty Evans says:

    Good luck with the cleaning, Marilyn. I know all about that. And about moving parents/in-laws. A huge job no matter what.

    I’m a collector of words, so I have way too many books, magazine articles, sticky notes and notebooks. But, I have to admit, just the other day, I found a file that I knew had a printed copy of an email I needed, and voila, there it was. And while looking through that file, I found several articles I wrote when the kids were toddlers and were published in a small magazine. For me, those are snapshots in time of my kids, just like the photos in their baby albums. It warmed my heart to find those articles and remember when. :)

    By the way, I appreciate your recent advice on a novella, which you generously gave while in the middle of all your summer fun! I’ve been up to my eyeballs this summer, too, with writing projects, the DC trip my boys went on and hosting a family reunion. But now, I’m ready for coffee on the porch and a slower pace! Except…that Itailan language class at the local community college is calling my name….

    • Misty,
      Thank you ;).
      I’ve had that experience with finding articles/essays I’d written when my son was little (esp. when he was the unwitting subject of those pieces!). You’re right — it is a snapshot of that moment in time. I wouldn’t toss those out any more than I would a picture or a special note he wrote me. Probably why I’m always destined to have too much clutter around…
      And I’m so glad to have been able to help a little as you started work on your novella. I’m sending you good vibes!! As for Italian, that would be a FUN class to take! I only know one (important) phrase: “Due gelati, per favore” (2 ice creams, please), which I learned so I could order them for my hubby and me when we were in Italy all those years ago :razz: . xo
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …The Journey Begins in Real Time…

  4. Love this post. I’m a bit of a hoarder but trying to get more organized and get rid of things. I have to learn that I can keep memories without the actual stuff, but it’s hard! :)

    • Virna,
      Thanks so much ;). And what you said about keeping the memories without all of the actual stuff…that’s a lesson I’m trying to learn, too! I’m thinking my digital camera may hold the answer. If there’s something big/bulky that I like but I know we don’t have room for anymore, maybe I’ll just snap a photo of it before I give it away. Lets me keep a little piece of it then without taking up the space… :razz:
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …The Journey Begins in Real Time…

  5. Marilyn, good luck with helping your FIL move. I’m sure it isn’t easy for anyone.

    I’m not messy, or a hoarder. I probably go the other way and sometimes regret throwing something out I should have kept, but my husband? Argh! He won’t throw away the fluorescent orange overall he wore when involved in mad party mayhem back in university. Or pretty much any of his old lecture notes. Our shed is full. LOL.

    • LOL, Michelle!
      I’m trying to imagine these fluorescent orange overalls and the kind of mayhem that must have been going on to have required such attire :).
      One upside of the cleaning process has been finding items that reminded my husband and his brother of goofy things they did as kids. There have been a few very funny moments of listening in as they reminisced about their childhood…
      Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …The Journey Begins in Real Time…

  6. Hi Marilyn! It seems there’s always something around our house that needs to be tended to! No big plans for us this summer. I’m definitely going to miss seeing you in Anaheim! Sure you can’t sneak away? :)
    Robin Bielman`s last blog was …Barnes and Noble Event

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