*Woman Sweeping, Edouard Vuillard, 1899.
One of my Bennington writing teachers likes to say that even the best writers can’t expect to craft brilliant fiction every day, but in those stretches when the words won’t come, we should aspire to continue “the work.”
“Sometimes that just means sweeping the porch,” she’d say. Whenever she said this, I often pictured some version of myself pushing a clutter of letters into a dustpan. But what she meant, of course, was that, on the days when we can’t generate new material, we can always dust off a work-in-progress and start tinkering. We can research literary journals, catch up on our reading, or organize our workspace. We can take a walk or immerse ourselves in film or art or music. Because the life of the writer is more than just words on the page or the experiences that inform them—it’s also the behind-the-scenes labor that keeps us in the thick of All Things Writerly.
In the thick of All Things Pandemic, I found it a challenge during the first wave of quarantine to sweep my actual front porch, let alone my metaphorical one. I was in the “always alone” vs the “always around family” quarantine camp, and so the stretches of days beyond teaching Zoom high school English felt quiet and vast. From droning online meetings to grading papers, the amount of screen time was killing me. When it came to writing fiction, the stories trapped in my computer just felt like more words on a screen I had to contend with, and I longed for something tangible.
the life of the writer is more than just words on the page or the experiences that inform them—it’s also the behind-the-scenes labor that keeps us in the thick of All Things Writerly.”
Instead of writing, I started drawing daily, joined the social media brigade of sourdough bakers and backyard gardeners, and learned new songs on my guitar. The guitar was tangible. The bread was tangible. The groceries and garden veggies were tangible. None of this felt like writing, per se, but I took comfort in Shirley Jackson’s reassurance that a “writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words… always noticing.”
Even with my guitar and garden, it was hard to notice anything special emerging from that ever-present screen, doom-scrolling, as I checked the Times for the latest pandemic stats, or tracked the progress of the vaccine, or the impending election. And in the midst of all that screen time, I stumbled one day upon a thing of beauty: a pandemic-inspired Zoom recording of dozens of young musicians from all over Italy singing a version of Steven Stills’ “Helplessly Hoping.” The singers’ voices were pure, their expressions earnest, and the beautifully Italian-dropped “h” and unexpected sonic dips in their acapella medley made this listening experience at once riveting and haunting. The lyrics spoke, profoundly, to the moment in which we all lived. It was, in a word, genius.
Inspired by the Italians, my long-distance partner and I tried and failed to replicate the Zoom musical experience. We hadn’t accounted for the screechy trebled guitar tones, the sonic lag that mismatched our harmonies. I came to appreciate “Helplessly Hoping” in a whole new way—this iteration of genius was not just the result of the clear-as-bell voices of the young singers. It was also the genius of a back-end technical producer, of quality microphones, of dozens of individually recorded vocal tracks, and some convincing on-screen video synching. From the labor of the sound tech who synthesized the voices, to the videographer who expertly co-opted the familiar Zoom trope into something creative and singular, the beauty appeared to be not only in the final product, but also in the production work.
For as much as we all appreciate the talents of our favorite artists, musicians, and writers, those of us who pursue a creative life know that every mode of creativity has its own version of “sweeping the porch.” The eight-hour Beatles documentary transfixed me, watching Paul McCartney noodling a lick for an hour that eventually became “Get Back.” Or seeing illustrator Stacey Robinson draw out his vision, line by line, of the main character from the graphic novel, I Am Alfonso Jones. Usually, the slow-moving process of the artist is untelevised and uncelebrated, but now, with programs like the Netflix series Abstract: the Art of Design, we can gain access into the brains of some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, designers, and creators. Each episode reminds me that the artistry is embedded in the nuts-and-bolts process of creating it. It affirms Shirley Jackson’s comment that, for a creative person, the seemingly idle time is not actually idle. That “sweeping the porch” is not just busywork that keeps you in the game; it is the work.
Fueled by a particularly good batch of sourdough, I decided I would try to reverse-engineer my own approach to the work and move my stories off the screen and onto the physical page. I printed out my entire unpublished short story collection, Proof of Me. Just to see. I separated and laid out before me every story, scrutinizing each with an eye toward recurring imagery, pattern, and theme. I took notes. I tracked characters. I bundled the sets of family and neighborhood stories, and revised them into chronological “snapshots,” looking for mini-arcs within the as-of-yet undetermined larger shape of the collection. I looked for (and found) parallels in what became the beginning and concluding sections, realizing that some of my characters reappeared in unexpected ways and at different times of their lives.
The effort felt at once organic and technical, and I found myself, pen in hand, immersed in finding connections and constellation points as I moved from one story to the next, discovering as I proceeded the language of objects, the patterned tendencies among characters, and the peculiar rhythm of my sentences. Without fully realizing it, I was elbow deep in my story collection, doing the work. Sweeping the hell out of that porch.
Maybe it’s the behind-the-scenes efforts that have kept so many writers, musicians, and artists creatively afloat these past few years—maybe doing the work that no one will see is what will sustain us when we are ready to actively create again. And perhaps in those more invisible moments of the creative process, as we contemplate the minutiae of our days, we can find a bit of comfort and affirmation in the messiness, in the play, in the spontaneity, and in the faith that, whether we are baking bread, weeding the garden, figuring out the chords to a new song, or curling up on the sofa with our manuscript in our lap, that this is the work.
And when I’m finally ready to bring new words onto the page, to endeavor to make sense of all that’s transpired these past few years, the work will be there. The broom on my porch will be waiting, ready to clear a path for whatever is next.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of a forthcoming short story collection, Proof of Me + Other Stories (New American Press, March 2022) and two flash fiction chapbooks, Sugar Mountain (2020) and Heard Around Town (2015). Her fiction has been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Carve, Greensboro Review, Meridian, American Short Fiction, The MacGuffin, The Southeast Review, Phoebe, Fiction Southeast, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), Hippocampus Magazine, The Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Exeter, NH and can be found online at www.ericaplouffelazure.com