Housecleaning: Lessons for Writers

I spent last week—my spring break week—helping Cathy clean out her family home in Illinois, so she could close the sale on Friday. We arrived on Monday evening and had three days to get the job done. We had a lot of help from family members, for which we’re grateful. All the loading of furniture, the sorting and discarding of items, and the cleaning couldn’t have gotten done in the time we had without those loved ones. But it did get done before the rains came on Thursday evening, and now we’re back in Ohio, recuperating.

As is the case with most of our living, there are lessons for the writer in what we just went through. For one thing, writing requires us to make decisions on what to keep and what to eliminate. At some point in the writing or revising process, we understand our intentions, and then we have a clearer idea of what needs to be added and what needs to be subtracted.

At Cathy’s house, we filled a 25-yard dumpster. We also set a lot of furniture in the driveway with a “Free” sign. By the end of the week, it was all gone, carted away by people who saw a use for what we’d discarded. Sometimes, it’s the same way with writing. We may not be able to find a place for something in an individual piece, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it in another piece. Writing is often a process of repurposing.

I want to give a special shout-out to Judy and Francie from a local charitable organization called Fishes and Loaves. They brought boxes to us on Tuesday. We filled those boxes, and Judy and Francie came back on Wednesday and Thursday to pick up the items for a big sale they’re having in April. Through the generosity of this organization, the items we donated will help food deprived school children in the area. The lesson for writers? We need to be generous with one another. No one makes the writing journey alone. Instead of wasting time and energy envying someone else’s success, we should open our hearts and minds to what others have to teach us.

Judy and Francie hauled away three SUV-loads of donated goods. We became experts in how to pack to maximize available space. So it is with writing. We learn how to trim, how to fit, how to streamline.

Selling a house that’s been in the family for 47 years isn’t just a physically demanding task, it’s also emotionally taxing. At one point, I found Cathy crying. She’d been sorting through bathroom cabinets and had found her mother’s hair curlers. The sight of them had made her sad because they were so connected to her memory of her mother. In writing, it’s often the small details that have the biggest impact. We live in the concrete world where the things people own have emotional resonance.

At the end, when it was all over, Cathy was relieved because she’d worried we wouldn’t be able to meet our deadline. I knew from my experience cleaning out my parents’ house, the only way to do the work is to put your head down and keep pushing ahead. That’s my best advice for writers. Keep at it. Nothing will get done if you don’t do it. You’ll meet challenges and you’ll find ways to surmount them. You’ll find yourself at times questioning if you can get through to the other side. You will. All you have to do is have faith. Day by day, you’ll get the work done. At the end, you’ll know you’ve gone through something profound. You’ll be amazed and a little weary and a little proud, and maybe a little sad because this thing you love is now ready to go out into the world. You’ve loved it as hard as you can, and now it’ll be ready for someone else to love it, too.


  1. Pam Lynn on March 18, 2024 at 8:51 am

    Well written! A monumental achievement done in three days.

    • Lee Martin on March 19, 2024 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks, Pam.

      • Bren Fousek Bowman on March 20, 2024 at 8:18 pm

        Thank you for a well written piece. I did the same thing with my parents house in 2012. Only, I did it alone. No one in my family helped me even though some of them lived nearby while I lived 300 miles away.

  2. Toni Hanner on March 18, 2024 at 11:03 am

    I hear you and feel Cathy’s pain. We just moved into a retirement home from our 2 story, 3 bedroom house. My husband is a bit of a saver of treasures (hoarder) so it’s been a journey to whittle it all down. Today we’ll go back to “the house” for what I hope is that last time, so we can truly move on with the rest of our lives.

    • Lee Martin on March 19, 2024 at 10:37 pm

      All best wishes for the next stage of your journey.

    • Bren on March 20, 2024 at 8:18 pm

      Bless you!

  3. Kate Cone on March 18, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks Lee! I’m doing the metaphorical clearing and the physical, trimming & discarding of our big home to two tiny (under 300 sf) places. Still not done. But the writing advice is much appreciated too

    • Lee Martin on March 19, 2024 at 10:37 pm

      Good luck with your downsizing, Kate.

  4. Sharee Chapman on March 18, 2024 at 5:30 pm

    I love this compare and contrast. And congrats to Cathy for completely an incredibly hard job.

  5. Jeanne Voelker on March 24, 2024 at 3:00 pm

    Sympathy and love to Cathy, Lee, and family.

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