This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
The first time I remember seeking out the dirty dishes I was a junior in college. Growing up I’d often be relegated to dish duty (among many other things), and never enjoyed it. The texture of wet food made me gag. Consistently. I could barely look at the debris washing down the drain, let alone run my bare hands over the dried eggs like my mother did. But one night in my shared apartment on my college campus, I turned to my roommates and said “Leave your dishes in the sink, I’ll do them tonight.” Typically we were a rush your own dishes household. The girls looked at me with arched eyebrows, “you sure?” written all over their faces. I nodded.
“I just need to clear my head.”
It was that time in the semester when I had a twelve page paper due for each of my four classes, and was trying to get our college paper’s weekly newsletter of about seven articles (all of which I had to okay and finalize) out as well. It felt like the entire world was caving in on me and there wasn’t enough time in a day. Every minute was planned out and relegated. Meaning after dinner, I should have rinsed my dishes, chucked them in the dishwasher, and gotten to work again. But I couldn’t bring myself to.
Once all the dishes were in the sink, and the dinner table transformed into a homework station, I pushed headphones into my ears and lifted the faucet handle.
This wasn’t simply rinsing everything. This was an intense, in-depth clean with searing hot water that steamed as it flowed. I took the deteriorating sponge and doused it in soap. My mind finally emptied to everything except the feeling of burning water on my skin, the satisfying march of dirt from dish to sink to drain. With each freshly cleaned item I felt myself grow lighter; a tangible, physical goal realized and finished.
When the sink was clean of pans and plates and utensils, I stepped back in complete glory. In a time when everything was looming, when I had to separate tasks by items and manageable chunks, it felt amazing to start one assignment (albeit the dishes) and finish it all in one go. The process was meditative, joyous. I could cross something off my list and it felt like my entire chest had cracked open. It was my first breath of relief in a while.
In college, and still now, washing dishes is primarily a stress reliever. It’s something I can focus all my energy on while feeling productive. If there’s a theme throughout these columns beyond ways I procrastinate writing, then it would be trying to not feel guilty for procrastinating — or, really, for taking time for myself. Through writing “In Defense of Not Writing,” I’ve come to realize that I always need the activities to feel productive on their own so I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Time I should be using to do something else.
But what’s wrong with wasting time? With doing the dishes even if it wasn’t something I had to. What if I just did things besides writing because I want to? Guilt is a huge factor here, and it has been since this column’s conception. But I’m not sure I’ve spent enough time questioning the guilt in the first place; instead, I’ve still been hiding from it.
That aside, washing the dishes is still helpful for my writing practice. And that’s something I can’t deny. As I wash the dishes, my mind is blank. Which for meditative purposes, is wonderful on its own. But when it comes to being a creative, especially one that relies heavily on her own memories — both active and repressed — these moments of complete silence lead to ideas that sitting at my computer could never grant me. The repetitive behavior of washing and drying lets me time travel to different versions or myself. Standing there at the sink, I run through my lexicon of identities, am brought back to all the different selves I was while doing this one practice.
By releasing my daily stresses, and by cleaning my plate (both physical and metaphorical) of all thats been on it, I leave my brain room to explore and create. Even if you write fiction, you can find inspiration here. In the textures of wet or dry food on ceramic and metal. The smell of soap as it fills the air. Does it make your character think of a memory all their own? How do you feel while washing dishes? In what ways can your character feel similar?
All our stories are products of moments we’ve lived. These ones — these quiet, necessary moments in which we do the daily work — are just as vital to not only our creative process as writers, but to the believability and thoughts of our characters.