Imagine me, aged twenty-three, in a cramped room with a tin roof, the only furnishings a collapsible aluminum table, a plastic lawn chair, and a ragged futon pressed against the far wall. Black rot blossoms along the molding, and every dog in the city barks at passersby who blink too loudly.
This is where I sleep.
This, too, is the place I start writing the novel I always told myself I’d write, the place where after my employment prospects on another continent have fallen through, I find myself with months of free time I didn’t anticipate I’d have.
This room is also where a pile of clothes, several feet high, has accumulated on the futon, long past due for a wash.
For weeks I’ve studied my Brazilian roommates as they’ve used the washing machine in the far corner of the kitchen, dutifully loading and unloading it before hanging their clothes to dry on the line. And yet, despite all of my study, I remain wary of the process.
I stop typing. It’s time, isn’t it? I need to overcome this nonsense.
After making sure I’m home alone, I heft my stack of clothes from the futon and deliver them to the washer. Clothes in. Detergent poured. Power on.
Oh. Is that all? How had I convinced myself the washing machines here were different? How had I allowed myself to spend months flummoxed by something so simple?
I return to typing. Fifteen minutes pass, perhaps longer. One of the city’s incessantly barking cachorros stirs me from the page. I glance up from my collapsible table.
I have flooded the entire first floor of the home.
I slosh my way across the tile, eager for a mop, for a bucket, for anything to purge the kitchen before one of my roommates returns. But it’d be a good idea to, I don’t know, maybe stop the wash cycle first, right?
So I do.
As the machine sighs, I peek into the alley where the washer water is normally expelled and—ha!—I knew there was a trick. The hose here is apparently coiled and returned inside between each wash, a critical detail I missed in my studies of the Brazilian Dança da Lavadora.
I uncoil the hose, cast it into the alley, and start the cycle again—I’ll still need clean clothes when this is all done, after all—and turn back to the kitchen to find that mop.
To my horror, one of my roommates stands in the back entryway, struck immobile by the scene.
“Você inundou a cozinha?” he asks.
I reply that sim, I have, in fact, flooded the kitchen. In this moment, I fear all is lost. Surely I will be booted from the house, left to fend for myself for the months remaining to me five thousand miles from home.
But no. My roommate laughs.
“É hora de ser Moisés.” He removes his sandals and nabs the push mop from the pantry. He tosses it to me and we play Moses—just as he suggested—parting the small sea I welcomed into our home and thrusting it into the alley with help from the mop.
For as mortified as I might have been at the time, I can’t help but laugh when I look back on this moment now (especially because I didn’t get kicked out as anticipated).
Here, years later, I think this incident is even more tied to writing than by the simple coincidence that I was writing when it occurred. Writing is, in many ways, like the prospect of using that washing machine.
We’ve used washing machines before. We’ve seen others use them. We know what we’re getting into.
Until we don’t.
It’s amazing how many unforeseen details there are to learn along the way, including minuscule matters of craft we didn’t know existed until long after we’ve flooded our pages with thousands of words we once viewed as the pinnacle of our writing prowess.
This is one of the reasons it’s frustrating when we receive feedback that forces us to confront reality: that there’s still so much we can do, that there’s much mopping to be done, that there are many more rounds of Moses impersonations ahead.
But in our hearts, we know we can write, so what gives?
Time. Time gives.
Learning. Learning gives.
Laughing. Laughing gives.
Often in writing, we grow afraid of the next—of writing the next page, of sending our pages sailing in the direction of early readers, of beginning the query process. Then, too, once we finally overcome those fears, we face rejection, less-than-graceful critiques, and other unexpected setbacks.
But that’s okay. Writing is far more like running a laundromat than it is like washing a single load. We need to give ourselves time to learn, time to practice, time to laugh with others at our silly typos and continuity errors.
So if you’re feeling about your writing how I felt about having flooded an entire floor—confused, ashamed, and unsure how you’ll go on living with yourself—know that progress can and is being made. Sometimes all we need is time, space, and a supportive community to help us realize when we’ve written a flooded kitchen versus a majestic, life-endowing lake.
And if we have written a flooded kitchen? That’s all right. We just need to get comfortable playing Moses along the way.