Joanna here: I have decided that repairing an old house is a lot like writing.
Many of the things I do seem to be a lot like writing, frankly. For instance, driving a car is a lot like writing because even when you know where you’re going you have to worry about what you’re doing this exact moment so you don’t hit the curb or a pedestrian or something and you do make progress but you’re too busy driving to notice.
But back to fixing up a house.
This is not unlike delving back into a manuscript you haven’t looked at it in a while. It puzzles you. It displeases you. And you see the manuscript needs a lot of work.
As it happens I have acquired a house where the front bedroom is painted Grape of Violent Disposition. It is the color of Kool-Aid. (Kool-Aid, for those outside the US, is a packaged drink powder composed entirely of artificial ingredients.) It is the color of a chow chow’s tongue.
Mere photos cannot convey the intensity of this purple in real life.
Somewhere there is a paint sample named “Mystery Plum” or “Midnight Manic Violet.” That’s what the former owners chose for this little room.
Let us be charitable and assume it belonged to a kid.
The other Wenches take you to see gardens in England with 300-year-old rhododendrons or romantic warm Tropical Isles or ruined castles in Scotland. I let you watch me paint a bedroom.
Okay. The first way working with an old house is like writing a manuscript is that most of the actual work is preparation. You go through many fiddly bits before you lay color on the wall.
So you cover the floor with tarp. You tape plastic up over the mopboards so they don’t get splatted with paint. You protect the doors with blue tape and removed electric outlet covers, (being sneaky, sneaky careful doing that.)
You take home 3450 paint samples and narrow it down to seven nearly identical ones and then you agonize over them and keep changing your mind.
You can see how this is also the approach to the unsatisfactory draft of a manuscript.
In your draft manuscript you have somehow created good words or been handed them by the boys in the basement. You carefully preserve that blessed lagniappe of perfect-pitch language under tarps. If you got it right the first time, you leave it alone.
In a house the next step is you wash down the walls and ceiling. A big, wet, exhausting job.
Because paint will not stick if the walls aren’t clean.
I have discovered this.
In a manuscript you strip away the sticky film of excess descriptors and adverbs and buffer language and unnecessary whifflejiffery.
Though admittedly in writing this gets done in little chunks instead of a whole room at a time, but I will not let this stand in the way of a good metaphor.
Next, you mend all the cracks.
In a manuscript a writer repairs character inconsistencies and dialog that’s not happy in the mouth it occupies, all the little logical lapses that emerged as the structure settles, insufficient motivations, and any implausibilities the writer gets lured into when the plot heads one way and human behavior heads the other (Also called, "Why the devil doesn’t she just ask him?")
If you buy a house with some age to it the cracks are varied and numerous.
The house I’m working with is of the “Do not actually attach the closets to the structure,” persuasion. The Free-Floating-Closet School of Architecture. The foundations of the house shift one way; the closet goes another; and broad, deep, randomly-edged cracks appear where the two do not quite meet.
I have discovered that you do not fix these cracks with plaster or plaster of Paris because you cannot SAND plaster. (Why anyone would do anything construction-wise with a substance that cannot be sanded just escapes my comprehension. Are they Super-plasterer? Do they make no mistakes?)
(The term plaster of Paris dates to the 15th Century.)
You do not use caulk because caulk in this context would scream “amateur!”
Well. I do not actually know why you don’t use caulk but you just don’t.
You do not use spackle either. I love spackle because it goes on pink and then dries white and I am a sucker for nifty stuff like that. Spackle apparently shrinks as it dries. Who knew.
(Spackle. 1920s: perhaps a blend of sparkle and German Spachtel ‘putty knife, mastic’.)
You use joint compound,
which is for fixing joints, y’see.
This is lovely stuff and I buy it in the big can and slather it about. It has the consistency of pudding.
The building supply stores sell a variety of tools for applying joint compound to the walls, but I have decided it packs into the cracks very nicely if you just push it in with your fingers.
The writing lesson here is that some edits require sophisticated writing tools and astute approaches and some you can just smooth stuff over with your fingers and then sand away the excess and it looks fine and it’s in the back of a closet and nobody cares anyway.
There is joint tape involved in this. I will not speak of my experiences with joint tape. The trauma is still too fresh.
I bought a drywall corner tool thingum which looks like teeth-cleaning apparatus for a baleen whale and costs a bit and does nothing on earth but crisp your 90% angles for you. Nothing else. How many times in your life do you need to make perfect corners in your oozy joint compound anyway?
But I do not regret my purchase. It is an exciting thingum. I think it would make a cool weapon.
The writing lesson is that sometimes you buy a word frequency counter that lists the words in the manuscript and how often you’ve used them. You use it maybe once per manuscript but it’s worth it because it does something nothing else can do.
In this it reminds me of my kitchen drawers which are full of this kinda thing.
So maybe the writing lesson is to go a little wild now and then.
After you have protected the vulnerable parts of the room; after you have washed the walls, patched all the cracks, mended the dings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and sanded everything in sight
… you prime.
Primer paint is white colored and apparently magical. All the weather-beaten, hardy, paint-splashed men I asked said I should use it.
The writing lesson is, take advice from the experts.
Priming is the first wholly satisfying moment of the process.
I see the purple disappear, roller by roller.
I conquer purple. I vanquish it. I drive it from the world.
Everything is clean and bright.
The writing lesson is, it’s all worthwhile in the end.
So, what about you? What’s your favorite home repair story and what life lessons does it teach?