Virginia Woolf famously said that a writer should have “a room of her own” in which to work. She went on to explain that this room should include wireless access, a fridge, and a large file cabinet in which to store the Twizzlers. Or maybe that part was just me.
For many years, I worked from home, until it finally became clear that while my house was (relatively) clean, dinner was ready on time, the light bulbs were changed, the tubs were caulked, and the basement was painted…my actual work was not getting done. In addition to which, it’s important to note that Woolf did not have children, so she didn’t need to make sure the algebra homework was finished.
My attempts to work at home began before I had children. When I was a young married person living in a young married apartment in D.C., my desk was in the spare bedroom. I was in grad school, and I wrote many papers at that desk. This worked out just dandy, except for the week I happened to be writing a final paper about nature as metaphor in Virginia Woolf’s novels. The building’s management decided to redo part of the concrete parking garage that was directly below the apartment, meaning I was in for a solid week of ear-splitting, teeth-chattering jack-hammer-based demolition. It was not the easiest task to write about what birds might have signified in To the Lighthouse when I couldn’t possibly hear any birds myself. However, there are times even now when I look back on those jackhammer days, if not fondly, then at least with some nostalgia. Because not long after the jackhammering ended, the Young Married apartment became a New Baby apartment. Now, there was no more “spare” bedroom. There was a bedroom with a crib in it, where I also put my desk. Oh, yes, and the diaper genie (which, in a pinch, was a good place to dispose of manuscripts that, um, stank).
Here is something I’ve noticed about people who are about to become new parents (including myself, in retrospect): Before you have a baby, it’s an abstract concept, and no matter how much you read about “what to expect” you haven’t a clue what it will be like until it happens, so you say incredibly stupid things like, “I won’t need a sitter! I’ll work while the baby naps!” In other words, before you have the baby, you are deluded. You are so deluded that when you say things like this, you do not notice that the people who already have babies are snickering at you behind their hands. I had a friend who, when she was pregnant, designed what looked like a little baby “corral,” with gates. “The baby will play there,” she said, “while I work.” Oh really? I said, trying not to burst into hysterical laughter.
Once you have the baby, and you finally try doing some work while the baby naps, you learn that the baby will only nap for 20 minutes, unless you urgently have to go somewhere, in which case the baby will nap for two hours. That is the rule of babies.
In my case, by the time I tried to write something, the baby was beginning to crawl. Now that he could crawl, he was far more interested in pushing the red button on my computer tower than in any of his official toys. Off! On! Off On! I’m sure it was especially exciting to see my reaction. This did not crash my computer; that took a little more effort and creativity. That took a naked baby pulling up on the computer tower to stand and, with great gusto, urinating into the hard drive.
Luckily, my children are now old enough that this particular trick will not be repeated. And now I use a laptop. Anyway, it was then that I decided to move my desk out of the baby’s room and eventually all the way out of the house.
The public library was the first in a long string of public places where I tried to work outside the house. The library has a reputation for being quiet. The quiet room in the library was purportedly the quietest spot in the quietest building, etc. However, it turned out that perhaps only Starbucks is louder than this public library. For one thing, while cell phone use was not permitted in the library, it occurred frequently in the quiet study room. As did snoring, potato chip eating, loud music listening (yes I mean the sound emerging from someone’s ear buds, just loud enough to become your ear worm), and of course singing. Yes, singing. Sound was not the only problem. Don’t even ask me about the time someone took his shoes off. It emptied the room within a half-hour.
After a number of years as a vagabond, I no longer work in public places. At my current office, the most interesting things happen primarily in my head. On most days, no singing or errant urination occurs, and I’m not subjected to the smell of other people’s feet.
Recently, my son said that he would like it if I started working at home again, because then he could come into my office and ask me questions whenever he wanted. He said this with no trace of irony. I said that if I worked from home he would have far less time to play Lord of Ultima. He said, never mind. Because you see, we’ve finally found a balance that works for both of us: He does not have to admit to spending more time playing on the computer and less time on his homework than he’s supposed to, and I don’t have to tell him every time he appears in this column.
**Please note, THE BETHESDA LITERARY COOPERATIVE, a small group of writers and other literary types, IS LOOKING FOR OFFICE SPACE. Please email me through my website www.paulawhyman.com for details.**