It also becomes a dance of the good parts of having your kids see you working–mama as creative force, mama as bread winner–and having them see you as always working.
How much does it matter where you work? I work everywhere. On the floors of airports (after walking around with my head bent toward the ground looking for outlets.) In coffee shops. At my friends’ houses when they’re not around (yes, they know I’m there). In bed while my kids sleep (as I’m doing now). In the car, waiting for my kids. And, mainly, at my kitchen table. Where I don’t work is in my office. My present office, though it doesn’t even deserve that term any more, is a former hallway-cum-baby’s room that has turned into a no-fly zone of stacks and stacks of papers and books. My soon-to-be office, our sun porch, which will be too cold in January and February to really serve me well, is waiting to have the rug pulled up and a sofa installed. Waiting seems to be what I do when it comes to offices. And I wonder what that says about my work?
My best office – the one where I wrote every last dang work of Dan Eldon: The Art of Life, had three windows – count ’em! – and a bulletin board full of photos and clippings. It was directly across from my bedroom, perfect for the morning schlep. Its anchor was a gigantuan old oak desk, a former teacher’s desk, that I’d gotten at an antique store for sixty bucks, and which nearly killed my husband and a friend to get up the narrow staircase into the spare bedroom. It nearly killed them again, a few years later, bringing it back down when my daughter Bella was due.
The end of my life as a writer. That’s how it felt as I watched them struggle under its weight and then plop it awkwardly in the middle of the living room. Of course, that’s not true – I’ve written plenty since then. But all perched in odd places that were not wholly mine. Virginia Woolf had a great idea. She also had money and no kids.
It appears, I am in good company. Filmmaker Patty Kim wrote me that “creative work in our lives takes place everywhere and anywhere. On long walks with baby, in the bedroom, on a crowded dining room table, in the bathroom, on the throne, in the shower, over a cup of tea and usually in our pajamas or at the very least, in our should-be-condemned house clothes with bad slippers.” She says that she and her husband and fellow filmmaker sometimes camp out at Barnes and Noble for hours, with him pushing the baby around the store so that Patty can write. At home, their tiny den-cum-editing studio now doubles as the baby’s room.
Katie Roche, a whirlwind of creative goodness here in my town–she writes music, leads a band, and produces video–can still get away with writing in her own space, while a toddling Stella bangs on her own instruments. “I know the window for that is closing fast,” says Katie, as she watches her ever more mobile girl. “I used to create by pouring myself a glass of wine and heading out into the yard with my guitar, but I think I’ve done that maybe once in the past few months.”
My friend Flynn, a Brooklyn-based photographer, is expecting a baby any day now. I think of her smallish apartment and all of her gear and wonder how she’ll do it. Thankfully, she has a studio (ah, “studio”, the very word makes my heart pitter patter), though getting there will probably become a bit of an issue until she can figure out childcare. There’s the rub — to stay or go (and if you’re humming the Clash about now, you’d have it right). To work here, in the middle of your mess, or to leave – to light out for the office, even if that office is a coffee shop. It becomes trickier and all the more necessary as your kids get older – as they want to play with your stuff, not just in a tactile, put-it-in-mouth kind of way, but in a “can I get on the computer?” whining kind of way. It also becomes a dance of the good parts of having your kids see you working–mama as creative force, mama as bread winner–and having them see you as always working. Because, really, the creative work does not end. My friend Hope Edelman (whose memoir The Possibility of Everything comes out next week!) said that her kids recently took her laptop and left a ransom note in its place — that’s how sick they were of her incessant typing. (Which reminds me of a story told by a graphic designer who spent the better part of a year designing a large and important art book when her daughter was in early grade school; now that she’s in high school, “she still sticks out her tongue at that book every time she sees it.”)
Sometimes, I have to go away altogether, as in a recent trip to San Francisco to work on a book project. For a week, I was able to strew my stuff all over the place – stacks of papers, scissors, tape – without worrying about moving it for dinner. Of course, if I’d manage to actually put my sun porch office together, I could do that here, too, but not without interruptions to actually cook the dinner or have someone watch a Star Wars Lego movie on my laptop.
And, too, at the end of the week in my borrowed San Fran home, I had to put everything back as I’d found it. As my friend Aimee puts it – delightfully (see below) – the good thing about coffee shops? They make you pick up!