a room of one’s own – and other fantasies

Katy collage
Instruments, art and baby gear co-mingle in Katie Roche's studio-cum-livingroom.

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!



7 thoughts on “a room of one’s own – and other fantasies”

  1. I love this post and completely understand working where ever and whenever you can find a time and space to write.

    My dear husband of seven months realized the importance of my need for creative space and is building me a room of my own as I write. I’ve been documenting the progress on my blog for the last eight weeks.

    Good luck getting your room set up and completed. Having a grown daughter now makes it easier and moving to another country as I did last year even more so.

  2. Your sunroom sounds fabulous – I love windows. I hope it all comes together for you as you envision it to be.

    When I moved, I set up the dining room as an office/library – mostly as the library I’ve always wanted: 3- 6 shelf bookcases, though they were Amish oak or antique in my dreams, these came from Walmart…but the library still stands. Even though I have the desk set up with supplies and all organized, I usually end up moving the laptop onto well, my lap in my favorite chair in the living room. Having a good office doesn’t always mean you will stay in it, I guess 🙂

    Or, a nice way to look at it – if home is where the heart is, office is where the coffee is.

  3. It is a very valuable lesson for your children to witness you problem solving (I need a permanent, decent space for my work: I am claiming the sun porch and making it work for me) and to watch you achieve it.

  4. I remember being visited by an artist (not a mama) who dismissed me as being less than real because my studio consisted of a table and a wall in a room that also contained a wall of books, a television, couch, several baskets of toys and a small table that Adrain and Walker used to make their art. The wall I drew and painted on was fairly equally covered with both their art and mine.

    I admit that I felt stung by her words, but also lucky. A wall and a table are all I really need for a studio, and I was lucky to be able to work with my kids. The called it playing art factory. There were times I felt like a race horse tethered on a short lead, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Adrian and Walker are both out of the house now, and I’m slowly shifting their possessions to them. My studio? It’s still a table in the living room, and when they are home for a visit, it is like old times. I paint and they hang out with me and do their own projects.

    Thanks, Jennifer, for your wonderful work. Hope this finds you doing well– T.

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