Now that I’m no longer at work where I had my own cubicle I’ve struggled to sort out the geography part of my writing. I live in a tall, thin Victorian house, over a hundred years old with my girlfriend and my two kids. While there are a fair number of rooms, all of them are spoken for.
When I'm handed an assignment - Can you edit this? Can you help me write this letter? Can you do a speech for so-and-so’s retirement party? Can you prepare this policy paper? I get right on it. I can dash off something pretty funny, provocative, prescriptive or informative with relative ease. My friend Wendy is already trying to book me for her eulogy. I’ve suggested we aim for her 50th birthday instead.
What I’m less good at is organizing the space that allows me to write. Virginia Woolf wasn't wrong but I’d say even a table of one’s own would suffice. I started my year off in September and a couple of weeks ago I finally found my spot. I did however whine a lot about not having one - usually my first step in any project.
I’m prone to clutter. I have been since the time I started earning money and could buy my own. I take a certain pleasure in it. It’s like comfort food. I don’t like a perfectly clean desk (or that's what I tell myself). I am reassured by the fact that somewhere buried in those pile of papers are the items I need. I know more or less exactly where things are. But there’s a tipping point beyond which clutter makes productivity impossible, suddenly causing a spike in stress. The piles turn on me, hiding overdue field trip forms and bills.
So where to work? The dining room/kitchen table is full of mail, flyers for discount gyms, and school event announcements. It's meant for eating at anyway. The desk in the basement is covered with older papers and art projects that finally made their way down from the kitchen and there's no natural light there so it's not in the running. In the end the first 6 ½ months of my year off were spent on the bed where it was bright, comfortable and usually devoid of paper.
My bed is stupidly high and I am not. The bar where the box spring rests serves as a running board from which my kids and I can pull oursleves the rest of the way up. I would bring my morning coffee upstairs and place it carefully within reach on the night table. Then I’d climb aboard and organize the blankets - more or less depending on the season and temperature. Pillows (thankfully I have many) are critical to the set-up. I put three behind my back and a fourth on my lap because despite the fact I have no intention of having another baby I’m told that the computer is bad for my reproductive organs. Really this device should be called a pillow top.
Once I’m all settled, pillow top in place, ready to go, the phone inevitably rings. I’ve forgotten to put it on the bed beside me and it sits in its cradle just out of reach. (and NO I have never been able to ignore it. Although call display does help and I’m no longer answering 866 numbers, I’ve always been inclined to leap for it. You never know when something bad or extraordinary might happen.) While others see the phone as a burden or annoyance I still see it as a purveyor of possibility.
So I move the computer off my lap, shove the pillow aside, lean over the cliff that is the edge of my bed and grab the phone. That usually knocks over the pillows carefully propped behind me so the process of creating the ideal working space for the day begins again. And so it goes until I have to pee or need a cup of tea. Clearly there are not enough distractions in the world already. I’ve had to set up a writing space that has its own built-in.
My life often reminds me of that little plastic hand-held game with sliding numbers to put in the right order and only one empty space to work with. To get where you need to be you move the pieces back and forth and up and down, into and out of the same spots.
Three weeks ago, after a lot of furniture schlepping that required the sorting, trashing or filing of all papers and sundries that made their lives atop it, I managed to put a desk in my room. It’s a beautiful old wooden table, marked in a thousand places by at least ten decades worth of slicing bread or vegetables. It’s in the window alcove and the minute I sat down at it I got teary. This is it. I’m finally here.
(I’m taking suggestions for new distractions.)