Finally—a room (mostly) of my own

by Kristin on May 20, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Maeve and I just walked to my “office.” This is my second week renting a desk at Urbana’s new co-working space, Collective Turf. I’m really excited about it, because the space encompasses so much of what I need and believe in: community, collaboration, the independent business spirit, old urban buildings, lots of natural light, and the rhythm of work.

After seven years of doing freelance work at my dining room table (and my porch, my sofa, the cafe, and even in the car while Jason drives us to Chicago), I really can’t quite get to used to the reality of having a bonafide office space! I guess that’s why I keep putting quote marks around “office”—a practice I plan to talk myself out of by the end of this post. :)

A writer needs more than words

I think I began to think of myself as a writer in about the third grade, but it wasn’t until I got my first real desk that I was able to really take myself seriously.

The desk was a birthday gift from my parents the year I turned ten. It was a desk that I would now find rather tacky—white with gold gilt in the carved ornamentation and elaborate gold hardware—but I thought it was perfect. In every detail it fit my fantasy of the writer’s life.

It was the sort of desk with a hinged writing surface that could be lowered to provide a worksurface and closed to conceal the mess at the end of the day. When opened, it revealed a variety of cubbies for letters and stationery and journals. I was quick to organize and fill them—one for letters sent to me, another for stationery and envelopes, another filled with index cards for jotting random thoughts and ideas upon.

This desk not only became a site for my early writing projects, it inspired and gave them shape. I felt legitimized at that desk, a real writer penning many letters to my grandmother and summer camp friends, and filling journals with stories and various commentaries on life.

Many desks have followed, none serving as a stage in quite the way that first desk did, but all allowing the playacting to diminish and the real writing to emerge.

I don’t know if it’s the romantic in me or the practical in me—the Jane Austen or the Virginia Woolf—but I’ve always clung to the idea of a special place where the magic happens. A writer’s nook that puts me into character, a desk that helps me delve to deeper thoughts, a window that sheds light on the most descriptive images and words. I remember reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in college, and dreaming of the writing room I would one day have as an adult.

Freelancing is a wonderful setup, however…

The last few years, since Jason and his daughter have come into my life and home, have clearly been an amazing blessing to me. With five of us, though, in a house bought for three, things often feel cramped and chaotic; carving out some space for work has been a challenge.

I just can’t find a suitable spot for a desk, with a view out a window rather than toward the many household chores that await me, so I typically work at the dining room table. I can’t seem to stay on top of the stacks of school papers and mail, so they clutter my work space. At the end of the work day, all my client notes and samples clutter our life space, needing to be cleared off the table so we can sit down together and enjoy a meal. Then the work sits there, in plain view, reminding me of the next day’s deadlines as we enjoy family time, playing a game after dinner.

Working at a cafe always brings a welcome change of scene, along with the human activity and interaction my extroverted self craves, but it can be very unpredictable. Sometimes I can’t get a table near an outlet, other times the music is really distracting or annoying. And it never fails—right when I have a deadline that can’t be missed, half the people I know in this town seem to pass through the cafe, happy to run into me, eager to catch up.

I fear I’m beginning to sound like a very difficult person, who needs everything to be “just so” in order to get anything done! In my defense, I’ve actually learned to adapt to all kinds of work environments, and have done quite well being flexible about where and when I work. I’ve been making it work. It’s just really nice to finally have this space, this freelance community—my office. (There, I did it! No quotation marks!)

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  • TJ Hirst

    I love your thoughts on how a space helps us work, or not. Thanks for taking me on this beautiful walk through your thought process straight to your new office. I have great space in a loft overlooking our living room and out some big windows. But some of those same traps of mixing home and work hit me sometimes, too.

  • Rebecca

    This is so cool and I think a booming business – I’ve been wanting one of these spaces forever in downtown Madison (especially when I used to work out of coffee shops a lot at my last job). Hope the co-working goes well!

  • Jason

    You’ve made me realize that buying a decent desk for my daughter was neither a waste of space nor money, as she does use it all the time for (school) work and fun stuff. I think she finds the same inspiration you do in having a dedicated space for writing and drawing.

  • jenx67

    Trying to find workable freelance space is so hard. There seems to be nothing but space in my house, but none that is not inhabited by a TV blaring, a kid playing, I love the sounds of childhood, but juggling family and freelance is so hard. I’ve actually thought about hanging it up until the little ones are in school. It is so stressful trying to complete assignments. I’ve often wished for a virtua-literal office like what you’ve described. What a blessing. Enjoy! I’m glad you shared about it.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    This post has given me hope. My dining room is my studio space, which needs to be set up and taken down each time I work (gives very little room for spontaneous work) but I’m grateful for any space & I have learned to make it work really well. I just know that someday I will be over the moon to have my own studio space to make my own creative messes that don’t need to be cleaned up at the end of the day.

    Have fun!

  • Trina

    Congrats on the transition to where there are no ” “, and the new space of course :-)

  • Emma

    “I don’t know if it’s the romantic in me or the practical in me—the Jane Austen or the Virginia Woolf—but I’ve always clung to the idea of a special place where the magic happens.”

    Love this sentence! It reminds me of my new favorite novel, Love Walked In. As a mom of two preschoolers, I go to cafes to be alone: usually to write, occasionally to read. I relate to the music bit; too-loud/too-funky music can be so disappointing! Yea for Your Office!

  • Blackwasp19

    I love the idea of co-working space, especially for someone who writes for a living (non-”academic”). As you, I love to venture out to the local coffee shop. For me the noise and the action is invigorating it helps move thoughts from head to fingers. What is difficult however is the likelihood I will encounter someone I know, especially in a small town like Huntington. Although I welcome their presence deadlines, publisher and professors do not take into account the wonderful conversation I had about the the sociology of dietary behavior – it was a good conversation about chitterlings and pig feet.

    I am blessed to have a park outside the window of our apartment. I can gaze at the creek and grassy hills and find clarity in thoughts. It is a blessing to be in the midst of a research paper and to look out and find the peace of God’s creation.

  • Blackwasp19

    Sorry, I had a higher education thought.

    Do you know of any adjunct professors who utilize this? I could see it being especially beneficial for community college professors who are not given offices on campus, but run in to the same distractions/lack of space at home and at coffee shops.

  • Kristin T.

    TJ, yes, I know all about the traps of mixing home and work. There’s something really wonderful about the idea of a work-life blend/balance, and also something really impossible about it, isn’t there? I really love being able to take a break from my client work to go outside and water my garden, and I love being able to sit on my porch while I do my writing. When it gets down to it, though, a clear line still must be drawn between home and work—each must be protected for what it is, and what it is not.

    Rebecca, I’ve been thinking about a co-working space like this for a couple of years, too, and even played with the idea of starting one myself. I was surprised (and very happy) to find out that our small Midwestern town was already getting into co-working—now I’m excited for more people to discover it and populate the space.

    Jason, I love thinking about your daughter (who I’ve never even met) creating wonderful works of writing and art at her desk. I would think there’s a very good chance she’ll remember that space, that legitimized her creativity, much like I remember my childhood desk.

    jenx67, I have NEVER been able to get any real work done while my kids are in the house with me, other than after they’re in bed for the night. Even their naptime wasn’t good work time for me, partly because I’m feeling sleepy myself, and partly because naps tend to be unpredictable—just worrying that they might wake up much sooner than expected was distracting. Anyway, I’m very impressed with all you seem to do, and I hope you can soon find a better work place/space, both physical and mental.

    Elaine, I can’t imagine not having a dedicated work space when you work with paint—there’s so much setup and cleanup involved! And you’ve been a committed artist for so long! I can’t wait to hear about the studio space you will one day have. In the meantime, I’m sure there are ways your space limitations create interesting artistic constraints and challenges, right? :)

    Trina, thanks! It does feel like a big step, somehow.

    Emma, OK, now I have a new book for my reading list! And, like you, I’m truly thankful for cafes. They have been a refuge for me these past years, particularly when my kids were very little and I needed a place to relax and think (even more desperately than I do now!). I’m sure I’ll always gain creative energy from spending time in the cafe near my house, and I still plan to take my work there a couple days a week, when I’m not at the co-working space. (For now, I have a M-W-F plan.)

    Blackwasp19, I love imagining your cafe conversations about the “sociology of dietary behavior” and other random, interesting topics! So great. But you’re right, the editors/clients/professors don’t take too kindly to those excuses when you’ve missed a deadline. Regarding academics using the co-working space, that’s definitely a market that’s being targeted here. It’s especially ideal for people who share offices on campus (or don’t have one, as you mentioned), and for people who are on sabbatical but staying in town, trying to finish a book and not wanting to run into all of their students and colleagues. It would be a great place to write a dissertation, too. The plans are very flexible and affordable.

  • Nancy Pagaduan

    What a fantastic idea! I’m going to have to look into this when we get back. It might be the boost that I need. What a great way to blend the best of both worlds. Good luck in your new office!

  • Lesley

    Congrats! Your new space sounds wonderful, and I totally get needing a space to call your own. This concept of sharing office space is also becoming popular here in Sacramento.

    I hope your new office (no quotes) inspires you to be even more creative!

  • Jody

    It’s always a good thing to have a dedicated work space. That was the primary reason as to why I built a recording studio in my house. It’s separate to keep it away from the rest of the world of the house. Many musician friends and people I work with love the vibe I’ve set up with it.

    It’s a great escape. As soon as the door is closed the rest of the world is gone and I’m in a great work space. Not quite the same as a normal office type of thing, but it works.

    I think if I had a “normal” job, I’d probably more likely to get an office spot rather than attempting to work around the house. Congrats on your space!

  • Matt Cheuvront

    Kristin – long time no see, or I should say, long time no talk, write, you know what I mean. This post hit home with me – I’m right there with you on having a place where ‘all the magic happens’. Some diversity can provide different source of inspiration, but there is still that one place that I can come back to, in my bedroom, where I can just turn some music on and write – all other thoughts and things going on in my life are set aside and I can dedicate myself entirely to being brilliant (at least, brilliant in my own mind). Everyone is different – but I think we can and do all value having a ‘special’ place where we feel the most productive.

  • Kristin T.

    Nancy, I would LOVE it if you were in the co-working space, too. It’s a really nice way to insert some structure into a loose work schedule, as well as some interaction. You should definitely stop by and check it out when you get back to the country.

    Lesley, thanks! I’m sure the growing popularity is partly due to the increased numbers of people giving freelancing and other less traditional work arrangements a try. It’s very refreshing.

    Jody, I love this: “As soon as the door is closed the rest of the world is gone and I’m in a great work space.” No, yours isn’t a “traditional office,” but often a traditional office isn’t at all what we need or want.

    Matt, it’s good to hear from other writers and creative sorts who can relate to what I’m talking about. I’m glad you found a space in your home that works for you. Thanks for stopping by to comment!