“How did it go today, Katie?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Did you write a lot of pages?”
“No. But I bought a new pair of cowboy boots online and I didn’t have to pay for shipping.”
I’ve written two (of my three) novels at The Office and am working on a fourth. I’ve also planned a bunch of vacations, read a hell of a lot of books and written over 10,000 emails. All in just five short years.
The rules at The Office are strictly enforced. Sign in and out, note the exact times. Take your seat and please don’t talk to your neighbor—people are trying to work! Don’t hit the space key on your computer with too much anger, it distracts. Put your cell phone on vibrate and keep the volume down on that video you’re watching because we can hear it, even through the noise reduction headphones.
Every day knuckle crackers, door slammers, toe tappers, smelly food eaters, chronic sniffers, and persistent phone call receivers all come together in one 1,300 square foot room and channel their collective energies towards WORK.
The Office. There is a faux juniper tree in the middle of the room that towers above the circular workstation where seven lucky writers can pull up a chair and sit under the umbrella of spreading branches. While the needle-like foliage may be plastic, and the bark constituted from some nontoxic but highly complicated man-made composite, the coloration of the tree is quite lifelike and the overall effect surprisingly serene. The ceiling is a swirling undulation of concave and convex shapes imbedded with a constellation of recessed bulbs and from which drop four globe-like fixtures creating an overhead galaxy of light and energy. It is a good place to work.
During my first year at The Office I was often distracted by my fellow writers. There was, for instance, a co-worker who was obsessed with her golden locks. Every morning she came in, unpacked her computer at the central workstation under the branching tree, sat in her chair, checked her email, then commenced her dedicated search for damaged hair. Whenever she found a split end, she would bring it up to her mouth and chew it off. I spent many long hours watching her complicated grooming ritual while waiting for my characters to make their next move. She eventually got a haircut and then stopped coming in. I got better at concentrating.
The tabletop fountain that sits by the front door is controlled by a timer and clicks on at 7:55 every morning. That is something you can count on. The trickling water sound is comforting. In the back of the room, on the way to the coffee/tea machine, there are four brown leather (naugahyde?) armchairs with neat swivel trays for note taking. Each chair is thoughtfully equipped with an extra pillow for low-back support. This is the rest area, the comfortable spot, the place where I would nap if napping was allowed. But there is no snoozing at The Office, no “I’ll just lie down on the floor and try and sort out this problem”. Here, you are not allowed to sleep the day away. No napping is one of my favorite Office rules.
The woman next to me is on a roll. She’s been working long hours for a few weeks now. She’s here when I arrive in the morning and still working when I leave at the end of the day. She doesn’t look up, never takes calls. This woman doesn’t stop for coffee, snack, lunch, ice coffee, another snack, or diet coke. She doesn’t make daily visits to the bookstore across the street. She’s plugged in and wailing on her keyboard. How many words a day? 5,000? Who is this woman? What is she working on? I check her screen as I lean back in my chair to stretch my arms. Prose. Is she writing a novel? No, couldn’t be. Novels don’t move that fast. No way. Probably some kind of research paper on engineering. Couldn’t be a novel. I sit next to her and try and draft off her momentum. Some days it works, some days I go home early and take a nap. Then one morning I come in and she’s gone. Is she sick? Did she finish her lengthy but incredibly boring academic, scientific, tome? She doesn’t come back the next day or the next. She’s gone. And I miss her. I miss her energy. I never did learn her name.
There are fifteen 3’X3’ one-legged tables spaced around the perimeter of the room. You sit close to your neighbor, close enough to smell what he has decided to have for lunch today. Close enough to read the writing on that cellophane bag of trail mix that he’s been trying to open for the last twenty minutes. You’re probably sitting too close to avoid the virus that the sniffling, sneezing neighbor on the right has chosen to bring into our collective workspace.
Do people watch online porn at The Office? I don’t know. I’ve never seen any porn here but I’ve written a little. Yes, it is challenging to write super smutty sex in a room full of strangers. And it can be embarrassing to write the most heartbreakingly beautiful death/love/reunion scene, with tears running down your cheeks and sobs heaving in your chest, while your neighbor doodles unicorns on her note pad and tries to blow bubbles with her sugarless Trident.
So why not write in a normal office, where I can be completely isolated, alone with my thoughts, and there’s nobody next to me jiggling her knee or biting his fingernails? Why pay to sit in a room full of strangers? What is it? Why do I keep coming back, year after year? It’s the energy. There is a power in this room, an amazing collective spirit that comes from this diverse group of very serious people, which is absolutely positive. There is a force here that drives my work forward, day after day and it’s one of the best things I’ve found as a writer.
9 thoughts on “WORK HABITS: An explanatory essay in which Katie Arnoldi tackles the questions of Where and Why.”
On first glance a cruisy place for flexible types on the DL, theoffice quickly proves an emotional minefield of stolen glances, sweetened coffee drinks, and steamed up Priuses.
Not for the faint of heart, but a strong straight-acting top with a flair for le mot juste could clean up.
I had to look up “le mot juste”. Thank you for your excellent comment.
Yes. This is not your grandma’s alternative, shared workspace.
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