A friend told me recently that her brother, who lives in what we around here think of as (The Other) Portland, is spending a month in Maine with their father to help him through some medical problems. “Of course,” she said, “he can do that. He works from home.”
We hear that phrase so often these days because so many people seem to be locked in their basements, hunched over their computers, trying to write the killer App that will bring them the big financial payoff that will make it possible for them to never work again, at home or elsewhere. It’s a particularly interesting phrase for writers since the vast majority work from home, but the implications of it are worth considering.
In the first few decades of the 19th century, the industrial revolution created for the first time in the West a clear barrier between work and home. Before then, almost all work was performed in and around the home, but factories and cities soon became the locus of work, leaving home as an alternative or contrast, the opposite of work. This same dynamic gave rise to the gendering of work and home that led to an identification of home with women, but that’s a story for another time.
Now in the 21st century we seem to be revisiting the work-home dichotomy, in fact collapsing the wall between them. But what remains is the sense that home is somehow better than work, a more desirable place to be. I know many academics who complain that they simply can’t do any serious work at the office. When I was an academic administrator I used to block off a day or so a month to vacate my office and instruct my secretary to tell anyone seeking me out that I was working at home that day. The appeal is obvious: casual clothes, a symphony playing on the radio in the background, unlimited access to coffee—and no pesky folks to distract you.
For writers, there is rarely an alternative. John Updike rented a room over a commercial building in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to which he retreated daily to turn out the vast amount of prose and poetry that made him financially successful—and thus able to rent the space. Other writers report that they like the routine created by having a writing space in a building separate from home. They “go to work,” signaling to themselves that it’s time to get serious. But for most writers, working from home isn’t a choice. And it does have many rewards. But is working where the rest of your life happens always the best approach?
I recall vividly the year I had a sabbatical from my faculty position at Ohio State when I was trying to write a book (on domesticity in 19th-century America, as it happens). My son was two years old, determined to avoid naps, and always eager to play with Dad. I did get some work done, but it was often frustrating because it forced me to choose between writing and fathering. Fathering usually won, and that particular book never got written. My son is now long out of the house, and my wife has a study far removed from where I work, but there are times when household chores provide distractions too hard to resist: the laundry does have to be done, the woodstove tended, a pot of soup on the stove in need of a stir. Writers of course are very, very practiced at finding excuses, perfectly reasonable arguments to turn away from the keyboard. Would one be a steadier, more consistent writer working out of a space away from home? Some would no doubt. I’m not sure if on balance I would, but I’m unlikely to test the proposition.
The point here is that working from home, as common as it has become for many workers in addition to writers, may be a concept worth pondering a bit more closely than when we make the automatic assumption that those who do it are, as my friend implied about her brother, enjoying an especially blessed status. Writers, what do you think? Are you happy working from home? Do the distractions of home sometimes make you yearn for a rented office elsewhere? Or does where you write really not matter?