Working from home

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?

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7 Responses to Working from home

  1. I find working from a home a challenge. I dont have a home office yet to lock myself into. My family doesnt grasp that Im working on my computer and phone. Distractions and interruptions are a daily occurrence for me, making it difficult to accomplish my daily goals.
    I completely understand why the people you mentioned above rented out spaces away from home in order to be productive. I plan to find such a space for myself!
    Great article, it reveals much truths about working from home.

  2. Kate Flora says:

    I often long for an office where I can work undisturbed and where it wouldn’t be so easy to yield to the distraction of household chores. I can’t justify the expense of an outside office, though. Every other year (3 times now) I have been fortunate to get a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for two weeks. Without distractions, I can write a short story and half a novel in that time.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’ve “worked from home” for 20 years now. And yet … so many things in my home call to me. I cared for my mother, and then my husband, here. Yes, laundry needs to be done and meals prepared and eaten. Errands are on the list. Now that I have health problems, lying down
    “for just a few minutes” also calls to me. Only twice have I been lucky enough to have a real “writers’ retreat. In each case it was a week long — I planned for it ahead of time — and I accomplished a LOT. Wrote over 150 pages once, and finished a book in the other. Ah — for that to happen again! My editor is asking for a manuscript at the end of this month — yes, I’m alone in my house — but medical appointments and physically difficult days, plus the usual cooking and eating and paying bills …all interfere. I’m trying to make this month a “writing retreat” — but it’s hard, even alone in my own home, Kate’s 2 week retreats sound like a dream!

  4. Liz Milliron says:

    Due to a number of things, I started working from home for my “day job” mid-2017. This was actually quite lovely. I had a small nook in the dining room from which to work, I could start my “day job” earlier, thus freeing up time for writing.

    In November 2017, my brother-in-law moved in with us for what I thought was a temporary period and has now become (what seems to be) permanent. And I’m starting to wonder if I should go back to working the “day job” in an office (I used to take my laptop to work with me and write over my lunch – I got a lot of work done, surprisingly, because nobody bothered me). At the very least, I may have to find a friendly coffee shop/Panera where I can escape for a number of hours in the middle of the day. It’s hard to explain, but his presence makes home a stressful place to write and I find myself getting a lot less done.

    • Barbara Ross says:

      I know what you’re saying, Liz. When my husband first retired I found his presence extremely distracting–even when he was doing nothing. I think it’s because when writing fiction you need to mentally shed self-consciousness, and doing that when someone is physically present, even someone you love and trust, is just that much harder. He eventually rented an office outside the house. Now we’re fine being in the same house all day, though we did buy our current house because our studies are widely separated.

  5. What a great meditation on this question. My husband and I chose not to have children and we otherwise have very humble hopes and dreams (pizza and a good documentary is a great Friday night to us) so I have been fortunate enough to not need to work a full-time job the last 14 or so years, leaving me time to write at home. I used to have trouble “showing up” after a tiring part-time shift, or I’d get home from my part-time job to see nothing but domestic duties rising up at me. I was awarded the Maine Arts Commission’s Literary Fellowship in 2012, and I used part of the money to rent an office space so I could teach myself how to put barriers around time and space–when I was at the office, I WOULD WRITE. After a month or so of unproductive scrambling on the page, I challenged myself to write a short story every single day for a year, and that’s what made me the writer I am now. I soon found that I could write in the car in a parking lot, while walking down the sidewalk (slowly and carefully), on the mat at the gym, sitting in a display chair at the Home Depot. I could put a story together in fifteen 5-minute breaks, or I could write a micro in 20 mins, or I could stay up until 3:00 in the morning finishing a 15-hour push to write something much longer. I soon let the office go. Now I happily write mostly at home, very occasionally at a coffee shop or the library. And I don’t stress over it if I go a few days, even a couple of weeks, without producing anything. Because I know whether I write or not is about my state of mind and my motivation. I also know, b/c of that crazy year, that I will never run out of ideas or good stories (also I will never run out of bad ideas and bad stories, but that’s another conversation). Having said ALL of that, I do fully grasp, of course, that not having child-rearing duties and multiple humans in my home make an enormous difference. My point is just that sometimes–often, I think–whether we’re writing or not is really about what we’ve decided to do that day, and whether we fully believe we owe ourselves a delivery on that promise.

  6. sandra neily says:

    Thank you for the posts about husbands, retirement and good spaces! Much needed!

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