Every house I grew up in had at least one study in it. This was never really the right word for them—”study” suggests a Victorian contrivance, intended to prove a point about the manhood of the mind. These were simple, sometimes cramped, rooms set aside for weekend work, consisting of a desk, a chair, a computer (later, a modem, too), a telephone, some office supplies, a trash can, and maybe one framed print on the wall for color. Back then, space was the basic currency of the home office, unless the goal was to project a power that may or may not have actually existed in the real workplace. Physical space was the staging area for the mental.
Today, space could scarcely be less important. The desk has been replaced by the desktop, which now merely describes a metaphoric space within our laptops; paper is a hindrance, and with hard drives even a virtual trash can; my wallpaper changes weekly and each shift is like an office makeover. The professional set-up has been collapsed into a single small, portable device bounded only by preference. Technology no longer needs to be accommodated. Now, it is waiting on us. As convenience reigns supreme, the onus to work (to work in order that work might get done, rather) falls on us.
We are the moody, faulty, imperfect technology. That’s not to say that laptops don’t break, or that writer’s block didn’t exist in 1974. Garrets could be chilly like a motherfucker. Yet optimization and consolidation have both resolved many of snares that arose from the typewriter, the rotary phone, and the desk stuck in where it fit. Today, we are the problem, losing this particular space race against ourselves. It’s the burden of convenience, reflected back as responsibility. Instead of “where will you put that shit and how will your back hold up and is it kind of quiet,” we’re left with the wholly ambiguous “work habits”—sometimes, a window out into the realm of self-improvement and personal organization. The home office has become an ambient state, devoted wholly to making our damn brains work a little harder.
“I work at home” has shifted miraculously over the last decade—which, incidentally, ropes in my entire post-college life. It’s been a sign of changing times; a viable, common sense alternative; an unthinkable luxury; and a euphemism for unemployment. In that, it’s a lot like my line of work, which is hard to spit out in conversation whether you go with “writing” or “writer”. “Writing” is dangerously close to “warriors of content”, or a wholly unprofessional state of Being. Shouting “writer” without any context sounds like I’ve been revising a historical novel about my great-uncle’s flight from a Cossack bandit gang in the latter part of the Crimean war, complete with an appendix explaining several varieties of cannon.
Some swear by silence, yet that raises a basic problem: if silence is context, then really, the mind is left alone with itself. This allows for bouts of intense concentration, but can also lend itself to self-involvement, worry, delusion, and all those other aberrant states that creep up when you’re trying to go to sleep. There needs to be an anchor, a feeling that work is real and you are real and so is everything around. The at-home worker is abstracted enough; what he needs is more distraction and imposition, not less. Otherwise he just might float away, never to return.
Talk radio offers the illusion of companionship; a simulated peer group; and maybe even some odds and ends that will find their way into a project. Yet the yappin’ of others has an expiration date, and within months, or days, this forced excavation of information and empathy is little more than white noise. Movies and records present an especially appealing option: What if working at home could be part-task, part-recreation? The problem there is obvious: multi-tasking really involves letting one’s attention flit back and forth. Crucial scenes zip by unnoticed, and that emotional sweep of music, dulled. When I first learned how to drive, I was shocked at how quickly my favorite albums were reduced to mush by repeated listenings. It takes a certain kind of record built for the road.
And that easy, formulaic movie? The movies, however small the screen, are escapism’s clarion call. You will be knocked off course and sucked in. Even the worst movies are not, at the moment, disposable.
The answer, for me at least, is trash television. Police procedurals, with their spring-loaded narratives, are a coach, not a temptress. The History Channel’s many great offerings on the subject of aliens, the Crusades, and future pestilence offer up examples of empty, but frantic, brain activity. No one wants to ride the train alone, but at the same time, without the worst kind of company, you might never find your way off.