But not for its preciousnesses. My office on campus, that is. (My home I share has only a bedroom and the other room.) Imagine you’re standing in the doorway and able somehow to see ahead of you and to the right at the same time and here’s how it looks:
Even if you don’t know me you’ll note a number of preciousnesses: yarn art, taxidermy, an afghan my grandma crocheted in the 1970s, the wood clock with a plastic caught-marlin face I made for my dad in shop class in 7th grade, the one hand-written rejection I got from The New Yorker in grad school, I could go on. No, there’s no window in there, which I’d always considered a dealbreaker but here we are, eight years in with this space, and I miss it, but like I said not for its preciousnesses.
If I had anybody I could make a deal with on this, I’d be willing to lose all that if it would get me access. I miss just getting to sit in there, alone.
One thing nobody has ever really written about is how writers need a room of their own.
I will try to explain. This morning I took my walk through the park and decided to listen to a podcast, which I don’t usually do, not a podcast listener here, and I looked through suggested ones and decided on Song Exploder, which a friend had once recommended to me, and sorting through the episodes I downloaded the one with Phil Elverum about “I Want Wind to Blow”, the lead track off a record I’ve loved for more than a decade.
I walked through Heroes Grove, which is a long thin stretch of tall redwood trees that smell cedary and wet (I take my mask off in there), and Elverum was talking about how Calvin Johnson gave him a key to Dub Narcotic Studio, and he’d just spend all his time there recording, and trying things out and failing and trying again, and that’s when I missed my campus office, again.
In grad school, I moved in with Neal, into a place we called the Barbie Dream Condo, because it looked like a 1970s angular ski chalet with big round fireplace and exposed beams everywhere. It had two bedrooms and I was given, or I outright took, the other bedroom as my office. The second year we lived there I was given a fellowship that let me off the hook from having to teach to pay my tuition bill, and that was the year I finished my book proposal. I wrote it slowly. A lot of mornings I wouldn’t feel great about my ability to finish the book, or I’d feel lonely, or I’d be disinterested in looking again at porn, or all three of these, and I’d pick up the nearby guitar and try to record a song somebody else wrote. I used Garageband, I learned effects and things, and that year I recorded track-for-track covers of Smog’s Wild Love, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, and Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie.
What was fun about recording other people’s songs? There was the pleasure of getting it right. Most of the chords or tabulature I needed had long before been posted online, but sometimes I had to discover them myself. Like with “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” on Bee Thousand:
It’s a puzzle pleasure, figuring it out, matching the patterns. But the other pleasure was creative, trying to add or insert something that felt like my own. Like how “Pigpen” ends—in the original recording, they dub in a jam from an outtake (“2nd Moves to Twin” featured on King Shit and the Golden Boys) and so I did the same, from everything I’d previously built when trying to record Of Montreal’s “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leofling” (which closes out the perfect Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?). Another example: I hated how “Gold Star for Robot Boy” sounded without a live band behind me, so I turned it into a limping folk waltz.
I’m not a songwriter, and I’m not a loner. I know that I’m a social person, which is why this month especially has been hard, but why then was it so easy to live virtually alone in rural Finland for a month last year? It felt so good to be so alone for so long, and so fulfilling. And the reason was that I had a room of my own: my desk in there was the biggest I’ve ever had, magically, and it sat at the very top of a the house, it was the last door at the end of the hall, and the windows I faced looked out to yellow birch trees rising above suburban roofs, and powerlines three or four magpies would always be perched along.
I got a lot done there. These days I have that time, but not that space.
Now I’m back to preciousness. Forever I’ve wanted to be the sort of person who could work anywhere. A novelist I know who writes in series, and who publishes sometimes 4 books a year, once met us for a drink, and when we showed up at the bar she was sitting on a bench with her laptop open, writing more of her current novel. It’s always seemed to me a stronger sort of art practice, and I’ve tended to read my inability to follow it as evidence that I’m not really a writer, or that I’m posing, still, at this role I shouldn’t have tried to take up.
Right now I’m sitting in the room that’s not our bedroom. Neal is on the sofa and I’m in the recliner. He’s watching Happiest Season on the TV and I’m listening to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me in my headphones. Normally when I try to work at home I go to the bedroom and sit up in bed, my ass where my head rests at night, but I don’t feel like doing that today, and anyway it hurts my back, so I’m here, distracted every few minutes by something Kristin Stewart or her girlfriend is doing on the screen. It’s okay, the distraction, but this is the kind of writing I can do here. Blog posts. Hallmark Christmas Movie liveblogs. If I can call these things essays they aren’t working very hard, because I can’t.
So I miss the one room on this planet where I’m allowed to go inside and sit, and where I can expect nobody else will come inside. My guess is this is a luxury, that most people on this planet don’t have such a room. So I’m trying not to beg sympathy about this.
The context: this virus forced my workplace to close its dorms, which has led to around $50 million in lost revenue, and my school is broke and poor, comparatively, so this is (or this is being presented to us as) a real budget scare. My salary was cut by 9% a week or so after my partner was laid off at his nonprofit, whose revenue was also cut by the lack of outdoor park events in a pandemic. To save money, my school has closed down all but 2 or 3 buildings, shutting off the power and no longer staffing custodians. This is saving my school a reported $400,000 a month. So even though it’s two blocks from where I’m sitting, and even though nobody is in there, I can’t go into my office because it would require expensive electricity and someone to clean the toilets and urinals after I used them.
When this was made clear to me in August, I decided I was a fool for trying hard to be in my office all the time. Was this really a year to work hard, or was this a year instead to stay mentally and bodily healthy? My school didn’t need me at my best this year.
I still feel that way, but I miss my office. And here’s the thing I’m only just now realizing: it’s not even mine. It’s theirs.
If I had a room of my own, I would just sit in it. That would be the point. Then, in time, I’d write something there I liked.