Brand building through storytelling

Goodbye, home office

I have never loved a room the way I loved my first home office. Tucked under the eaves of our first house, it was just big enough for all my books and a clunker of a desk (oak, circa 1930) with one endearingly antiquated feature: a compartment in the surface that, when yanked with sufficient force, revealed a black Smith Corona of similar vintage. Writing on that thing was not for wimps: I had to do calisthenics with my fingers and punctuate every line with an authoritative slam of the carriage. The clatter of my work would resound through the house, announcing to the family that the queen was in her castle.

Aside from a wispy short story or two, I wrote for magazines, cranking out copy on deadline until my fingers ached. I was all set to buy a snazzy electric typewriter like the ones in real offices, until my husband convinced me that I needed a computer. An IBM PC with 64k of memory, it had a green screen that glowed in the dark. My printer, one of those daisy-wheel models that haven’t existed for years, held a roll of perforated sheets that chugged onto the floor as the wheel clacked and spun. When I handed in my first manuscript, the editors exclaimed at what I and my computer had wrought. Look at those lines, every one the same length! Imagine!

The outside world caught up with me and my computer soon enough, but my third-floor office remained my sanctuary. So what if the cranberry carpet showed every speck of lint and sun beat through the skylight all summer, defeating the air conditioner? In the office, I was safe from all but the most urgent interruptions. Perhaps more important, I seldom interrupted myself to stir the soup or throw the laundry into the dryer. Flights of stairs created a physical barrier between the outer world, where I cared for my family, and the inner one where my work came first.

Since then I’ve had three home offices, culminating in the one where I’m sitting right now. It has a built-in desk like the ones in decorating magazines, and a wide window looking down on trees that will soon be in bud. At this desk, I wrote my first book, along with scores of letters to you. Next week I will be leaving my office behind. My husband will be giving up an equally spiffy home office next door. We’re moving downtown to a loft that’s not big enough for one office, let alone his and hers.

While this choice will transform both our lives, it’s especially momentous for me. Of the two of us, I’m the one who has had a home office for some 30 years. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t write in my bathrobe before sunrise, or knock off some filing before bed. As recently as a few months ago, I couldn’t contemplate living in a home without an office.

Then it struck me that my soon-to-be-former office—a marvel of efficiency and style, by objective standards—is nowhere close to a retreat from the everyday world. My computer is just a few steps from the kitchen, where dishwasher needs unloading and the piled-up newspapers on the island could tell me all kinds of things I didn’t get around to over breakfast.

Even if we moved back to a house with stairs, I can’t recapture the pristine separateness of my first home office. When Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs a room of her own in order to write, she didn’t anticipate the Internet. In my office, writing competes with booking hotel rooms, buying furniture and staying on top of my e-mail. Then there are all those tantalizing Google searches that lead me down mental byways. I have the power to find out what became of a certain college English teacher from 1968, and whether he remembers me, so I yield to temptation. I didn’t do this when I went out to work every day and sat among people who gave every appearance of working. For all I knew, they could have been Googling their own histories, but what mattered was the air of purposeful concentration, enhanced by the soft whoosh of a nearby printer and the laughter from a meeting room next door.

The more I thought about the blurring of the boundary between my private and public worlds, the clearer it became that the bathrobe thing would have to go. The time had come to start going out to work. As luck and compatibility would have it, my husband had reached the same conclusion. Tomorrow we take possession of a leased office (actually two offices, his and hers). To go to work, we’ll have to get dressed, walk two blocks and ride an elevator to a bright but serious-looking suite with our names on the front window. We’ll save the Google searches for a shared home computer. At least that’s the plan.

Musing on all this, I reread Alice Munro‘s early story “The Office,” which she has called “the most straightforward and autobiographical short story I have ever written.” The narrator, a young wife and mother with literary ambitions and no room of her own, decides to go out and rent one. “The solution to my life occurred to me one evening as I was ironing a shirt,” the story begins (I love the heft of this classic first sentence). Of course, if her problem could be solved, there would be no story. And what a wry, knowing story it is: the writer runs afoul of a landlord whose obsequious attentions and pathological suspicions quickly drive her away from the office.

Alice Munro wrote this story more than 40 years ago. Somehow or other, she has found a solution to her problem. Now it’s my turn. I’ll keep you posted.

My source on the history of “The Office” is Robert Thacker’s recent biography Alice Munro: Writing her Lives.

Posted by Rona

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