Co-working, in theory, helps rescue people from the loneliness of laboring at home. The owner of the coworking space I rent in the Paris suburbs believes in this camaraderie, the human warmth of bringing small businesspeople, remote workers, and freelancers together under one roof. He works there himself, and he likes to gather everyone for weekday lunches.
I prefer to show up on Sundays. All I want from the owner is the code to the automated security system, so I can show up in the blissful, slightly creepy calm of an empty open office. I think he views me a tad suspiciously, but he grants me access.
Working on Sundays in France is considered fairly dingue. In my crankier moments, though, it seems to me that working at all in France is only an option. Right now, it’s the petites vacances (“little vacation”)—or rather, one of the four petites vacances, each of two weeks in duration, which occur with dreadful regularity every nine weeks during the school year. On top of that cycle of seven weeks on and two weeks off comes a sprinkling of one-to-three-day holidays, largely in May, and then comes the grandes vacances of summer.
I like my kids well enough as far as kids go, but when they’re at liberty, I’m not. Since I’m a freelancer, I need time, space, and quiet—and, more important, mental space. During vacation, that mental space is occupied by trying to occupy them. (“You better start reading that novel you’re supposed to finish.” “Practice guitar for at least a few minutes, please.” “Maybe we should book some time with your German tutor.” “Shall we make cookies today?” “Do you want to invite your friend over?” “When’s the last time you took a shower?”)
Most of my kids’ friends seem to have grandparents in Brittany whom they visit during vacations. Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice; my father-in-law lives nine hours away, and also has apparently never read the kid instruction manual. I joked recently that we should start an online Rent-a-Mémé (“Grandma”) business. During this vacation, I felt bad that my kids don’t get to go away, so I planned a weekend trip to some of our favorite haunts in the Loire Valley, where we lived when we first moved to France. It’s not exactly a hardship to visit chateaus in Touraine, but it does take preparation and time—time I could have spent in my chilly, empty co-working office.
School vacations only add to the usual distractions of working at home: feeling the urge to throw in a load (or five) of wash, do the dishes, tidy up, shop for groceries, plan dinner. The potential time killers are endless, especially for women. (I marvel at my husband’s ability to hole up in our home office and shut the door, oblivious to all screams, fights, crashes, and meows that occur outside.)
A recent IKEA report on the “feeling of home” quoted a certain Alessandra in Rome who sits in her parked car in winter to get a sense of “mental privacy.” I’ve dealt with these brand surveys in my own PR work; I know they’re of doubtful rigor. But Alessandra’s plight is real enough, no matter how real she may be. The study has numbers: nearly half of Americans (45%) go to their car to be alone, it says, while 72% go to their bedroom and 55% to their bathroom. What these three places have in common is that they have a door, or doors, with a lock.
I was flipping channels the other night and came upon a badly dubbed American home-renovation show. Some design posse had transformed a moldering older home with flowered wallpaper into a modern, open, light-filled wonder. It was for a young couple with a baby, or maybe two babies; the mother worked at home. Off the dining room, the design team had created an open office. Directly behind the mother’s desk was a children’s play area, outfitted with a table and drawing utensils, presumably for when the babies were older.
How much work do you think that mother is going to do with her two kids squabbling over the purple crayon, directly behind her? There is no way those designers could have had children themselves.
In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf’s fictionalized narrator proposes, “It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.” I like the specificity of that sentence over the usually quoted line “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Five hundred pounds in today’s money is a modest (by U.S. standards) $40,000, but the equally modest room and lock are also essential.
A few weeks ago, feeling crowded, I — a bit sheepishly — locked the bedroom door to take one of my famous 12-minute naps (the perfect speed nap!). Afterward my husband gave me a disapproving glance. I now don’t even know where the key is. (My eight-year-old has the tendency to make off with things, which are never to be seen again.) The lack of privacy in our house is compounded by its quirks of construction: there are no hallways, so to get to the master bedroom, you either have to go through the office or my younger daughter’s bedroom. To get to the bathroom from the master bedroom, you also have to pass through her bedroom. Luckily, she sleeps soundly.
Woolf recounts how Jane Austen wrote in the family’s common sitting room, because early 19th-century middle-class houses had only a single sitting room — no private study for Jane. One can presume she was constantly interrupted and — this is heartbreaking — women writers were so poorly viewed that she felt she had to hide her manuscript under a piece of blotting paper before anyone, including servants, entered the room.
Woolf notes tartly, “One would not have been ashamed to have been caught in the act of writing Pride and Prejudice. Yet Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked, so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in.”
Societal norms, interruptions, a lack of privacy — these kinds of constraints are what drive some women to heroically write in the hours before their children wake. In a Paris Review interview, Toni Morrison said, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning.”
Writing at a pre-dawn hour would never work for me. I can barely dress myself at 5 a.m., let alone write Song of Solomon. In any case, what I’m trying to write is more on the order of “Where to Find the Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Paris.” (As I wrote that sentence, my daughter opened the office door to show me a magazine cover with Lucky Luke on it.)
Maya Angelou, in her own Paris Review interview, described how she habitually rented a hotel room, where she took everything off the walls, so she could write on a bed in a bare room at 6:30 in the morning. That was my own fantasy, too—a hotel or motel room, where the isolation and anonymity of the space would be conducive to working.
So when the co-working fad started, I kept an eye on it. It took a while to reach Paris, and then the suburbs of Paris. Finally, I found something in the middle of last year, a few months after I left my full-time job. Still, I have to drive for at least 35 minutes (when there’s no traffic) to get there.
When I can’t make it to my rented desk, I also work at one of three different libraries (because the opening hours are different), or hunker down at McDonald’s with earplugs (in France, they bring your espresso right to your table — really), or I have even, yes, typed in my car.
Although none of my solutions is exactly a room of my own with a lock, crucially I am freed from the guilt-induced temptation to do laundry or mop the floors. For now, it will do. At the moment, I’m looking forward to returning to my laminated chipboard desk in the co-working space; I’m looking forward to a little alone time. So if you happen to be interested in that piece about the best Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, I do hope to get around to it. After the vacation.