An editor I know once told me that on a weekday afternoon, during a period when he was freelancing, he looked out from the rear window of his Brooklyn apartment and saw a burglary in progress, à la the Hitchcock film. He called the police. When two detectives arrived to take a statement, one of them asked, “What were you doing staring out your back window in the middle of the day?” A freelancer myself, I told my friend, laughing, that I would be wounded by this remark. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I scuttled back to cubicle life pretty quickly after that.”
There is something embarrassing about working from home. You wonder what the UPS man thinks of you when he delivers advance copies of new books. So this guy just reads all day? You worry that the prominent figure you are interviewing by phone can hear the refrigerator door or the neighbors’ kids upstairs. (Skype video interviews are even worse; the trick is finding a camera angle that doesn’t reveal anything blatantly domestic.)
. . . .
A relatively new institution, the shared writers’ space, fills a niche so small that it isn’t covered in Saval’s book. At these urban oddities, members get access to a quiet room or two full of desks, often with an adjacent eat-in kitchen, perhaps a couch—in other words, an office. But without a boss. And you pay them, instead of the other way around.
Selectiveness varies, but at the one I belong to, in New York, no big-league credentials or book contract is required, only “serious intent and a strong drive to write,” though references are checked. Members don’t get dedicated desks, but enrollment is capped to insure that a free one can almost always be found. Lockers are available for an extra fee; some people keep their laptops and papers there more or less permanently. Wifi is, of course, supplied, as is a serious laser printer (B.Y.O. paper). Writers can help themselves to the coffee, the tea, and the bowl of candy, and read the communal copies of newspapers and magazines.
It’s a different beast from the “co-working space,” where, as I understand it, startups and entrepreneurs gather under the banner of cross-pollination and ideation and use whiteboards. My writers’ space, by contrast, sternly enforces silence in the main room. White-noise machines, earplugs, and cough drops are provided, and a sign advises, “PLEASE WALK SLOWLY & LIGHTLY.” (The library-like atmosphere does present difficulties for reporting; I have called sources from the stairwell, as others walked past, to discuss their days dealing cocaine.) Outside the inner sanctum, though, some networking and griping and encouragement takes place in the kitchen area, which also hosts events such as roundtables with literary agents. Replicating the water-cooler experience with ersatz colleagues is part of the draw, relieving the loneliness inherent in the job.
. . . .
At least nine cities, from Hamburg, Germany, to Charlottesville, Virginia, now have shared workspaces for writers. But New York is the capital. Founded in 1978, the Writers Room, near Astor Place, was the first in the U.S. and “most likely” the world, according to the executive director, Donna Brodie. Brodie boasted that she has shared with other workspace founders “the winning formula for success”: a 24/7 operation can support six or seven writers per desk and never experience congestion. Like Planet Fitness, a writers’ space counts on its members not to show up too much.
The analogy holds in other ways, too. As with the gym, at the writers’ space you feel less ridiculous spending your time on an activity with uncertain and elusive benefits: everyone else is doing it, too. It’s a cocoon that protects its inhabitants from a world where most people regard writing, with some reason, as a peculiar and dubious hobby. Inside the cocoon, a gentle sense of competition takes hold. You want your treadmill to be moving as fast as the next guy’s.