Academia is difficult when one is utterly unprepared. Thus, the need for a place to do work. Finding this place has been the major challenge of my undergraduate career. There are a number of nebulous requirements for this mystical, magical location: the workplace needs to “feel” right, with an “appropriate” level of noise—not so much as to distract, but not the hell of total silence. The environment must “encourage” relaxation, but not sleep; the nearby “activity” should preclude loneliness, but not encourage abdication. A computer in the “vicinity” is good for “research” purposes, but not so close to lead to constant email checking and People online; electrical outlets are always useful. Of course, these “feelings” and “requirements” shift on a daily basis, with the ebb and flow of hormones, weather patterns and personal feelings of motivation.
My last four years are a quixotic testament to my inability to find such a place. Since Week Three of my first year, when it became clear that my closet-sized room with a desk that touched my bed was not going to suffice, the search has been on-going. I have circulated through every library, lobby and randomly-placed couch on campus. I have studied in the middle of Harvard Yard, in six dining halls, and in the Barker Center at 3a.m.. I have also “studied” in the rooms of everyone I know, in front of numerous movies, at every cafe in Cambridge and with many drinks in my hand. Last semester I relented and went to Cabot Library, which is such an ugly cement hole that there is nothing to do except study. (There, I sunk to new a low and read a book about the mating patterns of the Giant Albatross.)
Studying must have been easier before the time of e-mail and VCRs. In those photographs of the 1800s elite in their spacious dorms, well-dressed and smoking cigars, there is nothing in the background to imply entertainment other than books. Their options were fourfold: letter-writing, reading, drinking or smoking. Though I’m sure some tried to subsist on the latter two, how could they go about locating friends to join them without cell phones and e-mail? Studying was clearly an inevitability.
Happily, last Thursday my search came to an end. In a moment of thesis anxiety (after two stressful weeks in the thesis “motivational build-up” stage), I discovered the Law School’s best-kept secret: the Giant Blue Bean-Bag Chairs. I was informed of these luxury furniture creations by some postgraduate friends who are always supportive of my academic career. (Imagine whining children: “Ah-haa, you have to pick courrrrses. And you still have hommmmework.” They say this as they sit down in front of the Food Channel with beers.) I left them with Iron Chef and headed to Langdell Library to search for these fabled chairs. I had to ask a reference librarian.
“Hello, can I help you?”
“Yeah, I heard from my friend that you have giant comfy chairs here?”
“That’s the best question I’ve had all day!”
The fun, fashionable blue bags line the corridors between the library buildings. At four-feet by four-feet, you can sit up cross-legged to type, curl in a ball to read, stick out your legs to stretch, or give up and take a nap spread-eagle on your stomach. There is a steady supply of natural sunlight for my pasty vitamin D-deficient skin, the occasional passersby, and a head-on view of a church steeple with a bird that I thought was fake for three days, until it flew away on Monday.
Oh, what time we would save if we all found a good place to work, and then did our work in the amount of time it takes. We might de-stress and enjoy our recreation activities, and—gasp—be better students. We could even have time to “process” or “absorb” our schoolwork or “sleep.” Instead, we procrastinate for seven hours with peers who are hanging out, working out, or catching a meal. And then it is midnight the night before, and far too late to go to a preferable workplace.
I am worried because writers tend to have workplace problems for their entire lives. Literary muses often don’t make ends meet when they are writing, let alone when they’re circling their typewriters with dusters and Windex. They cannot afford any semblance of office space. The problem has reached such a fevered pitch that there is a market for helping writers work: Natalie Goldberg and Annie Lamott have made careers not by selling their own fiction, but by writing entire books for other writers on how to sit down and write; I own an inspirational writing book with winners like, “Depression is surprisingly frequent in writers,” and “Just write.”
Luckily, rich people have come to the plight of writers. Writers’ colonies have sprouted up around the country, where writers can come to live and work in a calm environment in Bumtruck, USA. The New York City Public Library helps urbanite procrastinators detach from their e-mail through three programs that allow writers to work in special rooms within the library, two of which carry sizeable stipends. (And you thought all those corridors corded off from the public were holding books, not procrastinators.)
Alas, until I can talk the Public Library into a private office, the Giant Blue Bean-Bags will be my workplace, where I will remember another inspirational book quote (the one right before, “Writing is so difficult that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter”). “A perfect workplace is something to be treasured.”
Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.