Last weekend I had the pleasure of lunching with a dear writer friend of mine. We got to talking about what we need in our surroundings in order to be productive in our work. My friend, who is currently hiding out in her best friend’s basement to write, said she needs all distractions removed…and I mean ALL distractions; she confessed to even ripping labels off of shampoo bottles lest she decide they prove more interesting than her own creative productions.
Writers aren’t the only ones, of course, who have special needs. A very talented painter friend of mine uses her dining room table for her workspace but has long longed for a studio. Her husband is a kind, generous, successful guy, but for some reason she hasn’t yet acquired her nirvana: a small desk in a separate room that would double as a murphy bed for guests. Talk about creative–I think her idea’s extremely reasonable, and if I were married to her I’d grant her wish in a heartbeat. But I’m not.
We all need to define our own spaces, actually, to be content as individuals. Whether it’s to create works of art or meditate or conduct business phone calls, our physical and social surroundings greatly impact our level of satisfaction. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager, or raised a teenager, has likely experienced requests for privacy, arguments about how clean a person’s room really needs to be, and so forth. One of my kids always liked to have his belongings scattered about his room; to an outsider it might have looked like a tornado’s wake, but it was the very chaos that made him feel at ease. Remember the movie Yours, Mine and Ours, with Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo?
In one of my all time favorite film scenes, he and the kids go into her studio when she’s not home and clean it up, only to have her return and breakdown in an ungratetful tantrum. A perfect example of how we all have our own ways of defining our needs.
I’ve come to realize, the older I get, that space is hugely important to me. There’s my need for physical space as a writer, but I’m also talking about my need for personal space as a human being. Sometimes I want to be surrounded by friends or seated in a crowded restaurant. But sometimes I want peace and quiet, left alone on a quiet lake’s beach. And no matter where I am, I need to be granted room to think and experience and breathe.
At a recent book event, an enthusiastic fan approached me just before I was about to go “on stage.” While I completely appreciated her interest and support, what threw me off was the way she charged over to me and immediately barraged me with all sorts of her own thoughts about whatever it was that was on her mind, while I was trying to collect thoughts to present to my audience. My intention had been to casually mill about with the guests beforehand to be social and welcoming, while hers had been to reconnect with me after not seeing me for a long time. Neither of us was right or wrong; we were just different, and it was actually a great learning experience for me. I came to understand why some celebrities hole up in green rooms before going out to face their fans. Preservation of sanity, or something like that.
Taking it to a more personal note, my husband and I are still, after twenty-odd years, reconciling his need for togetherness with my need to be a monk. Thankfully he’s learned that my needs for physical, auditory, and psychological space are not reflective of my feelings for him. But it’s taken a long time to find a way to balance our differences along these lines. I suspect, based on numerous conversations I’ve had with friends, that we’re not alone.
Speaking of friends, the same sort of balancing act has come into play with some of my girlfriends. I have some who like a lot of phone and in-person contact; others are happy to keep in touch only periodically through Facebook or email. I know I’ve probably offended a few now and then because I’m the type that doesn’t keep in touch nearly enough. And I’m not a long-phone-call sort of person either. But it doesn’t mean they’re not important to me. (If you’re reading this…and the shoe fits…)
Odd, isn’t it? When we start up new long-term relationships, we talk about all sorts of things. Politics and religion, values like education, finances, and fidelity, sexual preferences, dreams and hobbies, what foods we like, and which reality TV shows we’re caught up on. But how often do we talk about space? Space. The final frontier. Not really. It’s actually the first frontier, because that distance between two people, however small or great, is critical to a successful coming together of minds and hearts.
I’m fortunate that my husband and I have worked things out. I eventually got my own room for writing. And my kids learned over the years that when the door was shut, Mom was not to be disturbed (except in cases of vomit, blood or fire). I’m grateful for all this, and for their support of my work. But even now I get frustrated when I don’t get the space I need.
So I am writing down five life lessons I’ve learned about this whole business, because writing it down sort of makes it true. And it also helps me remember.
1. Look in the mirror. By that I mean figure out your own space needs. Do you need a room to yourself? A yurt in the backyard? A weekly walk in the woods with no one at your side? Or do you need constant company because the idea of being alone is your personal hell? Everyone’s different. The point here is that it’s up to you to figure out who you are. No one else will do it for you. And while you’re at it, keep in mind that space comes in many forms, and your needs change under different circumstances.
2. Open your mouth. Now that you’ve done this personal exploration, you’ve got to tell your friends/partners/kids/parakeets/whomever what you need and want. They can’t read your mind. Repeat: They can’t read your mind. The alternative, by failing to communicate, is a front-row ticket for an eternal roller coaster ride.
3. Open your ears. Once you’ve told others what you need, you’re only halfway there. Now it’s time to invite them to tell you what their space preferences are. Or better yet, encourage them to tell you before you lay it all out for them. And while you’re listening quietly and attentively, remember that we each come with different stories, each equally valid. Just because your friend doesn’t want to talk to you everyday for an hour on the phone doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you or value your relationship. It doesn’t even mean she’s too busy for you. She’s just a different person. It’s as simple as that.
4. Get periodic checkups. If you want your car to run smoothly for a long time, you take it in for maintenance, and if the radiator hose leaks or something else rattles, you get it in for repairs asap, carefully explaining everything you can think of to your service technician.
Right? So why is it so hard to take our relationships in for periodic exams? I’m asking that as a rhetorical question, by the way. I know damn well why we don’t do it. It’s too hard. It exposes our vulnerabilities. We might not get the answers we’re looking for. It can create more problems. And it can take a lot longer than a service appointment at the automobile dealer. (Oh yeah, relationships don’t give out loaners either). But if we value our relationships as much as we value our cars, there’s really no excuse why we don’t check in with one another from time to time to make sure everything’s firing as it should.
5. Say thank you. Yep, that’s right. Show gratitude when you get what you asked for, or even when it comes close. I know, I know. I should practice what I preach. The Queen of Complaints still bemoans those unintended interruptions and the sound of voices wafting under doorways or through HVAC vents. And I’ll probably always dream/whine about having my own writing cottage, completely separated from my home, with a cat in the window and a white picket fence around the yard. But that’s just a dream, and probably a topic for another blog. The truth of the matter is that I am very, very grateful. Life could be so much worse.