The polarizing rock producer, musician, and serial debunker Steve Albini once asked: “what’s with all the freaking candles?” He was speaking of his own work place—recording studios—and of the common practice of decorating them in ways thought to be conducive to relaxation and creativity: soft lighting, area rugs, aromas, engaging visuals, feng shui. Albini—being all about the work at hand—implied that this dressing of what is essentially a laboratory is at best a distracting waste of time and money, at worst a counter-productive, self-flattering misrepresentation of the drudgery of creativity. We want it to be spontaneous, organic, and most of all magic. It’s not. My words, not his.
This hopeful environmental engineering is often undertaken with an Eastern bias. Westerners habitually look to the East for rituals and symbolism with which to defeat our importunate egos and access a presumably deeper flow, a truer stream. Of course, the East just giggles because it can see what we can’t: that our Eastern-branded gestures of transcending the ego tend to be rather blatant and noxious celebrations of it, as we struggle in vain to escape the superhero consciousness to which we are born. It is camel-through-needle difficult to smuggle the gist of Eastern philosophy West without Westernizing and commodifying it in some way. Something happens at the border.
But back to Albini and his cynical swipe at those who would have their creative work spaces vibey and conducive. In one sense, that’s just Steve being Steve—cantankerous, but with a track record to lend it some authority (Nirvana, Pixies, literally thousands more, and a history of paradigm-changing essays). In his defense, when one playfully snotty thing you said 20 years ago is still being invoked in a home improvement essay by a provincial New York music critic, there is reason to believe that your reputation for snark may be somewhat exaggerated and mythologized.
Still, chill and let people have their comforting illusions if they do you no harm. Recording, like writing or any generative act, is indeed an exercise in necessary doubt, sustained focus, and a self-consciousness that can turn disastrous on a dime, when things start to go poorly. In the studio, the notes that fly off into the night during live performance, leaving only the memory of their winged passing, now make directly for magnetic tape and its digital metaphors, where they will remain for something like ever, pinned butterflies. Make the studio a sacred space, or at least kill the fluorescence, soften the edges, buffer the player from the unblinking stare of posterity and remind her that we are all dust. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll get a more authentic performance.
So why do I kind of agree with Steve Albini about the candles?
I work from home. Why, I am doing it right now, settling in to finish this essay and trying my best to resist the centrifugal pull of the meta: writing, at home, about the experience of writing at home about the experience of…who among us hasn’t lost a day on that hamster wheel? Have you ever tried to write a song about your inability to write a song anymore, because that is the only topic left upon which you feel you have any authority? Been there. My hip therapist (psych not ortho) once told that Van Morrison released a double album of those songs, Hymns to the Silence. I don’t know the record, but a cursory skim of its titles—“I’m Not Feeling it Anymore,” “Why Must I Always Explain,” “Hymns to the Silence,” “Professional Jealousy”—seems to bear out his take. Incidentally, that therapist fired me.
I work from home. At this very moment, Dan Clarkson is in the kitchen fixing my dishwasher, which has been offline for more than a year. “Good news!” he calls out, knowing my office door is open. “It’s the fuse!” For 20 years, he has been more than our appliance repairman. He is a mentor and in his way an activist on the ground, cajoling us to take better care of the refrigerator gasket, to think more seriously about dryer lint, to steward our major durable goods more responsibly and take a load off the landfill.
Dan inhabits his authority without pretense, with grace, gravity, and the weariness of someone who knows a little too much about us from up close. He works at home, too. Your home. If he accepted coffee and a crumpet from every client, he’d be fat and anxious. He is neither. He tells me, however, that when he gets a bad review online or has an encounter with a combative customer who challenges his integrity, he takes it home with him, takes it to bed, too.
I work from home, which is to say in a blurred and solitary world in which duty and comfort bleed together like a really sloppy Monet. There is a saying in football: if you have two starting quarterbacks, you have no starting quarterback. I propose that if you work from home, you have neither work nor home, really. Your days lack the essential subordinations and separations of which a modern life is built. Your peace is never complete and neither, oddly, is your stress. I am currently self-employed and could use considerably more stress. A lot more. If you know someone who is looking to unload some stress and you think I am a good fit, please give them my name.
I work from home, and so I understand the importance of creating both some artificial separation (at my tax accountant’s behest if for no other reason) and a sense of protected work space where magic might want to happen if magic has any choice in the matter. But here’s the problem. This notion of space optimized to welcome creative arrivals externalizes the locus of creativity and, more importantly, pre-brands the work with specious expectations.
I have learned over time the value of the clean, well-lighted work space after years of shunting dishes aside to see the screen, but I don’t want my fashioned space to create false expectations that this is going to be magic, or to enforce an idealized creative self-image that is only going to turn ironic on me if I should struggle with the work, as I invariably will.
How many great works do you suppose were written by an unshowered person staring at a blinkering 15” CRT monitor through a portal of crusty dishes and stacks of papers as jackhammers pounded outside? Smart money is on a lot. And how many exquisite home offices and studios out there were consciously crafted to welcome a genius that never showed? So many that one begins to suspect, in a kind of reverse mysticism, that it was the very expectations and pre-branding expressed in the space that kept the finnicky genius away.
Look, before I became a daytime recluse and prolific professional curmudgeon, in my 20s and early 30s I play-acted in what is perhaps the most complex and self-consciously social of all professions. I was an untenured young college teacher, a role that makes you question the nature of your authority and responsibility in every direction. Since then I have worked at home as a full-time remote employee (tuxedo-top, pajama-bottom) for bosses in Boca Raton who did not recognize a single hour on my clock that didn’t belong to them. I have also worked in the commodious hybrid arrangement (part-time at home, part-time onsite) and that’s a sweet spot for sure.
But now it is just me and the machines. It is camel-through-needle difficult to smuggle anything good into the world. If it is just you and the machine, if it is all about wrestling something out of non-existence and into the light, just find the point of pure contact between you and the process. Live there.