Tips From An Art Colony On Sharing Coworking Spaces During A Pandemic

There are not that many rules at Yaddo, the artist’s colony that I did a residence at.  Mainly, we were expected to observe quiet hours between 9 and 5 and have dinner punctually at 6.

But, despite the lack of rules, they made sure that multiple people were able to be productive and creative in close quarters.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to work from home, often with spouses, children, or roommates. It’s a good time to reflect on ideas for how to make that transition as smooth as possible.

My current co-working situation involves a newly installed desk in my third-floor bedroom, while my three offspring (working mid-20’s adult, college student, and high school student) are each in their own rooms on the floor below.  My husband, a chaplain in a hospital and part-time synagogue rabbi, is still an essential employee who reports to work outside the home every day.  The other four of us have various writing assignments, book deadlines, work projects and online Zoom classes to attend to, while sharing kitchen and common space.  I have tried to communicate that if we treat our new arrangements like an artist’s residency we can all benefit from the boosts to creativity as well as get along in close quarters.

At a writing residency, everyone is there to work.  Which is why, even when I leave my room to get a cup of coffee or tea or take a walk, I observe quiet hours.  I am not obligated to make small talk with the other person waiting for the water to boil and neither should he or she try to engage with me.  I want to remain in my own headspace – that is why I have come here.

If I leave my room to go for a walk, it is not an invitation to discuss my views on current events.  I have exited my space to exercise my body and my creative muscles, not to be distracted by someone else.  When we all understand that, and acknowledge that we each need our quiet hours, for whatever goal we are working toward, we will all get along better.  The main point to gain from writers’ residencies is that no one’s work is more important than anyone else’s.  We have all been selected to be present in this space to create and need to give each other space and respect to do that.

It is a given that we won’t see our family members, particularly our children, as equals in trying to accomplish and achieve creative goals.  However, if we can take some time to discuss rules and set boundaries for our shared quarters, we might be able to manage the domestic isolation necessary for public health in these days of large scale working from home during the current coronavirus pandemic.

It isn’t easy to try to focus in a space that is not usually one’s workspace; one of the keys is having those who share one’s domestic – and now workspace to agree on ground rules. We try to not interact during the day and respect the quiet hours I’ve learned from Yaddo. We’ve agreed that to minimize distraction, we will text or email each other instead of knocking on doors.

The corollary to daytime quiet hours is that all are expected to gather at dinner each night – it was one of the stipulations that the donors of the mansion where Yaddo is housed specified, believing that the social interaction was beneficial and stimulating to creativity.  It is also a relief to know during daytime quiet hours and not interacting with others that there will be agreed upon time for communications, just not during work hours.

We have not successfully met the agreed upon dinner time of 6:30 every evening and it ends up being closer to 7 for various reasons, but it is on the books.  Even though no one has any evening meetings or classes outside the home as normally occurs during the week, some of us have scheduled Zoom group conversations and interactions with those in other time zones, so the timeliness of meals is important in keeping us focused as a group.

The final lesson of an artist’s residency is that, in addition to enforced and respectful daily quiet time, and punctual shared meals, evening activities can be stimulating too.  At artist residencies, there will be an evening when writers give readings, performance artists perform, composers play their compositions and animation artists show their work on screen.  There were also movie nights and toasting marshmallows around the fireplace too.  The point is that if there is scheduled entertainment, work becomes less tedious because there will be amusement as well.

None of us have chosen to make our domestic space into our work or creative space.  However, overwhelming evidence shows that fewer social interactions will flatten the disease curve and ultimately save lives and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed if cases spike concurrently.  If we think of our domiciles as mini-artist residencies and our time in them limited, we can remain both productive and in harmony with other residents… though no one at home makes my lunch for me and puts it in a workman’s lunch pail as they do at Yaddo.

Maybe on next week’s agenda is divvying up tasks like making meals.  For now, I am doubling as a writer and staff shopper and cook.  As long as I have my quiet hours and can get my writing time and word quota in, and the other residents are successfully completing their daily tasks and jobs, I will not complain, but be grateful for all I learned from my time at Yaddo, Ragdale and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

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