August 16, 2009
People who work at home should never have houseguests unless there's a house or even better: a guesthouse.
There's a reason I don't let people stay with me. I live in tiny flat and I work at home. I do not have an extra bedroom and so what this means is, whoever is sleeping on my sofa is essentially sleeping in my office.
Recently, a friend from New York was visiting London and asked to stay. "I don't mind sleeping on the sofa," she said. It was a hectic time but she is an old friend, a close friend, and I thought I should give it a shot. She has a very mellow personality - like a stoner without the pot - and I figured, why not?
Here's why. She arrived in London with no watch, no map, no phone, and no plan. Who travels without the ability to tell time?
"I like to wing it," she said.
A self-described "low maintenance" guest, within fifteen minutes of her arrival she asked if she could borrow my razor. When I said no, I would bring her to the local pharmacy to buy one of her own she said "Great". Then she asked if she could borrow my computer to check E-mail.
Asking a writer if you can borrow their computer is like asking a taxi driver, "Can I borrow your car?"
There are very few tools I need for my work, but one of them is my computer and the other is my brain. When she wasn't occupying my computer, she was occupying my thoughts.
I've tried to explain this to people but it's hard to understand. When I am sitting in silence, I know it looks like I'm doing nothing, but I'm thinking. This is part of my work. I realize it doesn't appear to be work - because nothing is being said or done, or lifted or moved. But it is. Only, when a houseguest sees you sitting in silence, it's impossible for them not to speak to you.
And questions, even if they're short questions, are still interruptions. "Do you have a comb?" Or "Where are my sunglasses?" Or "Do you like this dress I bought?" After a while, I stopped responding. But she continued to talk - to herself. "Maybe I'll take the train to Paris." Then, "I should probably book that online…"
My friend Tim, also a writer, recently told a friend of his who was staying with him: "I know I live in a second-floor apartment. But you have to imagine that it's a 40-floor office block, with security at the entrance and a reception desk on each floor, and that you have to get past security, reception and my PA before I can talk to you."
But how do you explain to someone who's staying with you - don't talk to me? There's no good way to say that. I explained I had a deadline with 1500 words. Two seconds later she asked, "How many words?"
Naturally, I blame myself. I should have known that no matter how considerate she was, it would still be a problem. I am a solitary person and used to my own space. Also because I was raised in New York, where your closest friends never come over. There's no room. Liza and I have been friends for fifteen years and the other day she asked, "Have you ever seen my apartment?"
I reminded her that I came up once after the movies when I needed to use the bathroom. How could she have forgotten?
I adore my houseguest friend but having her stay with me made me anxious. I asked if she wouldn't mind washing her hands before using my computer because of the germs; she obliged. After that, every time I heard the water running, I knew what was coming.
Looking after a houseguest is like looking after a child and if you work from home, it's like take your daughter to work day. It's a lose-lose situation. If I'd said, no, she couldn't stay - I would have been a bad friend. But saying yes meant I was stressed, got nothing done, and she felt put out. So, when it comes to houseguests, I've decided it's better to be a bad friend then an ex friend. Those are the options.