Deeply Betrayed by the Cubicle Gods

(originally published circa 2008)

By Josie Glausiusz

Humans are territorial beasts, and so, it seems, are members of Paragraph. Myself, I like to sit in the same cubicle every time I come here: the one beside the dusty ladder leading to the roof, under the "emergency exit" sign and facing the open space. The light from the skylight shines on me, and the presence of someone curled up in a comfy chair seems sociable and soothing (unless they start snoring). Given a choice, I’d decorate my designated spot with a few family photographs and a clinging plant. Alas, there are days when some inconsiderate soul sits in "my" cubicle before I can claim it, and I am forced to skulk in a dark and claustrophobic corner.

It seems I am not alone in my desire to claim my own terrain. In a poll of my fellow Paragraph members about their cubicle preferences, thirty-two out of 57 people responded "yes," to the question, "do you like to sit in the same cubicle every time you come to Paragraph?" A further eleven said that they had a "top three," or a favorite zone. It seems we have a nesting instinct, and familiarity breeds content. "I am a creature of nearly stupefying habit," one person wrote, while another said, "I can pretend I’m at home and all the other Paragraph writers are members of my dysfunctional family and we’re not speaking." Some respondents are superstitious: If I did well somewhere, I stay there" and suspicious, too: "I’m not saying where my cubicle is because then someone else will think it’s lucky and grab it." Others can’t explain their choice: "I absolutely cannot tell you why this is, but every morning I walk first to the cubicle that I sat in on my first day at Paragraph."

A few unflappable folk don’t care where they sit, or seek inspiration in a novel space each time they come ("I am determined to try out every cubicle and test out their results"), although not all such thrill-seekers were so sure of themselves: "The whole point is to get a fresh perspective each time," one resolute writer replied, before adding a caveat: "although I do have favorite chairs." As for those who did have a top spot, most professed indignation or frustration if an interloper sat in their space. They felt "irritated," "confused," "disappointed," "anxious," "displaced, adrift," "annoyed, but mostly at myself for not getting there sooner," "a slight degree of panic," "vulnerable and scared, like someone ate my porridge and stole my cheese," "like an idiot for having a cubicle I consider ‘my own,’" "like they are thieves and should be ashamed," "pushed out of my comfort zone, or insanely, murderously jealous," or my favorite: "deeply betrayed by the cubicle gods."

Nearly two-thirds of Paragraphers believe that some cubicles are more conducive to creativity. Much of this has to do with maintaining a zone of silence: "Foremost on my mind is maintaining a good distance from the lady who uses her long fingernails to type. I also steer clear of coughers, moaners, the whimperer and any gunburst typists." Others complained about desk height—some are higher than others—the vibrating floor ("at some of these cubicles it feels like a low-grade earthquake is coming through the space,") or intrusive lighting ("I can’t sit facing away from the window when the fan is on—it makes this weird flickering thing with the light that drives me nuts.") Others covet "a floor pitch that doesn’t encourage one’s chair to careen comically toward the cubicle wall when one tries to stand up." Sunlight, a glimpse of the sky, a window draws people to certain spots; for others, seclusion is essential.

To my surprise, 70 percent of respondents like to hide away in a cubicle tucked in a corner, and just six percent like to face the central space. (The others like to mix it up.) For a gregarious gal like me, being surrounded by people is essential, even if they are silent: when I first joined Paragraph, it was to escape the loneliness of writing at home. I also grew up in a family of five kids, and learned to do my homework or practice the piano with a loud argument going on over my shoulder. But some of my fellow writers choose their spot for the opposite reason: "It’s as far away from other people as possible," "I don’t like to see or sense people around me," "For me, writing is all about being alone and I like to pretend no one is around," "The more hidden in a corner I am the more I can concentrate on my own little world in my brain," "I’m writing a novel about 45 characters each living in their own separate worlds. The idea just came to me one day in the writer’s room."

A few people said that sitting in a corner lessened their insecurity about themselves or their writing: "In the cubicles facing the central space, I feel that someone passing by could see, over my shoulder, a totally lame sentence or two, and then think of that bad writing every time he/she bumped into me in the kitchen," said one sensitive soul, perhaps a kindred spirit to the person who admitted that "hiding away in a corner keeps me from getting distracted or preoccupied with ridiculous things like how the person next to me has been typing non-stop for 45 minutes while I’ve barely mustered the resolve to write half a paragraph (of nonsensical drivel). Sad but true!"

Hey, that non-stop typist could be twittering to all their friends, for all we know. Sitting in a cubicle doesn’t prevent us from socializing online. Most people at Paragraph think that socializing should be done in the kitchen, though, and more than one member marveled at a cluster of writers who seem to spend much of their time there: "There does seem to be a group of folks who do nothing but sit in the kitchen and talk about their writing, so much so that I wonder if they’re actually writing anything," one righteous cubicle-hugger wrote. I’ve wondered myself about the cool kitchen gang, so I asked Paragraphers if they thought the space had cliques: a third of respondents said "totally," and half said "sorta." Of 54 people who responded to the question "Are you in a clique, or outside of one?" thirty-two said "outside," five said "inside," two were on the edge or half-in, and the rest said "neither," "it varies," or didn’t care.

My quest for additional comments about cliques or any other topic generated some heated responses. Several people used the (clearly longed-for) opportunity to berate "the dude with the phone in the hallway" or people who sit talking on the stairs; or to beg for someone to "PLEASE put the toilet paper on that damned little rolly thing." Several suggestions were creative and clever: "How about a friendly support group for the never-been-published strivers?" Or: "To help socializing all around, I would LOVE a blog or computer bulletin board/listserve where we could post info/questions etc., to each other." Another wished "there was some kind of system in place to indicate the desire to chat for five minutes or walk around the block. A kind of internet dating for people who just need to speak to a human being for five minutes during the day, no strings attached." Speaking of dating, one writer was surprised that the survey "doesn’t mention sexual tension between members. I see all sorts of looks darting around that place, all sorts of coy smiles between people through the silence . . . I wonder, socially, how and if they ever plays out into more (sic)," which I think is a good idea for a follow-up survey.

On the whole, I’m happy to report that most people at Paragraph find the other writers to be a friendly bunch, and see the place as welcoming and inclusive. "I talk to pretty much everyone and like that I have a lot of friends here," was a fairly typical response. Even those who admitted to clique-insider status claimed they were a convivial lot: "I am in one. But we’re the cool one that welcome people to join us." Another respondent believes that "the cliques at Paragraph seem benign; at times the aggregate mass of writers there resembles nothing less than a fairly functional, affectionate extended family, with its sanguine sorts and its glowering malcontents. Which is odd, for a bunch of writers." But one lonesome soul sighed that "no one has ever spoken to me . . . maybe a ‘thank you’ if I hold the door or something . . . everyone seems snobby." To which I respond with my own suggestion to members: The next time you see someone looking forsaken at Paragraph, smile or say hallo. Or if you’re that isolated individual, say hallo first. Even the king of curmudgeons may be disarmed by your dazzling smile.