I have always been fascinated by where writers make their work. Of course, it’s a well worn cliché that a woman needs a room of her own (and money, thank you Virginia Woolf) to write. But male writers need space, too. Orhan Pamuk talks of how the domestic space and the space of the imagination should be separate. I agree.
Pamuk says: “I’m happy when I’m alone in a room and inventing. More than a commitment to the art or to the craft, which I am devoted to, it is a commitment to being alone in a room…I need solitary hours at a desk with good paper and a fountain pen like some people need a pill for their health.”
I believe that where you work influences how you feel, and how you feel can influence what you write. I don’t need to work in this cocoon, but I do enjoy it. And just as well – for the next two weeks, it’s me, alone in this room, writing and editing. It’s got down to days, now, this doctoral deadline. May 11 looms.
I am close enough in this room of my own to the children, but they respect my space. The pets – not so much. The puppy sleeps so underfoot I must be careful of how I move my chair, and before the puppy came into our lives less than four months ago, the cat liked to sleep wedged against my back and the chair, patting my hair with his paws. The puppy underfoot is my excuse for all my journal articles and reference material smelling like dog…well, after all, I am examining the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. It fits.
There is a cacophony of wind chimes outside my window. Under my desk, the puppy snores and yelps as it imagines running across green fields. Behind me, comfortable on my bag, the cat yawns and stretches. Even in the still of night, it isn’t silent.
Around me is the endless clutter of hundreds of things my eye has alighted upon, and each provides me with creative nourishment. The mousepad is unashamedly girly and boldly feminine – a reproduction of flowers by Australian modernist print maker Margaret Preston. Preston and her cohort are the inspiration for my next book, set in Lisbon in the 1930s. It also reminds me that when one deadline finishes, another project unfolds – it’s the writer’s continuum.
My desk lamp is a deeply sensual evocation of a Tiffany style model, embedded with dragonflies. Around me are sculptures I have made, on the easel behind me a half finished painting, and on the length of bookshelves along a long wall, thousands of books, stacked double and triple. My life has always been about both books and art.
I keep all the cards people give me, birthday wishes, notes of encouragement, postcards I have gathered, trinkets, glass weights, embellished pens too ornate to use, pictures of my children – of course – but also pictures of my theatre and opera productions. I obsessively collect baby name books and can’t go past a thrift shop without trying to locate one. Character’s names have to come from somewhere! And it is wonderful to have time specific references.
A large Georgian style Dolls House even more cluttered and overfull than my study, sits behind me. It is a work of art, an installation piece ever changing as I use it to stage scenes for photographs. I always longed for a doll’s house as a child, but my mother forbade it, as part of that wave of feminism. By the time I got one, I am ashamed to say I hated it – I was about 10 years old, and my architect father designed a post modernist dolls house. What an ungrateful child I was!
My mother eventually bought me this grand Georgian dolls house – about four years ago. It nourishes my inner girl. I am forever looking for things to put in it, but not at regular doll shops. I like to create pieces, and delight in searching for things. The next step will be adding electricity, and then perhaps an extension – I am all out of room…
Books, art, children’s photos, pets – piles and piles of notes and drafts of my exegesis and novel, every surface covered and stacked, books on top of books, each one added to over the years, each a possibility for diversion or inspiration. Or both.
While I admire people who take their notebooks and bunker down in a café and write tracts of their doctorate, I am not one of them. Similarly, by having my own space, I do not feel the need to live alone to create writing or art. In her prologue to Writers’ Houses by Francesca Premoli-Droulers, Marguerite Duras wrote about how living alone enabled her to write books “that have made me understand what I am as a writer.” But I like the mess of life, and even as a young teenager wanting to be a writer, I’d check every bio note at the back of a book by a woman writer to see if she had children. It always gave me a surge of hope if they did. It seemed it was possible to have a creative life and be a mother. And, yes it is – as long as you have your own space to retreat to, and think. And write.
This is the place I go to after I have bustled the children to bed. Then it’s me, the pets and outside my window, in this room at the end of the house, the screeching and hissing of the mammoth possums that tear up the garden like banshees at night. My gorgeous companion species keep me company – but I have to say, they do snore!
I do believe that a room of one’s own is important for women. I grew up with my mother having her own study, even if that was a little converted space that was an old enclosed external stairwell. My mother was always studying at university when I was growing up, and the idea that one worked long into the night, and worked hard to deadlines, was second nature in my family. One brother earned his doctorate years ago, the other is an engineer – her influence has rubbed off, as I hope my example will on my own children. Her space may have been tiny, but it was hers.
Here, in my room, I work late into the night – when I want music it’s the old favourites – what I call my thinking music: along with new music from friends, it’s Ben Watt’s Buzzin Fly, Philip Glass (Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten Company), Single Gun Theory’s soundtrack to Dorothy Porter’s verse crime The Monkey’s mask, and Temperamental by Everything But The Girl.
Maybe it’s study superstition, but I also keep an electric oil burner turned on, with a little aromatherapy oil concentrate.
While there may be a lot of clutter, my office is also very organized. I am an obsessive note taker, and have dozens of notebooks filled and stacked in order. I also like beautiful things, and like a bower bird flit from shiny surface to textually embellished one, picking up trinkets here and there on my travels locally and overseas.
There is a small blackwood table that I made as an art student, its turned legs reminding me that woodwork is not my forte; though smooth and graciously curved, I remember being 19 and sweating with fear and anxiety at the industrial lathe. That piece is about perseverance.
A lot of my artwork is around me – I spent four years in life drawing classes, and I can hear my lecturer at the side just out of sight, telling me that observation from life was the key – I really had to open my eyes up and see what was in front of me, not just guess at what I assumed was there.
On top of the bookshelf are a row of metal masks that I made for my graduating metalwork folio. I am in a much former life a secondary school art teacher, although ran away from a job offer teaching sheet metal and welding at a country high school and into newspapers. Each sculpture can be fitted around a person’s head like a medieval torture device, each is about the fragmentation of identity and personality, the body in confusion and decay. I see some intellectual interests have been with me for decades. My Gothic streak – expressed creatively but without a tattoo on my body– is obviously a continuum.
I admit it – I am a maximalist. I like being surrounded by my stuff. Not so singer Alison Moyet, who had this to say about her “stuff”: “I dumped everything. Even my gold discs. I smashed the lot. I took a hammer to them. And I’m not being lairy, but there were hundreds. It was fucking brilliant. All my stage clothes – gone. I love it. And I burned all my diaries. I really don’t want to own things. It just drags you down.” (The Guardian, 18 April 2013)
I admire people who can live without clutter, but I am not that woman. Writing, art, music – I believe that none of this springs from a tabula rasa. We are all layered with the works that touch us and that we create throughout our lives. That’s why it is so important to surround yourself with things that inspire. Oh, Alf, I don’t know why you got rid of all your stuff – you could have rented a storage container. That’s what I friend of mine does. She says it’s like going shopping into the past whenever she goes to bring a piece back into her house.