Alumni Feature February 2011

A Room of One’s Own: claiming space in a shrinking universe

by Diana Jenkins

So okay, yes, the early arrival of your News Editor’s first child plainly exposed the underlying, entirely selfish motives behind this belated feature. You see, I was trying to prepare myself for the imminent (and now actual) loss of my office. Dizzy with self-interest, I had hoped to receive a flood of responses from alumni – soothing tales of how others have coped with such radical domestic rezoning, heartwarming assurances that the writing life would go on all but unchanged, ingenious suggestions for maximising the untold utility of any room with a closing door… but no. By some unspoken cosmic law of initiation, it was almost as if you could smell my desperation, and collectively you averted your gaze with the wisdom that knows one must pass through this valley alone: kiss your office goodbye, sweetie, it’s gone and it ain’t coming back. Thank you. No, really. I think I’m up to speed now.

A Room of One's Own cover
I did gratefully receive one contribution, from alumna Anne Cook. Sending her response in epistolary form, even Anne wrote not to me, but to Virginia Woolf, whose famous Cambridge lecture is now a Penguin classic and required reading for writers (and in particular women writers) everywhere.

Now, while Edgar Allen Poe may have ruminated at length on this undeliverable (rather than purloined) letter, we here at the Varuna GPO have redirected (reclaimed, readdressed) it for your New Year edification (which is so much more fun than resolution, don’t you find?):

Dear Virginia

I know what you mean about ‘a room of one’s own’. It’s obvious really, isn’t it? As shining a truth as each of the wonders you brought forth, your perfectly formed small novels, for example. And other pieces.

(Dear Virginia, did ‘stream-of consciousness’ do you in, in the end?)

To get back to my room of my own, I only wish that I could, but about a year ago it morphed into the spare bedroom. I am not bitter, don’t get me wrong, I let it happen … No (be honest, Anne), actually, it was my idea, born in a several-months’-long moment of … of … the affliction that dare not utter its own name … yes, you’ve guessed, haven’t you ….. ssshhhh …. (writer’s block)

It started the way a cold or flu starts: you know, you don’t admit it is happening. My computer and I became refugees in the house, going from desk to table to flat surface anywhere, dragging along with us a small suitcase filled with notes and books (the suitcase salvaged from a neighbourhood throw-out day; I think you would admire my little meannesses!)

It is blue and sturdy [with] old fashioned clunky locks and lined with a tartan fabric. It is small enough to be kicked under a bed or hidden behind a door when the ghosts return at the end of their busy days at school and work, to assume their substantial forms and want stuff … dinner, talk, mercy …

Dear Virginia, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but were you hurt by your childlessness, were you? Really?

It would have hurt me, but only because I know what it really means, which you did not. In other words, what we do not apprehend cannot by its absence hurt us? Perhaps? I hope so, for both our sakes. But your imagination was famously large: perhaps you knew the squalor just beneath the surface of Vanessa’s life ....

And she was so busy painting and being domestic and sexual and sociable down there in – wherever it was – Kent? Filling the divine English pre-war summers with visitors, friends and lovers, the lawns with picnics and games, laughter, covering every surface with astonishing patterns, gorgeous colour … with life. Did she rub your face in it? Sisters can be cruel.

It does not seem that her husband and lovers were very handy with the shopping list and the laundry and the childcare. And the staff were, well, long suffering, wouldn’t you say? Until they’d had enough …

So perhaps you had it … better … in a way. But perhaps not. Vanessa could not have filled her deep cardigan pockets with rocks and dragged her heavy heart down to the river to drown. Even though yours was an utterly sane idea, under the circumstances; I mean I myself cannot imagine wanting to go on living in a world where death and destruction hail down out of the sky on an almost daily basis.

But Vanessa could not afford the luxury of your so-called insanity, could she, not with husband, children, friends and lovers to look after?

You will be pleased to know, anyway, that I am setting myself up in a new room of my own. It is closer to the kitchen and on the way to the clothesline, and, mercifully, years away from the nursery. Even so I know I will never write like you, but then, you can never live like me.

Now that’s what I call a story with a happy ending – Anne’s is ultimately a tale of relocation rather than loss. A house with spare rooms: wow. In fact, that description in the final paragraph makes me imagine Anne’s new space as spontaneously generating, filling a void both spatial and psychological, answering her need in so many metres square. And isn’t that precisely what a dedicated writing room does? No wonder we all work so well at Varuna.

Personally I don’t doubt Woolf’s sense that one’s spatial environment impacts one’s writing, her central claim being that one needs a room dedicated to the purpose, but in practice it’s more to do with other people’s access to us, isn’t it? The room is really just a metaphor for being allowed to write in peace. One Varuna friend’s writing is constantly disturbed by her husband, whose need to urgently enter their office is predicated solely on her every attempt to work in it. Her situation reminds me of my own husband, who all but stamps his foot if I try to continue working once he’s crossed the threshold at day’s end. If I succeed in ignoring him for more than a couple of minutes, he stamps back and forth past my desk exclaiming, “Llewie’s home! Llewie’s home!” until I have no choice but to laugh and give up. You might have the room, see, but it’s your loved ones’ interruptions that will get you in the end.

In our quest to commit words to paper and screen, most of us will use a motley variety of writing spaces over the years. Many of us will routinely rove about the house with our laptops just as Anne described, begging a flat surface as others might keen for coin. Even in the writing of this short feature, I’ve used multiple sites, both throughout my apartment and beyond it, across multiple, snatched units of time. Beggars, needless to say, can’t be choosers.

One fine day I’d love a separate space, something entirely discrete that has nothing to do with where I live. And I wouldn’t need to be isolated from all and sundry, no, no. I very much like working in close proximity to other writers; shared artist studios always make me so wistful. Does anyone else remember the fabulous old Blackwattle Bay artists’ warehouse in Sydney’s Glebe? What a space! Artists honeycombed throughout this vast old tumbledown industrial site, together and yet apart, a community of practitioners with somewhere to make, store, share and display their art. God I loved it there, having a great big sticky-beak at all the artists at work on my way through to what used to be a pretty fantastic public café down the far end. Of course the developers who ate Sydney soon took care of this irreplaceable creative setting, and there are blocks of apartments there now.

When I read A Room of One’s Own before getting pregnant last year, like Anne I was immediately struck by Woolf’s childlessness. A room and fifty quid a year might indeed suffice if one’s attention is not constantly required elsewhere, but, so I wondered, how on earth do parents write in the early years of their children’s lives? And now I am one myself, this question persists with ever more hysterical urgency. How do I write now?

And it’s not so much a question, in the end, of where, as Woolf supposed, but when. In these two months of mothering a newborn, I have entered a new space and time continuum. Traditional temporal measures – minutes, hours, days and weeks – have been exposed as shape-shifters at every turn, and their meaning is no longer stable. Okay, so my office has been commandeered and transformed into Poo HQ, I get that, but I’ve always been able and willing to write anywhere, I’m not fussy, easy come, easy go – but when? When? WHEN WHEN WHEN WHEN WHEN??? Even as I write this, sitting on the couch with my laptop across my legs, my eyes stinging with raw exhaustion, my baby is unsettled in the next room, and I must go to him. He has reflux and is overtired to boot, so these crying jags are long and painful, flattening us both.

It’s later now – days later. I have fled with my laptop to one of the cafes near home as my sister-in-law has the baby for an hour (thank you, M, thank you, thank you, thank you). While some women would opt for a manicure or massage during the brief reprieve, writing this feature is all I want to do. And if I had any more tick tock, I’d write a new post for my blog. If I had a whole day (now I’m just tormenting myself), I’d start the short story that’s been burbling in the back of my mind for weeks. But there’s no time – the reflux devours what little remains, because my little man needs be held upright and soothed after every portion of every feed. And I don’t mind at all, I really don’t, I just want him to feel better, but my commitment to him doesn’t address or cancel the compulsive strain of this thing we all do and can’t help, the constant tug to type or write – something, anything. Always.

This need plagues me. It chases me down no matter where I am – alone or in a crowd, in my office or on a ferry. It gnaws at me the way pokies must sing a particular tune to gambling addicts, and the way dealers must dance as pied pipers to their perpetually pinned clientele. If I don’t write, I don’t rest. I stare longingly at my computer during feeds – I’m having wrist trouble, some hormonal, carpel tunnel thing, so visions of writing and feeding were scotched weeks ago. My mind is restless and troubled, denied its usual therapeutic channel. And it occurs to me that I write my way to wellness, and so it is imperative: I must find some writing time. I must. The space will take care of itself – it is of no account when everything is stripped away.

'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall': thus spake the English intellectual and literary critic Cyril Connolly.

When I first read those words, they sent a chill down my childless spine. On rainy days, I still feel it, a kind of arthritis in my psyche. At the time I was approaching the fork in the road – to procreate or not to procreate, that is the question – and Connolly’s words contained everything I feared about the Great Unknown of parenthood. I recalled some of the Western world’s women writers, and sure enough, a good portion were childless: Woolf herself, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot. The trend is current: Lionel Shriver (by choice) and Hilary Mantel (by painful misfortune). I couldn’t shake this sense that motherhood would extinguish my writer self as surely as a single candle would snuff atop the phantom child’s first cake. The thought made me wretched.

J G Ballard And then I read the late J. G. Ballard’s counter comment. The British master of dystopia said, in so many words, that his children were in fact the making of his imagination, and so my wick flared back to life.

I have clung to Ballard’s words ever since. For beyond the dead candle as my writing soul’s tombstone, cresting a lopsided iced treat, sat the visage of a chubby, beaming little face. Ballard said Connolly aspired to a certain type of dilettante life in which children might indeed prove difficult, and so I wondered both what life I wanted, and what life I would ultimately live.

Now the prospect has come to pass. The theoretical is now real. My beautiful baby sleeps beside me as I write – who cares where – and I see that my shrinking universe is also a rapidly expanding one. My son shook with laughter in his sleep the other day, my perfect nine-week-old boy, and I wait impatiently – so, so impatiently – for the day when he will tell me his dreams.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Toil and Trouble.

‘Rub it for luck: rites and rituals of the spooky art.’ You have a special coffee mug that is all you’ll use when you’re sitting at your desk writing. You have a soundtrack that must accompany your redrafting. Or perhaps it’s apparel you prefer, donning a lucky shirt or pair of jeans when conveying to your manuscript that you really mean business this time. You keep a treasured box of clippings and ideas, and it sits on a secret shelf. You hide all your bad writing under your bed. You have to face due east in order to tune into your muse. You smoke a cigarette at the end of every chapter draft. You surf at sunrise. You keep favourite books beside you as you write – or perhaps you shun other writers altogether while you work. At promptly 6 pm every night, you pour yourself a glass of wine, and read over the day’s words. Whatever your superstitions and habits around writing, we want to hear them! Please don’t be shy – writers are all eccentrics, we all observe certain rituals when we work, however small, so let’s share a few around.


Alumna Llewellyn Prain was awarded the inaugural short story prize in the Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards. The prize, awarded by the Society of Women Writers of Western Australia, was announced at a ceremony in Perth on January 18. See here for all the details. You can also follow Llewellyn via her website.

Dale Harcombe is celebrating the launch of her novel Streets on a Map.

Alison Booth, a Varuna alumnus and author of Stillwater Creek, has just published her second novel, entitled The Indigo Sky.

Barbara Holloway, Varuna alumnus, has co-edited Halfway House, the Poetics of Australian Spaces, with Jennifer Rutherford. Released in November 2010 by UWA Publishing.

Peter Coghill participated in a Varuna Publisher Fellowship last winter, and the result is his first book of poetry, Rockclimber's Hands is available from Picaro Press for just $15.
One poem, Aubade, recently won the Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize.

Lisa Walker, who participated in the Varuna HarperCollins program in 2010, has had two books accepted for publication by HarperCollins. The first, Liar Bird will be published December 2011.

Read all about these exciting new release Alumni titles at Varuna Books.

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