By Camilla Patini, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
I’ve always wondered where and how writers get their work done. I know that my own studying and writing gets done at a rickety desk in my room. It sways as I type because I didn’t assemble it properly when I moved in. It may be missing a few screws here and there. I’m too lazy to fix it, so now I’m stuck with a swaying desk. I guess there are worse things in this world and it doesn’t look as if it’ll fall on me so I don’t mind (we live dangerously, yes we do).
Anyway, I asked four writers to tell me about their writing space and working habits and they kindly obliged. Please read on.
My desk was a freebie from an old housemate. The acrylic top has ‘bucko’ scrawled into it, his nickname. It isn’t comfortable or beautiful to look at, but it’s there and that’s the main thing. I sit on a kitchen chair bolstered with old cushions to get high enough to resemble some kind of ergonomic arrangement. In many ways the whole thing is a sham, because the majority of the writing I do at the moment is in bed, with a pencil and a notebook, late at night before I sleep. And when I do use my laptop, like right now, I use it sitting on the couch in the sun with my legs curled underneath. I get most of my ideas in the shower, which is super impractical but seems to be pretty common among my writer friends.
My desk sits directly next to the workbench of my partner Mat, who is a watchmaker. Occasionally we work side-by-side and I’ve always loved the camaraderie of shared workspaces. While the watches wait to be serviced they sit in various states of disassembly under glass bell jars and the sound of their ticking makes for soothing company.
Mat and our two-year-old son keep my desk equipped with flowers from our garden. The wattle is my favourite even though it makes me sneeze. I have to make sure that before I sit down to work I have a full glass of water and most importantly lip balm (not pictured) because getting up and seeking them out is a big source of procrastination.
My writing desk at the moment is at M16 Artspace in Griffith. I’m here as M16’s inaugural Resident Aspiring Arts Writer. I love being around so many visual artists. As I write this, with my headphones in, I can just about hear the swish of a brush in between Madonna lyrics as Nicky Dickson, whose studio is next to mine, prepares a canvas in the hallway. It’s a creative environment, but it’s also a place where you can just get on with it. Having a dedicated space has made me feel a lot more legitimate as a writer.
My studio is lit by a big fluorescent light and doesn’t have any windows, so I usually keep the door open to let in some natural light. It’s like a bunker in here sometimes, which means I also spend a lot of time writing on my laptop in cafes, or at home on my back deck now that it’s warm. It’s cosy in the evenings though, and I often write spread out on the floor.
My desk is a big white one with pens, notebooks, charcoal, ink and pigment in little jars. One great thing about having this studio is that I’ve been able to put all of the things in here that I consider part of my writing practice, even though they might seem separate. So, I’ve got drawing materials, and sewing things. I’ve got my ballet shoes so I can go nuts dancing in my little window-less studio and no-one’s any the wiser. I’ve got hula hoops which I like to use when I need a bit of energy. There’s a lot more to writing than just words, I reckon.
I do my best writing in cafés, hotel rooms and airports. The solitude and white noise keep me focused. My Neo 2—the contraption on the right-hand side of the desk—has no internet access, no games and a battery life of two weeks. It’s perfect for a writer with a half-finished first draft, a tight deadline and the concentration span of a cocker spaniel pup.
But I do my best editing here at my desk, while my wife, son, dog and chickens try very hard not to distract me. They rarely succeed, but that’s okay. Rewriting doesn’t require as much focus as writing. The necessary tools include pyjamas, coffee and a copy of whichever book I happen to be writing a sequel to. (You’d be amazed how many fans notice and object to little inconsistencies such as the main character’s high school, hair colour, or name changing from book to book.)
I leave the wireless router off and out of reach while I’m working. When I get stuck, this stops me from wasting time online when I should be figuring out how to get unstuck. But I keep my phone handy in case I need to look something up on Wikipedia. I usually also have an inspiration object—okay, usually a toy of some kind—to fiddle with when I’m thinking.
When the house is noisy I like to fight fire with fire by pumping music out of the speakers. The music blots out the racket from elsewhere in the house, but anything with lyrics does more harm than good. It’s hard to write while singing along to Sara Bareilles, so I try to stick to action movie soundtracks.
I have two—no, many—desks.
My main desk is the one I inherited from my father. The story of how that came about is written in my memoir, In My Mother’s Hands. It’s the only part of the book that makes me cry—‘sob’ would be more accurate. I keep thinking it will stop one day, that I’ll be all ‘cried out’, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It has six drawers plus a shelf and an alcove, so it’s the engine-room to my writing. It holds paper, pens, stapler, post-its, sharpeners, rubbers, interview recordings, knick-knacks connected to my writing life, sticky tape, stamps and my financial records. The top supports a full folder rack and two piles of papers, files, cuttings, letters, bills and books that slip and slide about until I call them to order every few weeks. I hardly ever sit at this desk any more—it just is—and no one else can have it while I am alive.
My actual writing happens in longhand while I sit in the little armchair in my study (see picture) or on writing retreats I arrange for myself—a caravan by the Murrumbidgee, a sand-dune in Morocco or a noisy tourist boat on the Mekong in Vietnam.
The long-hand is then transposed to my laptop. This machine lives on my second desk, a truly small cedar table with two drawers—an escritoire? a secretaire?—which was bequeathed to me when I was ten for homework purposes. Apart from the laptop, it holds the notebook I’m transcribing from, spectacles, pens, lamp and a glass of water, so it’s quite squashy—but it faces out through glass doors to my garden. That connection to nature, the colour of the sky on any given day, is essential to my being and to my writing.
Increasingly, however, my laptop and I go out, with her sitting in the basket of my bicycle. We often use one of those newly-emerged community desks, a table in a coffee-shop, for transcribing and editing.
So I write in many places—even pulling the car over on a freeway to record a good phrase. But I always return to my two desks, the window to the garden and the chair that wheels between them: my writing hub.
Camilla Patini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University where she studies History and English Literature. She writes book reviews and until recently, a column on love and relationships for Lip Magazine . Her writing has also appeared in Woroni and rippublishing.