Everyone has their reading habits. There are the ‘thou-shalt-not-crack-the-spine’ folks who read like perverts, peeking between narrowly opened pages. There are those who open books like they’re skinning rabbits, ripping the cover right around and ravaging any semblance of binding. There are the origami-ists, the ‘I-must-dog-ear-this-novel-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life’ readers, and the annotators, who write statements like, ‘I strongly disagree!’ or ‘See chapter 7’, and who are often ultimately banned from borrowing books from friends. Pervert reader: ‘You did what?’ Annotator: ‘I made some observations. You see, I’ve discovered the very subtle use of leitmot…’ Pervert reader: ‘Shut up. You’ve defiled Isabel Allende.’ There are the zombies (those who lose track of the time–space continuum and cannot be awoken from their reading, even by teary ultimatums from partners or natural disasters), the obsessives (who read everything – the imprint page, acknowledgements, index), the polygamists (who read more than one book at once), and finally, the cheaters (who read the last page first, something many people – including myself – consider both evil and masochistic, and probably tantamount to willingly watching a kitten being run over by a clown driving a steamroller).
It’s useful to know what sort of reader you are. I’m a mixture of several of the above: mainly a zombie, with a dash of the reformed pervert/polygamist; a happily monogamous annotator with a big splash of the obsessive. This latter quirk is a new one for me, most likely a result of my swelling ego (love to see my name in size 8 font on that imprint page, ooh yeah), but it’s rewarding. Since becoming an obsessive I have taken an especial interest in reading the acknowledgements and thank you pages in novels. Not only is it often heart-warming to see famous writers thank their little people, but I also find it interesting to see what they thank these people for. Often it’s for virtues: wisdom, patience, love; sometimes for weird things: gin, honky-tonk, conversations about the sexual habits of bats; but most often you see things like: ‘I’d like to thank <insert non-famous person’s name> for the solitude’, or ‘long nights in Alaska’, or ‘space’, or ‘time’, or ‘letting me stay’. There’s always someone, I have noticed, who is thanked for some kind of retreat, some kind of peace and quiet, thanks to which the novelist was able to finish their book.
Lee Kofman talked about the need for writers to have ‘clear air in which to work’ on Radio National’s Book Show in 2008 (I’m a bit behind in my podcasts). She said that it is often difficult to muster the mental discipline necessary for writing when you’re surrounded by domestic chaos and a busy social life. This is when ‘retreats’ become important, she said. A retreat can be ‘an office, a study, a basement or an attic’, but it needs to be ‘an “other” place’, a ‘private space away from the fray’. Some writers, she commented, have friends who give them a space to work in. Others, she said, who can afford to, book rooms in hotels. Then, for the talented and those who can afford them, there are formal writers’ retreats.
I have understood the importance of writers’ retreats from a young age. When I was six I wrote my first story (about a fish who rescues his family from imminent death after the arrival of a fish and chip shop by hooking old boots onto the fishing lines) and after lavish praise from my family and teacher, I was decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. But I soon found that the demands of ordinary life, namely my four-year old sister wanting to eat play-dough with me, were affecting my mental discipline. Realising implicitly that what I required was to find some ‘alone time’, I packed up my paper and crayons and made a nest in my cupboard, in which I happily scribbled in the dark until my sister found me and started eating the crayons.
In the next few years, I continued to seek places in which I could escape domestic chaos (the making of school lunches, my sister’s impromptu dance performances to the music of Jesus Christ Superstar) in order to compose my stories. The space under our trampoline was tranquil (until my sister began bouncing on said trampoline), the next paddock was fine as long as the paper didn’t get sheep poo on it, and the oak tree was useful so long as there weren’t too many spiders.
As I grew up, however, it became hard to explain the cupboard-sitting to my fellow teenagers, and the trampoline canvas rotted into a child-sized death-trap. I was forced to retreat indoors to my bedroom and write at my desk under the watchful eyes of the Hanson brothers, hoping that I wouldn’t be bothered by selfish mothers/fathers/sisters interrupting me with gifts of tea and biscuits and hugs/active and sincere interest in my life.
When I moved out and began my PhD, I would sometimes go to the reading room of the Barr Smith Library, and later the State Library of Victoria, for the peace and quiet I needed to get my thoughts in order. Unfortunately this often resulted in me pretending I was at Hogwarts, which would then lead to inappropriate fantasies about Alan Rickman. Also, I enjoy working at strange times of the day, and libraries could not, would not accommodate my frequent compulsion to write at 6am in old t-shirts and knickers. As a typical student who, evidently, could not afford pyjamas, the luxury of a formal retreat was out of my grubby-handed reach unless I could get a residency.
Late last year I met the lovely Peter Bishop, the director of Varuna Writers’ House. Varuna attempts to provide writers with ‘ideal conditions in which to concentrate on their work’, and although they don’t state what these conditions are, a quick read of their website suggests that they include limited access to internet (read: no Facestalk), a lack of ‘disturbance’, no television, no visitors, a natural environment (it’s in the Blue Mountains) and an open fire. Many well-known Australian writers – including Sophie Cunningham, Kate Holden, Toni Jordan, Cate Kennedy, Rachel Power, Tim Sinclair and Charlotte Wood – have visited and publicly expressed gratitude for the place. After chatting with Mr Bishop I wondered whether I ought to apply for a residency. ‘I like open fires,’ I thought to myself. ‘I like natural environments. Done deal.’
To be continued…