It’s been over four years since I last had a dedicated writing space. Recently I’ve been wondering about the effect of this absence on both my creativity and productivity. I have a good track record with desks: I love them and work well at them. There’s no real question in my mind that I’ve written so much less these past four years than at any other time of my life not simply because of the demands of motherhood, but because I’ve had nowhere to work.
When our eldest son was born, I lost my obscenely palatial office (weirdly the largest room in our apartment) and the majestic desk that only just fit in it. The desk wasn’t really a desk at all, rather a sizeable communal table from the restaurant around the corner. We merrily stumbled home one night, back when such evenings were the norm, and there it was on the footpath outside our favourite local nosh spot, with a sign reading ‘Make an offer’ stuck to the top. We’d dined around that table with friends – we already had a relationship with it. It was disturbing to see such a proud piece brought so low, soliciting offers. We were troubled by the table’s suddenly uncertain future.
Spontaneity ruled the roost in those days, and so the table made it home that very night. Imagine our mute surprise the next morning, when we tumbled from bed with sore heads and came to the uneasy realisation that there was a new and worryingly substantial presence sharing our apartment with us. The table’s vastness diminished and terrorised us. It also inspired, sustained and touched us.
Of necessity, it became my writing desk as well as our formal dining table. In his masterful memoir, On Writing, Stephen King talks about the need to keep one’s desk small, modest and unassuming, but for me my desk worked – I felt the table’s grand scale demanded certain things of me, like extreme productivity and Olympian grit. I worked very hard to be equal to it.
My first son was born in late November 2010. My office promptly became the nursery and the table became a chaotic baby-change zone, its top covered in piles of nappies, wipes, muslin wraps, baby clothes. The table’s daunting size became increasingly problematic: what the hell were we thinking? It was absurd having such a thing crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. It was an industrial item, never intended for domestic use, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to be working at it any time soon either. Suddenly the table seemed outright ludicrous.
But oh, how we loved that table, and we didn’t want to let it go. Beneath the general mess of soiled nappies and endless baby paraphernalia, I felt the table was suffering some of the degradations and deprivations of parenthood right along with me. The ferocity of my mother love notwithstanding, I sorely missed the ample time and space I’d enjoyed at my table in my former writing life.
Fate intervened in April 2012: my husband was made redundant. We rented out our place and friends accommodated the table on their back deck for more than a year while we travelled, cooling our jets in the granny flat beneath my in-laws’ house until we could afford to go home. Eventually we moved back in, but the table went to storage and there it remains. Waiting for a future in which we have a home large enough to welcome it. Who knows if that day shall ever come? In the meantime, the table’s absence has been deeply felt, not least because I never regained a writing space to call my own.
Until now, that is.
Ironically, it was being pregnant with my second child last year that brought the situation to a head. Until then I’d just about managed to keep going by working with my laptop resting on my knees, sitting hunched on an ottoman in the sunroom: the final frontier. No. 2’s arrival required a radical rezoning of that small space too. Farewell, ottoman. Hello, bassinet.
We knew as soon as I got pregnant that my days working in the sunroom were numbered, but it was only when I was about six months pregnant that I really lost my temper about having nowhere to work. One day my husband muttered some disapproving remark about my laptop always being ‘dumped’ on the ottoman and I. Just. Snapped. I usually try very hard not to swear in front of children, including mine, but the three of us were in the car and I was so overtaken by blind rage that I just started shouting. I’m sure I genuinely frightened both husband and son. Unborn child was probably pretty rattled too.
“STOP THE CAR!” I screamed – and I mean screamed. “Maybe if I didn’t have to do every motherfucking thing I wouldn’t have to ‘dump’ my laptop there the second, the very instant I file a story for work, so that I can run to kindy pick up, then run home to bring in the washing, then run inside to start making dinner – I do EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING. So excuse me if I don’t get the fucking chance to pack up my fucking computer so that you can put up your feet the second you get home. STOP THE FUCKING CAR.”
This last while thumping the closed window with my fist, head thrashing wildly. My husband duly pulled over. I got out, screamed a couple more choice expletives at the top of my voice, and slammed the door so hard I thought I might have broken my thumb.
I went and sat in the gutter around the corner from the car, shaking with fury. My resentment was so hot I wouldn’t have been surprised if blisters had spontaneously erupted all over my skin. As I tried explaining afterwards – in my best Reasonable Voice – I didn’t even so much mind having nowhere to work, but I really did mind being criticised for leaving my laptop out whenever I had no choice but to work somewhere. It was after that we knew something had to change. When I eventually got back in the car, my husband – the king of deadpan – waited a moment before saying, “So…something tells me this has been bothering you for a while.”
This is not the first time I’ve been moved to write about writing spaces. My February 2011’s Varuna Alumni Feature was entitled ‘A Room of One’s Own: claiming space in a shrinking universe’. I reread it with greedy interest now it’s four years down the road and I have a second child in tow. The significant change is that as of last week, I have a desk (punches the air Judd Nelson style). It’s official: I have a corner of one’s own. I’m writing this in several instalments, at my desk, in a corner of my bedroom, while my baby boy sleeps. Huzzah!
When installation day arrived (my desk is wall-mounted – we are all about space economy these days), the guys from the furniture store, deliberating about the ideal desk height, asked me: “How tall is your husband?”
“I fail to see how that’s in any way relevant,” I said.
They laughed. But I also meant what I said. While it’s true that I can be petty – it’s undoubtedly one of my worst qualities – this question of my claiming a tiny space for myself that’s specifically for writing is no small thing. It’s so big, in fact, that I’ve come to realise that my mental health depends on it.
A few days after my desk was installed, my husband came home needing to take a work call, right when the whole dinner-bath-and-bed madness was in full swing. My eldest ranged throughout the length of the apartment, wild with overtiredness, and my husband stood on the nursery’s threshold, head slowly swivelling back toward our room as he looked for a spot to take the call in peace.
After an awkward silence, eventually he gestured to the desk: “I could…take it there…?”
I shook my head and quietly said, “No.”
Mean? Maybe. Maybe it is horribly mean-spirited of me not to share, and maybe in time I will. But for Christ’s sake, I hadn’t even had a chance to sit at it yet myself! And here it was already: the inevitable intrusion. My husband is my love and my best friend, but the thought of his casual appropriation of my tiny corner made me burn with territorial heat.
“Off limits?” he said.
My maiden session at the desk was dispiriting, spent as it was addressing a long overdue tax return, but now here I sit in my tiny corner, writing this post for Lee’s wonderful blog, beginning to imagine a world in which I shall one day complete the redraft of my YA fiction manuscript. I have staked a claim, and this, right here, shall be the site of the coming last stand. My last ditch attempt to get that project right before (oh, tantalising prospect!) commencing something new. All of it shall happen at this desk and for the first time in an awfully long while, anything seems possible. Can you hear my happy sigh? Everyone has a version of capturing the castle, and this is mine.
Diana Jenkins is presenting live storytelling event 5×15 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Saturday 23 May, featuring celebrated ACO violinist Richard Tognetti, celebrity chef Adam Liaw and more. She is a freelance writer and holds a PhD in English from UNSW. News Editor for Varuna, the National Writers’ House, her articles have appeared in The Australian, The Weekend Australian, The Australian Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, WHO, Deluxe Sydney and more. She writes unpublished fiction whenever motherhood allows.