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Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

Wow.  Today, right now, I find myself feeling peaceful, so very peaceful.  It might have something to do with the blue sky, which is such a relief after the weather we’ve had around these Southern Tableland parts, blustery and drizzly, sleety even, so it makes your hands turn grey-black and your nose feel as though it’s going to snap off.  But it’s not just the weather, that deep dark blue Goulburn sky.  No, it’s because yesterday, I feel, something momentous happened.  It’s not momentous as in a change of government, or a great sporting achievement (as if sport can ever be such a thing), it’s just momentous to me.

You see, yesterday I submitted my second novella to my publisher.  Yes, I’ve done this before; I’d thought I was finished, because I felt finished.  It must have been some kind of trick, because Blemish Books came back with changes, good changes, and wise, which then set in train changes I wanted to make.  So that’s how the last seven days have been, making changes to a manuscript and thinking about changes, even at night, and making more of the bloody things, until everything – everything – is perfect.

So I hope.

I’ve been going through I’m Ready Now with a fine-toothed comb, well, in reality it was just a Bic pen.  I’ve agonised over words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters.  I’ve never forgotten something that the Australian children’s-book author Mem Fox once said: ‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and their meaning.’  So that’s what I’ve been doing: wrestling with words and their meanings until I’ve ached.  Until the deadline loomed, the deadline that was 5pm yesterday.

At 4.45pm yesterday I bundled up the manuscript onto a flash-drive, loaded it onto my laptop, crafted an email…and pressed SEND.  The next time I see the manuscript it will be professionally laid out, and the opportunity for making changes will be limited.  Oh, what a relief.  Last night I celebrated with a glass of wine and a fire in the hearth.  And two steaks of salmon, which was an extravagance, but why not.  I slept well.

Today, yes, such extraordinary peace, as though every worry I’ve had has simply dissolved.  But I’ve not given myself a day off – I’ve been in the writing room, in uggboots and tracksuit pants and an old stripy-brown jumper my mother knitted for me when I was a teenager and I’ve kept it with me all this time, it has holes but who cares.  And I’ve worked, going back to another project, except I’ve taken it easy.  I’ve even allowed myself to listen to music: the soundtrack to the BBC serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than wrapping myself in a blanket, lying down on the couch, and writing school-boy fiction to the Brideshead soundtrack, which would be on LP and on repeat.

So here I am, thirty years later, doing exactly that, although I’m at a desk and the music is on CD and I hope the words I write amount to more than school-boy fiction.  Whatever I write, however I’m Ready Now is received, today has been one of the most peaceful days in my life.  And I am so very thankful that writing remains with me.  Tomorrow I might feel differently, perhaps even the opposite, but today is today and today is calm, serene, still.  So very still.

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