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7

A place in which to write

At the moment I’m house-sitting in an apartment in Clifton Hill in Melbourne. It’s a cute little deco building and there are apartments below and above me, and all around are the windows and balconies of other brick buildings. I sit on the balcony to write, looking up at the chimney tops and out at all the other apartments across from me. In the morning I watch the suited corporate people leave, striding down the long driveway, and then it’s just myself and the day dwellers.

The sound of the guy downstairs playing his guitar keeps me company. Sometimes he stops and I know that we’re both procrastinating at the same time. There’s the couple who both read their iPads over late breakfast at the kitchen table, and the man with a life-size anatomical skeleton hanging at the window – possibly a med student, or just someone who has a rather macabre taste in interior design. Their daily routines give structure to my days. At night, I love to sit out there and see the different shades of light glowing from their windows.

Writing is such an incredibly solitary activity – a passive, quiet, often lonely thing, and so I’ve always needed to write by a window, to gaze out at something, without ever really looking, while I’m trying to order my thoughts or gain some sort of inspiration. A blank wall cannot provide the same effect, nor can a desk facing inwards to a room or an office – the writer’s block that strikes me is crippling.

Perhaps because of this, my favourite film has always been Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Weirdly, for a plot that involves a rather horrific murder, I’ve always found something comforting about it. The sort of film you put on when you’re sick or lonely or heartbroken. It’s the set-up: the wide bay windows of Jeff’s apartment that look out into a constellation of windows – like little worlds into which you can gaze for a while. Yes, the film is incredibly voyeuristic, but the comfort of the film – and of living in this house for the next few weeks – is not voyeurism, but rather the feeling of having company while being captive (in Jeff’s case because of a broken leg, in mine a looming PhD deadline).

Growing up, in my house in the suburbs, there was little activity going on outside my window, just the swaying of the green leaves of the giant oak tree. We lived opposite a railway line, and when I would be awake all night finishing uni assignments, powered by little more than coffee and terror, I would long for the trains to recommence at 5am to make me feel as though I wasn’t the only person alive in the world at that time. At 5am even your own cat has given up on you – a desertion I remember feeling keenly.

But it’s interesting to think about how important the ways we write are, as much as what it is we write. The little rituals or habits, the strange superstitions we have about composing, the things that must occur if we are to have any success. For me, it’s just the presence of a window, preferably high up.

There’s a passage I love in John Fante’s cult novel Ask The Dust – which details the life of a struggling writer living in L.A. – in which he looks at a house and has a similar feeling that a particular place, a certain positioning of your typewriter/laptop would be the key to writing success and inspiration:

The house was like a twin-gabled place, with a white picket fence around it, not fifty yards from the shore. The backyard was a bed of white sand. It was well furnished, full of bright curtains and water-colors. I liked it best because of that one room upstairs. It faced the sea. I could put my typewriter at the window, and I could work. Ah man, I could do a lot of work at that window. I could just look out beyond that window and it would come, and merely looking at that room I was restless, and I saw sentence after sentence marching across the page.

Yet he doesn’t live there, he’s following a girl who doesn’t love him and so instead he returns to the dingy hotel he lived in for years when struggling as a writer, in a tiny rundown room where he composed his first novel. But he’s given a different room and is searching around for a place to put his typewriter, but it’s not the same and he cannot write.

I got back to the hotel, someone had taken my old room during the night. Everything was awry now. I took another room on the main floor, but I didn’t like it. Everything was going to pieces. The new room was so strange, so cold, without one memory…I set my typewriter in one place and then another. It didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Something was wrong, everything was wrong.

I always like to hear about the routines and structures novelists have when they’re composing – as though learning their secrets might be the key to making it easy and quick. Of course, there is no trick, no key, the words either come to you or they don’t. But sitting up here, high among the chimney tops and the softly glowing windows has done little to curb my writing superstitions, as I, like Bandini, watch sentence after sentence march across the page.

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  • 1
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I am also always fascinated by people’s processes and routines. And reading about them provides some sort of comfort that I’m not alone in the solitary activity. My desk is set up in the lounge room, not my bedroom and I often work best when people around me populate the room, doing their own thing, but hopefully not talking directly at me. It doesn’t always work though. Going to RMIT this year, I hope that hanging out in the bustle of the Caf between classes might provide a great environment for me to work.

  • 2
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Yes, the lovely soft murmur of a crowded room is a wonderful condition for writing.
    I think the window, like the hum of people around you, is – exactly as you say – just all about the feeling of not being alone in this solitary activity.

  • 3
    Alan Davies
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Bethanie, the view from your apartment put me in mind of Ryan David Jahn’s novel, Good Neighbors. I’m only a quarter of the way through it, but I think I’ve read enough to know your neighbours are a gentler lot!

  • 4
    Daniel Golding
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that you talk about Rear Window as comforting. It’s also one of my absolute favourite films, and for similar reasons. I think it’s possibly partly because the set is such a ‘set’ – the world of L.B. Jefferies feels a little bit like a wind-up clock, with each of the residents performing their comfortably familiar actions (yes, even murder) with routine satisfaction. Great post, Bethanie.

  • 5
    plumeofwords
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    great post! I found it fascinating when I heard Gerald Murnane say that he wrote in a bare room with the curtains drawn — to think that such imagination could spring from such circumstances!

  • 6
    Suzannah Marshall Macbeth
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I was sorting through some old emails and came across the email where a friend sent me the link to this six months ago. It was lovely to revisit this article, Bethanie, at a time when I’m trying to regain the rhythms and habits that make for productivity and enjoyment in my writing. These things always take a while to fall back into place after a period of time where writing has been on the backburner. Thanks for the inspiration and the reminder not to neglect the writing space.

  • 7
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely comment! Thank you. Hope you find a place equally as inspiring to write.

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