I’m bouncing around the attic today because I’m thrilled to be hosting this essay by my special guest, Natasha Lester.
Natasha is not only an award-winning writer, but she’s a constant source of writerly knowledge, support, and encouragement for fledgling writers here in WA, and in the rest of Australia.
She’s written a very special piece for the attic, which is exquisitely moving, and which also proves it’s possible to write anywhere and in the toughest of circumstances. I assure you, it’s well worth taking the time to read, especially if you’re a mum.
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for cosmetic company L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. She is also the author of the bestselling historical novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald. Her latest novel, Her Mother’s Secret, has just been published by Hachette Australia. The Age has described Natasha as “a remarkable Australian talent” and her work been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
When she’s not writing or teaching writing, Natasha can be found doing headstands at yoga, drinking tea and reading stories to her three children. You can also find her at her website, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
You can read more about ‘Her Mother’s Secret’, which was only released last week, here.
My Attics and My Children
My books and my various writing attics over the years are inextricably linked to my children. For instance, I found out I was pregnant with my first child when I was on a writing residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, writing the first draft of my very first book.
Every day for four weeks I sat in an old bedroom at the centre and words poured out of me. It was an indulgently creative time where I had nothing else to do besides write. If I’d known what a precious gift that was, uninterrupted and selfish writing time, perhaps I would have treasured it more. But I was very aware that, as my draft grew in size and complexity and imagination, so too was there a baby growing inside me, every day becoming larger and also more complex, evolving into a unique and remarkable child.
The child is now ten years old and she is a dreamy creature, head permanently lost in a book, the exact replica of the person I was at that residency, unashamedly living in an invented but absorbing world. I can’t help but wonder, every time I look at her, whether the circumstances of the first four weeks of her life helped shape her. Whether, if I’d been doing something logical and mathematical at such an intense level for those four weeks, she’d be a different person entirely.
My next attic was a tiny room adjoining my bedroom at a house we rented while we built our family home. The tiny room quickly became the bedroom for our next baby as well as my writing room because she was born with hip dysplasia and spent much of the first eighteen months of her life in some sort of plaster cast or leg brace. Imagine how hard it would be to sleep with a cast that extended from your upper chest down over your torso and belly, along each leg, spreading out and separating each leg so they were a ruler length apart, held in place by what can only be described as a broom handle. So no, she didn’t sleep a lot, hence her quick removal from her own room and into the writing room, which was close to my bed.
I insisted on calling it my writing room, though, even while I knew it was a lie. I rarely wrote in that room at first. Instead I Googled everything I could find on hip dysplasia, discovering that a hairdryer on a cool setting helped dry the skin inside the cast after a nappy change, discovering that Stayfree Maternity pads were recommended for placing inside the hole in the cast that the surgeons helpfully left for nappy changes.
I grew frustrated and ashamed of myself for wanting to write when my child was in pain, when she was left even more immobile than usual for a baby because the cast prevented her from sitting or crawling; I was her prop. She could only interact with the world from my arms, the lead weight of her plaster cast and the inconveniently placed broom handle making my muscles ache the same way my heart ached for words.
The book that eventually poured out at that time was a dark thing, about mothers and daughters and art and the body and the spirit and the soul. Despite its darkness, it was published and it became my second book, If I Should Lose You. Even now, when I look at the book, I remember the tiny room, the child sleeping in the hammock in her red cast, the pungent odour of six-week old plaster marinated in all the fluids babies produce frequently and explosively.
But the cast came off, the family home was built and I finally had a room of my own. The first thing I chose was the wallpaper, because that’s the kind of practical person I am, and I designed my office around the wallpaper, a wall of bookshelves, and double doors that open onto the garden. Stepping into this room every day still strikes me with awe; that I am lucky enough to have such a beautiful space in which to write.
In that room, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald was conceived. As with my first two books, I wrote while the kids were sleeping; I’d managed to reach the point in my life where the two older ones were off at school but I still had my son at home with me. And so, from 12.30 until about 2.00pm every day as he napped, I would step into my office and into New York in 1922, and take up the life of Evie until my son woke.
Nothing about any of those rooms or circumstances was perfect. But I wonder if the imperfections were there for a reason.
Nothing about any of those rooms or circumstances was perfect. But I wonder if the imperfections were there for a reason: whether the inescapable awareness that I was growing my very first baby gave that first draft at the writing residency its power and momentum; whether the very claustrophobia of the tiny room at the rented house with my poor, uncomfortable baby taught me that I could write, no matter what; whether writing in snatches around children’s sleeps gave me the discipline and focus that I value so much today.
So now I sit, most days, in my beautiful attic for long, luxurious hours while the kids are at school. That time always passes too quickly, and there’s always more that needs to be done but I know that, whatever I have is enough. That I have learned to write wherever and whenever I can, and that is one of the most valuable skills for a writer to possess.
If you’d like to write an essay for Writers in the Attic, you can contact me here. I’m booked until mid-May, so that gives you plenty of time to write something! I love reading every essay I receive, so please don’t be scared to take the plunge.
600-1000 words is a good length, and all I ask is that the topic is writing-related—anything to do with your writing life or what writing means to you.
I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces and send a small gift as a thank you.