I’m thrilled to have Donna Mazza as my guest in the attic this week. I’m sure all writers will relate to her post about writing desks and rooms, as we all yearn for a place to write that’s beautiful and tranquil. But this story is also about improvisation, and how Donna produced some of her best work in a poky room with no view at all.
Donna writes poetry and fiction and is an academic at Edith Cowan University, based in the South West of Western Australia.
She is the author of Fauna (Allen & Unwin, 2020) and The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007), which won the TAG Hungerford Award. Her stories, poetry and other works have been published in Westerly, The Conversation, Antipodes, Southerly, Arena and The Indian Quarterly. She was recipient of the Mick Dark Flagship Fellowship for Environmental Writing at Varuna Writers Centre and won the Tyrone Guthrie International Exchange Fellowship for 2021.
Her story, The Exhibit, which was the seed of Fauna, was joint winner of the Patricia Hackett Prize. Her poetry is featured on public art works in Western Australia, including Busselton Jetty and Wardandi Boodja at Koombana Bay, Bunbury.
A Desk of One’s Own
Twenty years ago, when I was a PhD student, I had the wonderful privilege of an office with large windows looking out on to a backyard full of tall eucalypts. It was a generous office with shelf space for books, a printer and my own desk: a table which my dad restored that was once the fish-cleaning table at Koombana Bay caravan park in Bunbury.
Chunks of wood had been sheared off its turned legs, probably hacked off by a large filleting knife sometime in its history. It’s honey-coloured top was saved from the blight of fish-guts and scales by a thick layer of old linoleum and my dad oiled its newly-bared wood with linseed, so it smelled nutty and was smooth and golden.
This was a great head-start for me writing my first novel, The Albanian (Fremantle Press, 2007). But I often sat under the trees instead of at the desk, drank tea with friends when I could have been working, and spent considerable time with my gander and chickens.
Before long we had to move, and so began my wistful memory of this idyllic writing space where, in fact, I achieved very little.
My next study was a tiny concrete portico adjacent to our laundry, blocked in by a long-gone home handyman with a bad ‘80s budget. My Koombana Bay fish-table only just fit, with space for a small bookshelf and a chair. The view was a brick wall and a brown aluminium window that didn’t fully open, but wound out so a slit of air could enter and escape. The whole space resembled those awful cells at Fremantle Prison and smelled like limey concrete and laundry powder. There were a dozen concrete stairs between me and the paved back garden so there was absolutely no incentive to look outside or spend time away from my writing.
In this solitary confinement I wrote at breakneck pace while my daughter was in day-care two days a week, completed my PhD and finished my novel.
As life went on, I started working as an academic with an on-campus office so had no need to use my fish-table. It entered the purgatory of a shipping container on our new block of land while we built our own house.
There it stayed, until it was evicted and sat under a tree covered by a sheet of corrugated iron. When I did uncover it again, wet gum leaves and insects had created an ecosystem on its golden top, but my wonderful father worked magic on it again, replacing part of the table with something he’d scrounged from a wardrobe at the rubbish tip. In its new incarnation it became a desk for my daughter.
But I longed for it. I coveted my lucky fish-table, grieving for my own writing desk. I couldn’t write in my office at work, with its laminated cream desk, frequent pinging emails and humming air conditioner. My writing happened in short bursts of time away at blissful Varuna residency weeks or in my car at soccer training or at kids’ swimming lessons.
This was my short story life for quite a while. This was the wilderness where I discovered a new voice in fiction and liberated myself from realism. The wilderness where I met my inner poet. Without this desk-less time I never would have arrived at writing Fauna.
When I was given a six-month sabbatical from teaching in 2017, I knew I wanted to write a novel but said I would write stories because I was terrified of not fulfilling that promise. My fundamental issue was that I had nowhere to write.
Dad came through again and handed over another old table, resonant with family history. This one, from my grandmother’s kitchen, was about the size of a bread board and still had the scent of crusty loaves, fennel and pecorino cheese.
I squeezed it into my bedroom, topped it with a cardboard box for a bookshelf and stacked my research under the laptop until it was at eye-level. Spines of books on Neanderthal archaeology and de-extinction science lined my view. This tiny focal point compressed my thoughts and I hammered out Fauna on there with such frenzy that the vowels dislodged from my keyboard.
As a writer, I look for patterns and themes. I wonder what these tables gave to the work they produced. I am aware that want of a table, or a view, will not stop me from writing and something about restriction builds up the pressure that creates a head of steam, which eventually erupts into writing energy that sustains long work. When it was over, my bread-board table became a desk for my other daughter and I was in the wilderness again.
I do have my eye on another small table that once belonged to my Great Aunty Flo and has been home to bird cages for many years. When Dad has sanded off the guano, I wonder what it will leach into my next work.
The gifts that life gives, the inheritance of tables, the improvisation of making a writing space that works is all part of trusting the creative process.
If I ever do find another room with a view, I wonder if it might ruin my productivity and I wonder too what this desk-less time will give me; where the trail of writing will lead.
For me, at least, the path to story meanders and part of writing is to just trust it will eventually lead to the place I want to be.
I have a fabulous book giveaway this week:
THREE BOOKS by different Australian women authors
a TOTE to carry them in!
The three books are:
Fauna by Donna Mazza
Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson
The Spill by Imbi Neeme
And the tote has Katherine’s cover design on the front. (See pic below.)
To enter just comment on the blog or social media posts. Your comment can be about anything—saying hello is enough! For this post, you might want to talk about a desk or room that’s meant a lot to you.
Posts by the other authors are coming up in the attic over the next week and a bit, and each comment on a post by a different author will count as another entry. That means if you comment on one social media post per author, you’ll have three entries in the draw.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) on Thursday, 18th June, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but I can only post to an Australian address.