Ever since Virginia Woolf put it out there, a Room of One’s Own has topped most female creatives’ wish list. It’s where one can find solitude, and solitude begets industry. Out of nothing comes something, and that something is art.
At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. If art isn’t happening, perhaps it’s because one of the essential components of a Room of One’s Own is missing.
Own Room Essentials
Creatives need doors. Doors can be shut against the clamour, the persistent insistence of life. A door is an invitation and a rebuff, a beginning and an end. Woolf advocated for doors with locks, to secure one’s seclusion with a satisfying click.
Creatives need their own walls. A Wailing Wall for lamentation, a Whatever Wall for darts or doodles or bigger-than-life mood boards. And while walls are important, corners are absolutely essential. Corners are for prayer or percolation or procrastination. One corner, ‘the corner’, is always preferred. It’s the spot for the battered but cosy armchair, the one that feels like a hug from Gran.
Wishes for the List
A cosy armchair.
Abundant nooks and plentiful crannies. Or, at bare minimum, a stack of shelves.
Creatives require a generously proportioned, smooth work surface for the sole purpose of losing beneath a drifting pile of stuff.
Creatives need boxes. (For stuff. See above. And below.)
They need pens—quality ones, mind. Pencils, lead and coloured; pastels, paints, markers; sticky tape, masking tape, washi tape; a ruler and an endless supply of notebooks in various sizes.
A typing machine of any description on which to furiously pound.
An uncosy chair (to use when not praying/percolating/procrastinating). (Also useful for discouraging visitors who don’t get the concept of a Room of One’s OWN.)
To hold the typing machine and a light, the room of one’s own must have a desk (with a drawer (to store the nail clippers)).
A window (or two).
A ceiling to ponder.
A cobweb to scowl at.
A creaky floor to pace.
And last, by the door, a pair of fuzzy slippers, because who can possibly create with cold feet—even in a room of one’s own?
Of course, for time immemorial, women have made or inspired art of all forms without the benefit of a room of their own. I salute all the women who’ve created amidst the persistent insistence of life—whining toddlers, piddling puppies, general busyness and unacknowledged sacrifice. May you find joy and satisfaction in your art and one day close the door of a room of your own.
My grandfather called me Snoopy. It was my fondness for rummaging through cobwebby corners of his house that earned me the moniker. No closet went unexplored, no drawer unrifled, no crawl space unprobed.
The attic at Poppy’s house beckoned, otherworldly—icebox cold in winter and oven hot in summer with dust that rimed surfaces like post-apocalyptic frost. One day, nosing into an ivory garment bag, I came face to face with my mother’s wedding gown. Below it, a compact green train case conferred a pair of viciously pointy stilettos in pink silk—both excellent finds that kept me amused (and well dressed) for days. Another exploration unearthed the mother lode, a box labelled, ‘For Alison’ in my late grandmother’s scrawl. Nestled in layers of crumpled newspaper were an old-fangled sugar bowl, milk jug, and trifle bowl. Snooping, I learned, paid off.
In search of more treasures, labelled or otherwise, I ventured due south. Poppy’s basement brimmed with mysteries and monsters, such as the deadly Electric Wringer. “Stand back Snoopy, or she’ll slurp you up, squish you flat as a pancake, and spit you out the back,” Poppy yelled over noise, prodding the mangle with a pole, as if daring it to strike. I stood clear, watching the grinding, sloshing violence of washing day from a safe distance.
It was from that secure vantage point that I discovered the basement’s cave of wonders. Poppy had converted the dark space under the stairs into a display case to hold souvenirs and curios from his globetrotting adventures. Tucked in its shadowy nooks were decades worth of accumulated stuff, dense with memories and oozing my grandfather’s legendary sense of humour. In my seven-year-old mind, I’d hit pay dirt. My mother, ever the modern minimalist, muttered about dust-collecting junk.
Naturally, I wanted to keep everything in Poppy’s fusty cabinet, especially the kitschy ceramic Three Wise Monkeys (macaques) from Japan. To this day, when I come across, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ my mind beelines to Poppy’s basement. There were ashtrays from cruise ships, beer steins from Bavaria, and Venetian glass beads. Multi-limbed Buddhas from the Orient subleased space to a shocking array of pissing boy figurines and other toilet-themed curios. From Istanbul or Cairo or Timbuktu, a brass oil lamp, dull with tarnish, hinted at a resident genie. But the best curio by far was a tiny corked bottle that held a wisp of yellowed cotton and a tiny nugget, a flake really, of Klondike gold. I begged Poppy shamelessly for that little bottle (no fool was I, even at age seven), but alas, no. It was special—a souvenir from his father-son Alaskan escapade with my Uncle Connie.
Cabinets of Curiosity
Looking back with adult eyes, I recognise the display shelf for what it really was: my Poppy’s wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, a rather antiquated hobby. These visual encyclopaedias started as cabinets, but over the centuries they grew into immense collections that stuffed entire chambers full of oddities–dinosaur bones, rare butterflies, saints’ fingers, alchemists’ tools, stuffed animals, mummies, and more.
Wunderkammern (chambers of wonder in German) are first cousins to both the modern museum and the modern sideshow. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, European nobles vied to outdo one another with impressive, comprehensive wunderkammern. The collections intermingled science with superstition, as the world grappled with emergent empiricism.
Part one-upmanship for the über-rich, part scholarly enquiry, the collecting and displaying hobby led to important scientific and cultural advancements. Ole Worm, the Danish scholar and collector who created the Wormianum Museum (1655, shown above), debunked the unicorn tusk trade, showing the tusks (worth a king’s ransom) belonged to male narwhals not mythical creatures. He also disproved the weird but widely held notion that lemmings spontaneously generated and fell from the sky in stormy weather.
Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, which was heavy on anatomical specimens and pickled foetuses, was intended to shift common people’s superstitions about genetic abnormalities, from devil-spawned monsters or divine punishment to mere accidents of nature.
The Outworking of Imprinted Memories
With the wunderkammer of my childhood imprinted on my psyche, it’s little wonder these eclectic collections continue to fascinate and make regular appearances in my writing. For unknown reasons, my villains tend to be collectors—greedy, predatory amassers of curios, artefacts, and specimens for their wunderkammern. Here are two examples.
In my MG | Gaslamp | Fantasy |Adventure The Temple of Lost Time, Lord Godfrey serves as both Royal Antiquary and Head Henchman. As the king’s advisor on Olden Magic, he leads the quest to find the legendary Temple of Lost Time. Godfrey believes the temple’s magical elixirs will reverse the dying king’s illness. Following fragments of ancient maps, Godfrey sets sail armed with his fully portable Cabinet of Magical Curios. Little does he know, stowed away in the ship’s hold is his nemesis, eleven-year-old Toby, who’s running for his life in search of his missing father…
In my WIP middle grade | gaslamp |spy school |adventure, The Rarest of Them All, the villain is Baroness Agatha Throttlebairn, a natural scientist, ethnographer and adventuress. Barred by gender from serious academic pursuits, she is relegated to study the fluffier outposts of science that fringe myth and magic. For decades, she scours the globe, mercilessly hunting, and meticulously categorising, preserving, and displaying fey creatures from around the world in her massive, macabre collection, but still none of her male would-be colleagues at the Royal Academy takes her work seriously. Unfortunately for them, a horrific accident on a wildfey safari in Africa has rendered her bewitched … and vindictive. Who can stop this magic-addled menace from unleashing her vast collection of undead fey on the world? This is a job for the Remarkable Girls! Her Majesty’s Secret Society of Remarkable Girls is a clandestine academy for the training of gifted girls from around the Empire in the fine arts of espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and general bad-assery.
It seems I can’t get away from wunderkammern in my writing and in real life:
Curiosity Cabinets for the 21st Century
One of my favourite forms of procrastination is snooping through Pinterest, which is basically a limitless, digital wunderkammer. Pinterest lets me have All The Curios without the dust and storage issues! Yay! I don’t use Pinterest as much as I used to because it’s full of annoying ads nowadays, but the promise of personalised curation remains: Create classifications (boards), hunt for ‘specimens’ (images and content), arrange, display, and share.
The Real McCoy – Melbourne’s Wunderkammer
So, back in May 2018, I was in Melbourne for KidLitVic, a conference for writers and illustrators of children’s literature. As my writing buddy Kellie Byrnes and I were walking down Lonsdale Street one night, we passed a street level window that made me stop and back up. The window revealed a human skeleton reclining, feet casually crossed, in an antique dentist’s chair. I’d stumbled upon a real cabinet of curiosity! Wunderkammer is delightful and quirky—and it’s situated in a basement, just like my Poppy’s!
Of course I had to go in for a serious bit of snooping through its fabulous displays. (The cabinetry alone is beautiful.) Wunderkammer showcases a variety of curios and natural wonders, including medical & surgical tools, minerals & fossils, insects & butterflies, taxidermy, globes & maps, and ephemera. Items are for sale, and business is delightfully brisk. Many thanks to the fine folks at Wunderkammer, who kindly allowed me to snoop to my heart’s content and take photos. I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in Melbourne: 439 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.
Musuem Wormianum via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wunderkammer photos by Ali
Artist Rosamund Purcell’s recreation of Museum Wormianum is a permanent installation at the Natural History Museum in Denmark. The display includes 40 of the artefacts from Worm’s original Wunderkammer.
Cabinets of Curiosity became quite trendy about five years ago.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding on 19 May 2018 is hot news, so here’s my little contribution to the #royalty craze, a tribute to the spare heir.
It must be a tough gig being the little brother of the heir (of the heir apparent). Prince Harry, bless him, seems unlikely to reign. Heck, who knows if his father, the heir apparent, will make it to the throne.
History is speckled with spare heirs winding their way to the throne. Tempestuous Henry VIII, a spare himself, fathered three children, all of whom had a turn holding the sceptre in the hot seat. More recently, Elizabeth II, a daughter of a spare, could have pursued a life of quiet obscurity if love and duty hadn’t collided so violently in the life of her uncle Edward VIII, the abdicator.
Fascintating Spare Heirs
Late in 2014, I encountered the intriguing concept of spare heir. After pondering the potential for sibling jealousy, the impact on family dynamics, and the effect on one’s sense of identity and purpose, I followed it deep into the rabbit hole of research and emerged with some cool background conflict for a story.
I wondered if there were ever any twin heirs and spares? Imagine missing out on a kingdom and a crown (or, conversely, relative freedom from duty) by a matter of minutes! A quick shake of Queen Victoria’s family tree and out fell a golden apple, AKA the propelling nugget of goodness—a historical fact that leads to a series of compelling what-ifs that beg to become a story!
I found heir apparent twins. Almost…
Victoria wasn’t the daughter of her predecessor. She was the niece of William IV, who’d failed to produce a (legitimate) heir. William and his mistress, actress Dorothea Jordan, produced a herd of children surnamed FitzClarence. But William and Queen Adelaide had a string of bad luck in the progeny department. Their two daughters, Elizabeth and Charlotte, both tragically died shortly after birth. Adelaide’s final pregnancy ended in a devastating stillbirth of twin boys, who, as far as I can tell, were not named.
If those boys had lived, one would have become king, and the other a spare—but a spare by only moments. Meanwhile, Princess Alexandrina (Victoria) would have remained an obscure princess—a round-raced, royal hanger-on, probably sequestered to a drab apartment at Kensington or worse. No pretty young queen, possibly no marriage to Prince Albert, and no dour, widowed monarch. How would the 19th century have fared without her formidable imprint? How would the 20th century differed?
See what I mean about a series of compelling questions?
History’s Loss, My Gain
I gave those unsung twin boys life and names, and I dug into their family history for a bit of intrigue. I didn’t have to go deep; the boys’ grandfather would have been King George III. Remember him? His illness rendered him unfit to rule and was the reason for the Regency period. He was considered mad (which I must point out is one weakness among many other good and noble qualities he possessed, like being a faithful family man and an ardent promoter of scientific enquiry. He was a fascinating and misunderstood character.)
Augustus (my name), the firstborn twin in my story THE TEMPLE OF LOST TIME, inherits not only the throne but also his grandfather’s illness. Though fairly young, he’s slowly dying and losing his mind. King Augustus’s desperation to extend his reign makes him volatile, cruel, and vulnerable to exploitation. His dangerous obsession with olden magic puts both his life and empire at risk. This is the world of my story: London, 1853, during the dark and unstable Augustan Age. Great Britain teeters as time ticks away.
Meanwhile, King Augustus’s twin, the spare heir Prince James, is healthy, capable, and wildly popular with the masses, a fact that torments the paranoid, enfeebled king.
King Augustus not only inherits a genetic illness, he also adopts his philandering father’s habit of pursuing beautiful actresses. His prime target is the lovely Lucy Le Breton, a popular actress and singer at the Theatre Royal. She does everything she can to avoid the despicable king.
Eleven-year-old Toby, Lucy’s son, is the hero of the story. More than anything, Toby yearns to know his father. What he doesn’t know is the clock is ticking, and there’s no time to lose…
So, a bit of wondering about spare heirs plus a few years of writing and rewriting and rerewriting has resulted in a story, THE TEMPLE OF LOST TIME, a middle grade historical fantasy adventure, which is currently in submission. It is the first of three books. Wish me luck as I try to find a good home for it.
To the Real Spare Heir!
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have a rich and colourful royal history behind them and a life full of possibility ahead of them. Here’s wishing them happiness and long life together. May the real spare heir be spared the wild adventures of my imagination! To the royal couple! Cheers!
Noah’s nose knew something was wrong. He smelled a siege. Nervously, Noah followed the odour to the fridge. He peered inside. Organic leafy lettuces crowded the veggie bin; lumpy helmets of broccoli lined the shelves; spears of asparagus stood menacingly in a glass.
Inside the chiller drawer lay a suspicious package: tofurkey. Tof-what?
In the bottle next to the milk, a murky substance bubbled sinisterly. Its name sounded like a sneeze. Kom-BU-cha! Ew.
Noah pulled out a bottle of liquid the colour of pond sludge. Vegetablejuice? Blech! No way! That was wrong—as wrong as carrot ‘cake’.
“Mu-u-m! Help! The vegetables are taking over the fridge!”
Mum breezed into the kitchen. “Don’t be silly, Noah. It’s a new year, and we’re on a health kick!”
Noah put back the gross green ‘juice.’ He stared at his mother. Oh no! Yoga pants AND a crop-top. This was serious!
“But I’m hungry! What am I supposed to eat? Everything in there is green!” His tummy snarled. “I’ll die!”
“Noah. You’re overreacting.”
“Mu-u-um!” He clutched his belly. “All I want is some nice morning tea! Is that too much to ask?” He raced to the pantry and scanned the shelves. In place of his snacks were creepy packets:
“AHHH!” Noah screamed. “Where are the Iced Vo-Vos and my volcano-flavoured corn chips? I want my neon squeeze cheese!”
“Noah, please,” Mum said. “I made your favourite muffins. Go sit down while I warm one up.”
Noah skulked to the table, clutching his ravenous belly and imagining a sweet muffin, warm from the microwave, oozing with melted choc-chips and slathered with butter. Mmmmm.
As the plate was laid in front of him, he closed his eyes contentedly and let his nose do its work…
He gasped. His eyes popped open. “Something’s in there! My nose knows!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mum said sliding a Fitbit on her wrist. “It’s just a muffin. Here. Have some millllk.” The corner of her mouth twitched.
Noah narrowed his eyes. “Why’d you say it like that?” He squinted at the cup.
“Like what?” she said, snapping a sweatband across her forehead at a jaunty angle.
Noah’s nose sniffed and sniffed again. Wild-eyed, he pointed at the muffin. “You sneaked zucchini in there. And turmeric! My nose knows! I bet you slipped in some of that QuiNOAH just to be cute.”
“Whatever.” He slumped in his chair and glowered at the icky ‘muffin’. His tummy panged with hunger.
“I’m going next door to do yoga-kickboxing with Prue.” She kicked her leg sideways. “YA-maste! Enjoy your snack.”
The screen door banged shut, and Noah frowned. “My nose was right. It’s an all-out assault,” he muttered. He picked a crumb off the suss muffin and put it on his tongue.
A flash of green at ten-o-clock. Cauliflower paratroopers armed with asparagus spears stormed the table.
How do you know when your story is finished? One thing is certain: a story is most definitely NOT finished on 1 December right after the NaNoWriMo hoopla.
This question has plagued me ever since I started writing seriously. And I think that word—seriously—is the thing. In fact, IMHO, the difference between a hobby-writer and a serious writer is the latter is willing to rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite until the writing is right.
But when it is it right? How far does a writer have to go? How many rewrites does it take? When (how!) do you stop? My most recent project has had at least twenty beginnings. Not just ideas or sketches—full-on beginnings, some with minor changes, most with drastic reimagining. I probably wrote more than 100,000 words of beginnings and many middles and ends too.
When Is It Time To Stop?
Is there a way to know when it’s time to release the story to the world? It’s a relief to find it’s a common quandary. One Google search (‘How do you know when your story is finished?’) threw up 14,000,000 results (in .61 seconds).
Some of the common answers included:
Trust your gut.
Stop when you can’t stand to look at it another time.
When it stops waking you up in the middle of the night, it’s done.
Time to quit when your ‘improvements’ have a negative impact.
There’s a fine line between attaining your best and not pissing off your editor.
And so on.
Stop when all the ghost-kinks have been exorcised. For me, ghost-kinks are writing problems I don’t want to see. On some level I know they are there, but it’s as if I have blinkers on. I skirt around them instead of tackling them. I ignore them hoping they’ll evaporate. They bother me, but I pretend they don’t.
Usually, sadly, someone else has to point at them.
Someone Else: “Um Ali, omg, there’s a massive ghost-kink hanging out here. Geez, it’s enormous! Maybe you should, like, do something about it?”
Me: Oh, yeah. Right. I was just … excuse me … [Shoves ghost-kink back into closet and slams door]. It’s all good. Nothing to look at in here.
Someone Else: But what about that ghost? It’s pretty scary… Seriously? You can’t hear that banging or smell that funky smell? Far out…
Me: What? There’s a ghost-kink? Let me see! [Peeks in closet] OMG! Would you look at the SIZE of that ghost-kink! BRB…
And having thus ‘discovered’ my ghost-kink(s), I take it (them) on. I stop kidding myself and start culling some stuff—even good stuff. We’re talking full-scale Darlingocide. A busyness detox.
Despite the utter violence of the toil, the results feel great. Like the way people must feel after a sauna +ice hole swim combo or a seven-day silent retreat or liver cleanse. But it’s the work, the writing, that feels better. Not your body. At the end of it, your body feels crap—cricked and sore and ancient.
Never mind the stiff neck, you know your MS is finally right. And that’s exciting.
That’s when I release my story.
Setting My Paper Boat Afloat
After a year of working on one manuscript exclusively, The Temple of Lost Time, I have finally achieved a sense of ‘rightness’ about the MS. It’s book one of a trilogy, so getting the foundation right is essential.
I was the lucky winner of a 2017 Australian Society of Authors Emerging Writers Mentorship, and I chose author-poet-editor-teacher Catherine Bateson to mentor me and make me face my ghost-kinks. It was an incredible learning and growing experience. Catherine patiently helped me improve my storytelling, honing in on the skilful use of third-person limited POV and strengthening story logic. She was so generous with her time and expertise.
This week, I let go of the project. I released a stronger, funner MS. Part of me feels like it’s a tiny paper boat bobbing in a great big sea, but I am optimistic that it will find its way in the world.
How about you?
How do you know when your MS is ready to be released to the marketplace/world?
Last year I set off on a quest, my #EpicPoeticOdyssey, with a goal of memorising a poem a month. The idea was simply to expose myself to more poetry, to awaken my soul to the art form, to exercise my brain, and to enrich my writing. I continue my quest this year.
January is a month of fresh starts. It’s deep winter to some, heavy summer to others. To me, January is about Australia, with 26 January being Australia Day, so with that in mind, my poem for January is by beloved Australian poet Henry Lawson.
Oh gosh, this poem stirs me. It’s about the effect of words on the hearts of humans. It speaks of the power of poetry to connect, and also of the poet’s desire and effort to forge the connection. How I love it!
Will Yer Write It Down For Me?
In the parlour of the shanty where the lives have all gone wrong,
When a singer or reciter gives a story or a song,
Where the poet’s heart is speaking to their hearts in every line,
Till the hardest curse and blubber at the thoughts of Auld Lang Syne;
Then a boozer lurches forward with an oath for all disguise,
Prayers and curses in his soul, and tears and liquor in his eyes,
Grasps the singer or reciter with a death-grip by the hand:
‘That’s the truth, bloke! Sling it at ’em! Oh! Gorbli’me, that was grand!
‘Don’t mind me; I’ve got ’em. You know! What’s yer name, bloke! Don’t yer see?
‘Who’s the bloke what wrote the po’try? Will yer write it down fer me?’
And the backblocks’ bard goes through it, ever seeking as he goes
For the line of least resistance to the hearts of men he knows;
And he tracks their hearts in mateship, and he tracks them out alone,
Seeking for the power to sway them, till he finds it in his own,
Feels what they feel, loves what they love, learns to hate what they condemn,
Takes his pen in tears and triumph, and he writes it down for them.
Oh yes, that’s it exactly, the writer’s heart distilled in verse. The ‘backblocks’ bards’ seek the power to sway. Here’s to finding ‘the line of least resistance’ this year…