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.
As you launch into 2018, I wish you plenty of energy, time and resources to pursue your dreams to the utmost. May 2018 be for you a year of breakthroughs and satisfaction, of positive challenge and solid growth.
The new year is a wonderful opportunity for doubling down or an exciting time of reinvention. For me, 2018 is both!
The Next Chapter Begins
I start this year as a rookie free agent. I’ve retired from my career as a school counsellor, so it’s truly a new chapter of my life. With no salary or built-in support system, I have to imagine and create my own way to income, fulfilment and community.
I spent today, the first day of the new year, brainstorming possibilities. I uncapped my pristine .38 gel pens and created a colourful opportunity mindmap. I went wild and dreamed up all kinds of sources of income. Then, I shifted gears (and changed to my spiffy new Japanese dual highlighters) and picked out the themes and priorities.
Finding the theme was easy with two focus points jumping off the page: Greater Creativity and Regular Activity. My previous job with its heavy emotional load affected my energy levels and took a toll on my health, but now I find myself in a blessed place where I can build energy, improve my fitness and develop creatively.
My mindmapping exercise led me to another conclusion: in order to generate an income, I have to have goods to sell. The more stock, the better the trade. Because of the demands on my time in the past, I have few finished, market-ready projects but oodles of inklings and half-formed ideas.
So Priority Number One for 2018 is to generate products. I must convert my notebooks full of ideas into tangible goods – namely manuscripts, stories, articles, and content.
Getting Things Down
I set my intention with Julia Cameron’s quote (above): “Art isn’t about thinking things up; it’s about getting things down.” My task for the early part of the year is cut out for me:
Outline and draft new manuscripts
Complete and submit current manuscripts
Research, write and pitch magazine articles
Pursue alternative writing-related income streams
Over to You
Do you have any tips to share about setting off on the full-time freelance path? Please leave a comment to inspire me!
Big Magic is one of those books that every creative should read. Full of insight, ideas, encouragement—it’s worth keeping a copy on the writer’s desk next to the dictionary, style guide, and Strunk & White.
Gilbert’s take on a few topics was so fresh and true that I teared up. She put words around an elusive struggle of the creative process, and I found it comforting to have it articulated so beautifully. But don’t get me wrong: it’s not mamby-pamby, self-help slop. She has mined the travails of her own creative life and brought out some gems to share. Some are wrapped in kindness, others are tough love with a swift butt-kick thrown in for good measure. I didn’t resonate with everything, but the bits that got me, got me good.
I especially appreciated her thoughts about burdening one’s creativity with the job of earning a living. She’s big on not quitting your job. All in all, Big Magic is a keeper, and it’s probably a book I will give as a gift to aspiring creatives.
On a final note, I listened to the excellent audio version narrated by the author, but I would recommend instead buying a physical copy to allow for thumbing through in moments of creative confusion or artistic desperation.