On stationery and the ideal workspace

Over at London Review of Books, a fascinating review by Jenny Diski of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (by Nikil Saval) caught my eye for the beautiful paragraphs about stationery. To be more precise, about stationery cupboards in offices.

I enjoyed the poetry of Diski’s description enough to reproduce a few lines here:

The perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful … Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.

This takes me back to my own delicious experience of workplace stationery cupboards – indeed, a whole room of stationery surrounding the photocopier just across the corridor from my mother’s office.

Most of all I remember the in-trays full of coloured paper – stacks of different heights of every solid colour you could think of: shades of yellow melding to gold and orange; red orange then red and pinky red and pink, and on it went.

I liked to take a sheet off each stack and put them all together, but there they lost their magic and became an untidy assortment of too many colours. The sheets were better off left on their solid, perfect stacks on the shelves.

The fascination with stationery doesn’t seem to go away as I grow older – something Diski understands. Her review talks also of the desire to organise the office space – in traditional office workspaces and in the home office too:

It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success.

The stationery comes into this ‘human tic’, of course – stationery needed for organising and perfect labelling and sorting and tidying and making sure that whatever you needed would always be at hand – even if you only needed it once every six months. The swivel pins that could be found in the stationery room opposite my mum’s office fell into this category: you could use them to attach a round piece of card with a pizza slice cut out to a square piece of card and have the round one rotate to reveal things like ‘gone to lunch’, ‘not in today’, ‘on holidays’, ‘concentrating’. Clearly vital – on rare and singular occasions.

Cafe wordsGrowing up, I had a little wooden desk tidy designed to hold different sized writing papers and pads and envelopes, with a place for a fountain pen and inkwells: my version of the office stationery cupboard and a remnant of organisational impulses from a century ago.

You might imagine that the impulse for stationery and for organising one’s desk in this way would have vanished with the ubiquitous computer and with the fashion for minimalism. Instead of ring binders and notepads and different coloured pens you just have the laptop and the iPad – right?

Yet the desks of those with an impulse for organisation at my last workplace were still home to stationery organisers, with staplers and sticky tape rolls and envelopes and pads of paper. The desks of those without that impulse inevitably became cluttered with bits of paper printed out by people who didn’t know how to use track changes or didn’t like reading on the screen.

The blank pages of a notebook always seem more inviting than an empty word document open on my fingerprinted laptop screen. But desks these days must always have space for a laptop (at minimum, if not a desktop computer) and the cords that come with it: the organised items of stationery have to fit in around these awkward intruders. When you’re in a hurry it’s the computer that’s in use and not anything else, so the stationery is pushed to the back.

My solution is to have a big desk, with no drawers: so you can shift your chair along to go from paper to screen. Computer and cords on one side; notebooks in easy reach on the other – that’s the theory. Perhaps I’ll reclaim the wooden desk tidy from my childhood.

Above is a photo I took when writing in a café a few years ago. I enjoyed writing from a café then and still do on occasion, but Diski’s take on it is perhaps a bit too close for home:

…there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices.

In the meantime, my big unorganised desk is neglected and instead I’m sitting at the kitchen table, away from the distractions of stationery: there is just the laptop and some flowers in a vase. It feels positively minimalist!

Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

The power of words: Love and Fury

Love and FuryI have just finished watching Love and Fury: Judith Wright and ‘Nugget’ Coombs on ABC. It documents the clandestine relationship between these two intellectual Australians, mainly through their letters, which were released from embargo in 2009.

As The Australian’s article in the Review over the weekend warned, this is a powerful documentary, and I am moved to immediately record my thoughts. The relationship between Wright and Coombs is inspiring – the exchange of ideas led to each of them feeding one another’s passions and work.

Their relationship began the year Gough Whitlam came to power, and through the film clips of his three years in power I was first and foremost touched by the intellectual arguments of the day. There is often a sepia hue to the social movements and the radicals of the past, but Whitlam’s legacy has always been about the power of ideas to make change. Coombs was directly part of this, as a consultant to Whitlam.

There is a clip of Gough Whitlam in 1975 with a handful of red dirt, his hand poised over Vincent Lingiari’s as the soil slips from one hand to the other. There is Whitlam speaking of how all Australians are diminished while Aboriginal people remain dispossed of their land. These moments are part of history, yet Whitlam’s actions and words are powerful, and from across the decades I am moved. Continue reading

Emerging Writers’ Festival: some advice to remember

The Emerging Writers’ Festival finished on Sunday, but the ideas and inspiration that it created will hopefully linger for some time to come. From the pages and pages of notes (and quite a few tweets) that I wrote during the festival, here are those points that struck me the most:

Dan Giovannoni on loneliness: “I’m not sure if I like loneliness because I’m a writer or if I’m a writer because I like loneliness.” This topic of writers as working essentially alone came up quite a bit at the festival, with some arguing that writing is a solitary pursuit, while others pointed out that writing (hopefully) involves relationships, too – with editors, publishers, other writers, readers, audiences and writing groups.

I don’t disagree that writing involves relationships – if you want to have an audience, that is – but I think that misses the point. For most writers, there is a phase of aloneness (not necessarily loneliness), that is both driven by a need to write, and is ultimately a driver of the writing process.

Continue reading

Emerging Writers’ Festival: Aussie Voices

On Sunday I attended the Aussie Voices panel as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Conference. The panel proposed the questions, “Does Australia have a literary voice? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because some of the questions it raised relate to things that I am grappling with in my own work.

Tamara Barrett has blogged about the session, and she has some good quotes from the panellists that I missed. What I want to engage with here is the question of how white writers – writers of Anglo descent – can contribute to a diverse voice in Australian literature. It’s something that Barrett raised in her blog post, and that crossed my mind during the panel as well.

Continue reading

AusLit101: on Voss and Monkey Grip

Two Thursdays in a row I’ve climbed the short steep steps outside the Wheeler Centre, each time with a half-read novel in my bag. First Voss, then Monkey Grip: two very different books.

And, in the space of one hour on each of these evenings at the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series, two very different literary critics have shared their thoughts on these Australian classics and on what they mean to our literary landscape.

These two books, one that I’ve now nearly finished in the few hours since the session ended, are flooding my mind and my diary with very different thoughts and ideas, about writing and life.

Last Thursday the book presented at the Wheeler Centre was Voss, the author of which is Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White.

The presenter was Peter Craven, critic and cultural commentator, seeming ever so slightly bored to be there but more than happy to talk about Patrick White, about how White “imagined us into being”, and what this meant to Australia.

Tonight the book was Monkey Grip, originally published by McPhee Gribble because it was a bit radical. The author is Helen Garner, writing of and from within the Melbourne that she knew, in the ’70s.

Kerryn Goldsworthy was the presenter this time. She was given a copy of Monkey Grip for her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after it was published. She spoke about the book as one who loves it and for whom it resonated, most particularly at the time but, one senses, even now.

My copy of Voss, half read before I put it down to start Monkey Grip for this week’s talk, is smooth and nearly new and cost me $5 on a bargain table. It’s a Vintage Classic, print tight and thick on cream pages. It sat unread on my shelf for nearly two years and now is waiting on my bedside table until I get back from my journey to 1970s Melbourne.

Monkey Grip has my mother’s name inside the front cover, and the date, January 1979. It was published in 1977, so maybe it did not immediately seem so relevant across the continent, far away, where the sun sets into the ocean and the changes of the seasons are easily missed.

The book falls open in a precise spot, where a few pages are falling out. All through the text, against the small print on brown pages, there are pencil marks. I recognise what I think might have been my mother’s concerns, her interests, back then.

There are lines beside the paragraph on children delimiting the scope of women’s lives and freedom. Grey pencil runs under those phrases where something is captured, purely and cleanly in prose, something messy about love, or loneliness, or addiction.

Voss impressed me from the beginning; I saw the characters of Laura and Voss drawn so densely in the opening chapter. I read on through their meeting in the garden, their meeting of minds or souls; of recognising each other’s flaws. Peter Craven placed the novel in a hierarchy of worth. He said it was a parallel of Moby Dick. He was certain of Patrick White’s place in the canon of literature in English – not up to the mark of James Joyce, of course, but as “good as Beckett or Nabakov”.

Kerryn Goldsworthy spoke tonight of what makes a classic. Critics don’t decide what makes a classic, she said, but readers do. She spoke of the second wave feminism of Monkey Grip – how it was not just about the fight for equal pay but also about women working out how to live their sexual lives. Goldsworthy said that Monkey Grip, and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, both with main characters named Nora, marked the beginning of a period when more female writers were able to get their work published.

Monkey Grip makes me want to write more, and it makes me think I can, and should, write with more surety than I do, in this voice that I have, this voice that is mine.

Reading Voss, I admire it and appreciate it, but I struggle for the vision – struggle to ever imagine having the vision to be able to write like that. That’s to be expected, you might say, for it is Patrick White after all.

Reading Monkey Grip, I think instead, I don’t need that vision – I have my own, I just have to free up my mind and my words and let it come, with the clarity of my own voice, and thought, and imagination.

Weather, essays and the first day of autumn

First of March, and the world outside is swirling – the wind, the bursts of rain, the windows rattling in their frames. It’s swirling because I am inside, looking inwards, so that the weather outside seems to revolve. It’s not going anywhere, not travelling past, but is instead centred on this house. It is a curtain over the outside world: shutting it out, shutting me away.

Inside, I’m trying to write an essay. It’s a politics essay on global environmental governance. I started from scratch in a manner that is quite unlike any essay I’ve done before. For this one, the thought processes have been different: it required more research than usual just to get a grasp of what I was dealing with, before I could begin to form an argument. I’ve never studied international politics before this unit, and with the unit itself having finished a little while ago, my grasp on the content seemed to have slipped. But today inside the swirling weather and the cosy house walls it seems to be coming back.

Much has been written about place, and the importance of place and your own space when you’re writing. This space at the desk is not always all mine and is often cluttered. It’s not normally a place where I can focus – I’m usually better off in the little bungalow in the backyard – it’s sparse and there are big windows full of greenery. Today, there is something about the weather and the possible onset of autumn that makes it okay to be studying here. It’s a good feeling!

Stories Unbound

It’s not only the stories that matter, but what they are made of: pages that fall from a book with no spine, or the sheets of a newspaper coming apart in the breeze. There’s postcards and letters crossing the airspace above me, and the tales that travel far on the lips of a city. There are stories of mine that I cannot own, and stories of yours that you may lose on the tide.

There’s the stories you made and the memories you lost; there’s the dreams I once had that now seem so real. There’s the journeys we shared that become their own narratives. There is one unfurling on the current, another unsure of itself in the wind. There is one drifting across treetops, and another curving silver on the roads of the city. They are stories unbound and they come from all over. They have mountains to cross and rivers to ford, they have so far to go – and yet not far at all, for they are all here, waiting to be found.

There are some who find and catch these stories and make them into journalism; for others it is history; for still others it is fiction, poetry, film, theatre, dance, music, and so on . . . The boundaries between the expressions of stories grow thin these days, and rightly so, for stories do not choose one way of expression and remain there cocooned in their form.

Anna Krien is a journalist, and the author of Into the Woods. I met her a few months ago, and she seems quite unbound by definitions and genres. She told me that she sees no reason why one cannot be both or several: a journalist, a poet, a writer of fiction. And I felt inspired, for I realised I had been restraining the stories I had, trying to be just a journalist, or just a writer of fiction.

Geraldine Brooks is another who appears unwilling to allow the stories that she meets to be restrained forever in one genre or another. The material she gathered as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East later became her non-fiction work, Nine Parts of Desire. Yet it also made its way into the end of her fictional work, Year of Wonders. In a sense, these stories have taken on many shapes through the one writer and they have had many lives. In Caleb’s Crossing, as with Year of Wonders, her stories are not bound by the limitations of history or by the passing of centuries.

So let the stories come in any way they will, through words or experience, from near or far. Let them be bound only by ethics and not by genre or tradition or habit, so that they may take whichever form of expression they choose.

This post was written in response to the theme of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘Stories unbound’.

Reading, and writing, on paper

Today I published a piece on upstart about the impact of the internet on reading (thanks to Meanland for the inspiration), and about the evolution of reading habits across twenty years of reading life. There is so much talk about how the internet will change everything – how we read, write, communicate, live – but sometimes I think our reactions are a little hysterical. Reading habits will change, but the internet is not the only factor.

The early draft of the piece, before it went on upstart, had a bit about writing in it too, about how I prefer, when there’s time, to write with blue ink on paper, instead of tapping away on a keyboard.

Most of the time it’s more efficient to type, but the day this photo was taken there was time both to read (a novel, in real book-form), and to write, with pen and ink on paper.

Photo: Melbourne, 2010 (Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400)