Catherine Moffat: Space and solitude are immensely important for writers
I’d been travelling for over a week by the time I arrived at KSP, and I’d be travelling again once I left, so arriving in my cabin – Aldridge, felt even more of a gift than I’d imagined.
As I unpacked, I gave thanks I had this lovely space, no other responsibility than to write, and no obligation to interact unless I wanted.
Space and solitude are immensely important for writers. Many of us write in snatches of time and in all sorts of places. My own regular workspace is a small table tucked in a corner of a busy loungeroom, so the opportunity for sustained periods of concentration with no disturbances was invaluable. I know some writers work well amidst a sea of distractions, but not me.
At KSP I wrote and read. I scribbled on the whiteboard, took photographs of the scrawl then wiped the board to begin again. I walked a lot, pacing the room, and making long meandering laps of the garden before venturing further into nearby streets and the national park. Spring had come early so there were flowers everywhere in the garden and the bush was awash with drifts of wildflowers. I discovered everything I’d ever heard about the beauty of W.A. wildflowers is true.
I ate lunches outside watching the wattlebirds perform intricate acrobatics in the flowerbeds below Katharine’s cabin and I shared the sun with the stumpy-tailed lizard who hung out in the lantana patch. I learned they’re called Yoorn by the local people and the shy bandicoots are Kwenda.
I thought hard about my characters and the structure of my novel, and the big hole in the middle that I wanted to fix. And slowly, slowly I managed to build a scaffold out across that great chasm, working from both sides like building the harbour bridge, and hoping it would all meet up in the middle.
I had sundowners with my fabulous fellow residents – Melanie Saward and Sharon Barba talking writing and structure and the joys and difficulties of the writing life as the sunset fell away and the fairy lights on the verandah lit up.
It was a very productive time for me. As I wrote and walked and thought, I felt privileged to be in the space where Katharine had nurtured and grown her writing and where so many writers have passed through making this place their own for a small space of time, be it weeks, months or just a single workshop. Places such as the KSP Writer’s Centre, its sister, Varuna, and their French cousin – the Keesing Studio in Paris, are testimony to the importance of space and community in a writer's life. Set up by legacies from, or to honour three powerful writers – Katharine Susannah Prichard, Eleanor Dark and Nancy Keesing, they’re invaluable literary inheritances for this country and the world.
But none of these places can function in isolation. It’s the staff and volunteers who keep them running – people who understand and value the craft and process of writing, and understand what’s needed for a writer to achieve their best work. It’s their goodwill, hard work and attention to detail that makes the residencies so special for anyone fortunate enough to spend time there. So thank you Katharine Susannah Prichard, and the fabulous team at KSP. I look forward to returning sometime soon.
1. Notice what’s around you. Observation is a powerful tool and sometimes just sitting and describing what’s in front of you can help move you in a different direction. It’s a good tactic if you’re feeling discouraged or blocked by something you’re writing. The meditative power of concentrating on just writing and describing can shake the cobwebs out of your writing arm and get things happening.
2. Break out of your bubble and take public transport, or sit in public spaces amongst people you wouldn’t normally mix with. Listen to the way they speak, the things they say. Observe how they dress and move and wonder about them. I found the guts of a short story on the bus trip from KSP to Midland.
3. Hang out with other writers. You need to be with people whose eyes don’t roll back in their heads when you talk writing. Writing groups are great, but finding those best writing friends is gold. You need critical friends who get what you’re trying to do and aren’t afraid to point out the things that aren’t working.
4. Guard your time and space. Writing requires time for sustained thought and concentration and time to daydream.
5. Understand what works for you. Pantser, plotter, gardener or architect, café writer or kitchen table, early bird or night owl, silence or noise, music or bird song, notebooks or computer, genre or literary, short or long, poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction or something in between? Find what suits you. There are as many how-to guides as there are writers. Find what works for you.
6. Once you’ve found what works, try something different. Go to a poetry workshop, try to write a newspaper article. Approach the new activity with beginner’s mind. You might find you enjoy this new skill, and at the very least, you’ll discover something useful to your writing.
7. Read, read, read and read. The things you like, the things you don’t. Don’t feel guilty if you haven’t read something you feel you should. No one can possibly read the canon these days, (whatever that now means and if they ever could). Do try and read outside your culture, genre, age and gender comfort zones. Read like a writer, but also sometimes let go and read like a reader – riding the ebb and flow of a book. And remember – you’re allowed to not finish a book Nobody is marking you on this.
8. Walking is writing. Driving is writing. Swimming is writing. Doing the washing up is writing. Your favourite craft that engages the hands and not the mind is writing. Lying awake at night is writing. Not always, but often. Allow space for your brain to work. Write long-form in your head. (By the same token, watching Netflix or scrolling your phone is not writing – even if you’re looking at ‘writing’ sites, the neurobiology is all wrong.)
9. Practice finishing things. Writing is like a love affair. You can choose to give up when the gloss wears off or work through to something deeper and better.
10. Don’t stop at a first draft, but edit, edit and edit again. It’s where the magic happens.
Catherine Moffat, KSP Fellow - October 2023