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Edition 45

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Baby steps

 AT 10 ON a Tuesday morning on a busy street in Melbourne’s inner north, a young woman in black ankle boots and leggings is waiting for the tram, standing on the kerb and scribbling in a bound, hard-cover notebook. Whether it’s study, a journal entry or a piece of fiction is impossible to tell, but it’s clear she’s working.

That afternoon, as the baby sleeps and I surface from a nap, I log blearily onto email to find a couple of work-related approaches in my inbox; one from a publisher I’ve worked with before who’s interested in updating a book of mine; another from a writer who’s a parent at my son’s school, wanting to discuss an idea we’d vaguely tossed about in the school hallway. That these proposals fill me with as much terror as excitement is a function of my being exactly halfway through a year’s maternity leave; I crave work and mental exercise, but I have no time and I doubt that my mind will rise to the occasion, befuddled as it is by sleep deprivation, baby busywork and the sedative effects of breastfeeding hormones.

The next day a couple of writer friends who are travelling together in Tasmania post an update to Facebook. The photo shows one of them sitting at a park picnic table, sending some work to the ‘cloud’ over a wireless connection. The photo is taken from inside the car, the door-pillar frame emphasising the peripatetic nature of their work. It doesn’t seem to make them less productive; between them over the past few years they’ve put out several books (their own and, as publishers, other people’s), contributed to various literary journals and established a retail business.

Meanwhile, the vague list of things I might do when I come off maternity leave includes: finishing my PhD, looking for part-time tutoring, reviewing the shrinking list of publications that pay reasonable freelance rates for journalism and maybe, one day, setting up the eBay shop or market stall I need to dispose of my overflowing ‘collections’ (and to justify more op-shop purchases, no doubt).

In the past eighteen months I’ve earned money from a book club appearance; from selling a personal article to a lifestyle magazine; from royalties for a book I wrote knowing full well would pay very little, but which I loved writing; and, of course, from my university stipend, which for all its smallness (about two-thirds the minimum wage) was my main source of income.

The work that earned this money was carried out at home, in the car, in a shared office in the city, in a cell at the Old Melbourne Gaol on a writer’s residency, in an isolated former hotel in the country I escaped to for a few months pre-baby, at an art gallery and, in one case, literally on the streets of Melbourne as I led a writers’ festival tour. The only place it didn’t happen was at the university itself, apart from the odd meeting and quick marches through the stacks of the library to grab books I’d looked up online.

POST-BABY, I’M working in minutes, not hours. I’m drafting this piece in the ten minutes before the babysitter comes by to give me my appointed two hours of Wednesday afternoon freedom. Tomorrow’s meeting with my fellow parent will probably happen in my kitchen, to accommodate the baby’s nap or at a café across the road from the school, where I’ll hold the baby on my lap or rock him in the pram while we discuss how to pitch ideas to publishers.

At the moment the updated text for my book consists of a few ungrammatical sentences in a notebook, a few artists’ names stored in my phone and a couple of thoughts written on the back of free postcards from my local café during a rare excursion without the baby (but with my ten year old). I’ve packed myself a little bag with a copy of the book, a pen, a notebook and some sticky notes. It’ll take hours to review the printed version. Those hours will be stitched together from scraps of time as short as five minutes, grabbed in a doctor’s waiting room or on the tram, or even on a park bench while the baby has a pram sleep.

If it’s to get done, this is how it must be done.

THE KIND OF work I do – writing, teaching and talking about books – is the work of the privileged, I’m aware. But in Australia, the jobs that involve being in a particular place at a particular time with a particular piece of equipment or group of fellow workers – manufacturing jobs, say – seem to be evaporating, much like steam rising off an overheated dollar. There may be something in the writer’s experience to offer to other occupations as they adapt to the always-everywhere potential offered by communications technology.

I used to have my own desk in an office provided by my employer. That was nice. But I was never expected to be at my desk. I’m not of the digital generation; my first articles as a journalist were written on copypaper on typewriters: manual typewriters. The local newspaper journalist, as I was then, talks to a few people, walks down a street, sits in a council meeting, reads some documents and finally comes up with fifteen paragraphs telling the story of a planning dispute, a parking-meter rort, a clash between the older poor and the newer rich of an inner-city suburb. That’s the work; it always was fragmented.

I’ve always understood my function, as a worker, to be synthesising disparate pieces of information into a coherent whole. What all writers do is to put boundaries around a set of ideas, characters and mise-en-scenes and somehow – whether by style, theme, a loud headline or the brute force of proximate association – make those parts into a whole. The ‘new’ piecemeal way of working has always been our method.

There’s a lot to be said, of course, for the writer’s retreat or the garret, the soundproof room or the Pomodoro method – the synthesis of parts can be easier if it takes place in peace – but peace is not really the natural state of the writer. Chaos is: thoughts and images and possibilities flying by in a whirlwind, to be grabbed out of the air and pinned onto the page like Nabokov’s butterflies.

Working all over the place, in fits and starts and multiple locations, is just the next order up of complexity; chaos squared. For some other callings, it may be new to take work out of the office, but for writers, work cannot be left in the office anyway. There’s an aphorism that if you find a job you love, you’ll never ‘work’ again. That’s true, but there’s a catch; when you do something you love, you also never truly get away from your work.

For my freelance work, I’ve never used a conventional computer. I’ve always had laptops, since it made no sense to permanently tie my work to one location. That’s not to say that I haven’t needed a base to return to. Coffee shops and mobile devices can help with the small moments but that garret is still pretty useful for turning out the final product. More than enough’s been said about the distractions of technology and the collapse of the ‘job for life’. What matters is how anyone can make a living and even a career out of their calling in the absence of a corporation’s shelter. That is where the shared creative space comes into its own. 

MY LITTLE FOUR-PERSON space in the city, which my computer and I don’t get to nearly enough, has very few rules. Its current occupants are another writer, an artist, an academic and myself. But it does have prerequisites against which we measure applicants for vacant desks. They are, roughly: that a new tenant must be considerate, not work loudly (few phone calls, no tapping and clanking) and not use smelly products (paints, glues and leathers). These are activities for elsewhere in the building, which has a distinctive smell of craft and dusty industry in its hallways.

The Nicholas Building is old and rundown but it’s cheap and atmospheric and only half a block from Flinders Street Station. It’s long been known in Melbourne as a creative haven. Artist Vali Myers had her studio there for many years, among many other artists. The building has been described as a ‘vertical community’ and is so much of an institution that the tenants run popular yearly open-studio nights, where the jewellers, painters, dressmakers, milliners, cobblers and printmakers leave their polished-wood doors open for visitors to wander in from the cream-coloured tiled hallways. Collectives and share arrangements abound; dividers are thrown up; people sublet, desk-share, tool-share, water each other’s pot plants.

The Nicholas Building is one of many such places now found high above city streets and in the former warehouses and factories of the inner suburbs. The micro-businesses, seasonal pop-ups and crafty enterprises of the twenty-first century need somewhere to operate. It needs to be cheap and, often, it needs to be shared, either for practical reasons or for simple solidarity.

The casual vibe of a conventional workspace, where ideas can be flung back and forth over the dividers like so many tennis balls over the net, has something going for it. When I worked in real newspaper offices, this was one of the joys: popping my head up and asking what the other journalists thought of a quote, if they thought my article was libellous, or if they happened to know someone who knew something or other about a topic. The same surely applies (with different questions) in architecture, dressmaking, design and the marketing of crocheted tea cosies to retro-inclined hipsters. Social media might fill some of the gaps, but no one really believes it will replace the trust and synchronicity created by physically inhabiting the same space, day after day.

Advertisements on the websites devoted to ‘creative spaces’ proliferate accordingly. For the municipality of Melbourne alone, one such site, Creative Spaces, listed ninety-nine ‘creative spaces’, twenty ‘hot desks’ and fifty-three gallery spaces.

These aren’t just spaces, they are shared environments. Your desk will be next to the desk of a similar worker; your rehearsal will take place in the same space another dance company uses; you’ll see another artist’s work pinned up on the walls of your painting studio. The ads remind me of the share-house ads I used to peruse in the window of Readings bookshop in Carlton or the noticeboards at RMIT in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They specify ‘like-minded creative people’; words like ‘vibrant’, ‘friendly’ and ‘happy space’ are scattered through the ads.

Those inner-city share houses are rare these days, rents are too expensive and twentysomethings more likely to stay at home while they study or try to establish themselves in creative careers. Once out of the nest life can be unstable, particularly if you’re trying to make a living freelance. So while for some the work spaces are an extension of home, for others they are actually more stable: one co-tenant in my own office moved house more than once in her tenure with us while her work stayed put on her desk.

MORE COMMERCIAL SHARED spaces are emerging to meet the demand; the old-fashioned ‘serviced office’ is reinventing itself. One web listing presents like a co-op but is clearly run by actual landlords (the fixed inspection times give it away); other serviced-office businesses, like Regus Spaces and The Office Space in Sydney, market themselves to smaller, flexible operators; the latter’s slick website features a page about the ‘community’ of its tenants. On Gumtree, another provider advertises Melbourne open-office hot desks for $30 a day – not much more than a few coffees or a meal at a café with a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Rising rents and gentrification are starting to price creative people out of such spaces; the Creative Spaces website has an indie feel but is actually managed by the City of Melbourne in an active effort to keep the arts community, aka ‘cultural production’, alive in an increasingly expensive CBD. The City of Yarra, which includes the former grungy creative haunts of Fitzroy and Richmond, is setting up its own ‘Room to Create’ fund, which will make grants to artists who can’t any longer afford workspace in the inner north.

In fact, I haven’t used my own shared-space desk that much of late; the baby is not share-space friendly and there’s no time for commuting, only for working. The home office, in hearing range of the cot, is as far as I get. But in a way just knowing that desk is there, with its view of the Flinders Street Station dome and the parkland beyond the river, is an anchor for my tiny forays into the work I did before, a promise that I’ll be back. Those forays are very tiny, and fragmented, but the work always was fragmented, and the pieces will get larger and somehow, when some theme emerges, tie themselves together and become an article, a story, an essay or a chapter of my thesis. The minutes will turn into half hours and the half hours into hours – eventually.

The pram in the hallway diminishes my work time but it doesn’t make me fundamentally different from my peers, who are scribbling stories in their notebooks at tram stops, running spreadsheets on planes, designing clothes in a couple of square metres of rented space and answering emails in the queue for movie tickets.

I’m still working as I did before, all over the place and at the oddest times, just doing less of it. No one, anyway, has ever worked in perfect peace, silence and in the same location for every available waking hour: it’s just a matter of degree. 


From Griffith Review Edition 45: The Way We Work © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review