For the past year, I’ve been buying most of my books from a second-hand bookstore above a wine cellar on Sydney Road. When open, they line the street below with a small sampling of stock, a taster to beckon passers-by upstairs to the main collection. There’s a couch in the centre of the entry room; the walls are almost completely covered in posters of well-known titles. Stacks of uncategorised books sometimes conceal other stacks of uncategorised books. I awkwardly nudge and push these around as I browse, hoping to stumble across a hidden, well-priced gem. My favourite shelf, unexpectedly, is the one labelled ‘General Interest’, where there can be anything from academic cultural studies texts to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I’ve come to prefer the process of searching without expectations about what I might find, sorting through titles I’d otherwise miss (and some I won’t give a second thought to). It’s like the early stages of researching a new idea, when anything could fall into your lap.
On my first visit, I take home a modest stack that includes Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project, a collection of talks that respond to, build on, and circle Zambreno’s previous book about her mother. A new mother herself, Zambreno is often sketching out the places she’s writing from, the fragments of time she’s stolen from her schedule to write, or else the times when she can’t bear to work on anything else. From bed, the couch, hunched over in the dark, while breastfeeding. Detours and intrusions like emails from friends, a bad haircut, or the same piece of music that repeats throughout the house to soothe the baby, infiltrating the work in known and unknown ways. The book becomes so much about the conditions and encounters—with texts, artworks, people—that produced it, so that the writing is always, in some measure, about a body in a room.
I read most of Appendix Project on the way to somewhere else. On the tram I feel less in the muck of myself, less prone to distractions, more open and alert. I do my best reading on public transport, although lately I have nowhere to go. Working from home, I perform quality checks on captions for broadcast and streaming programs. For six to eight hours per shift, I read subtitles, scanning them for errors and timing them to their content. Quiz shows and true crime and old Kath and Kim episodes. Lifetime movies and a dozen different programs about cops and doctors. World War II history. Better Homes and Gardens. My Greek Odyssey. Most of the time, people in these programs are either escaping somewhere else or recounting something horrible.
My workspace is in my partner and I’s bedroom, where there’s little distinction between sleeping and waking, work and rest. Someone asked me recently whether I do my job full-time or to supplement the income from my main gig. I hardly knew how to answer, mostly because everything just seems to happen here, at this small wooden desk, in a single worn-out blur. Yet as I work on this essay on a Sunday afternoon, still wearing last night’s makeup, my desk chair is cluttered with a pile of laundry. So instead, I work on the couch in the lounge area, the window open, where I listen to the trams bound past every ten or so minutes. A magazine page tacked to a wall falls to the floor while I write, making a scraping sound on the tile that jolts me out of thought.
I can’t stop looking at pictures of the working spaces of famous artists, so concerned with needing the ‘right’ conditions to write—the large desk by the window overlooking some peaceful scene, the delicate smattering of papers—even as Zambreno’s book dispels such a romantic fallacy. I re-read the section of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living about the shed she rents from a kind Welsh woman, in which she winds up finishing three books. Apples from an overhanging tree pelting the roof in autumn. Anwen Crawford’s No Document, with its recurring refrain of ‘Above my desk I keep’, and the way the reader progressively conjures their own image of what the author has been looking at as they write. The postcards, photos and pieces of text situated by the workspace. Each one mirroring or leading the text into a memory, a new line of thought.
The first essay of Susan Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn opens with the following:
I am writing this in a tiny room in Paris, sitting on a wicker chair at a typing table in front of a window which looks onto a garden; at my back is a cot and a night table; on the floor and under the table are manuscripts, notebooks, and two or three paperback books. That I have been living and working for more than a year in such small bare quarters, though not at the beginning planned or thought out, undoubtedly answers to some need to strip down, to close off for a while, to make a new start with as little as possible to fall back on.
I wonder if Sontag ever felt too much in the muck of herself, alone in that tiny Paris room, writing in the same place she slept, though the essay (an ode to the late Paul Goodman) doesn’t indicate as much. She gives the impression of returning to some private, raw essence. A dedicated sphere for thought. I wonder if sitting at the desk by my bed, in the bed itself, or on the couch listening to my housemates come and go in the kitchen, produces something different, a sort of everythingness. The birds hopping along the washing line outside my bedroom window. A conversation overheard elsewhere in the house that I get up to join before returning to my position, slightly shifted. A grocery delivery. A phone call. There’s something nice about this porousness, even as I struggle to work through the fog; the pleasures of entanglement battling the desire for retreat.
I keep joking to people that I’m going to quit writing, which is all I can seem to say in approximation of the truth: that I’ve been struggling to endure all the unpaid work organised around (and on top of) a job that actually pays me. When I struggle to sleep at night, my thoughts feel like they’re writhing in the same old air. It feels impossible to go deeper, to take a different track, to get out of the cycle. (I am sitting in a room, etc.) How can you do anything in a shallow pool but wet your feet and stare down at your reflection? But then, how can anyone afford to take the time to wade in?
On the same day I find Appendix Project, I also buy Objects of Desire—a book of interviews with Spanish director Luis Buñuel discussing his life’s work, conducted in the ‘70s and published after his death. In Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, a wealthy group of people attend a dinner party, fall asleep in the salon, and realise upon waking that they cannot leave. Whenever a guest approaches the boundary of the room, they become mysteriously dazed and lethargic. Members of the group begin to blame and detest one another. They appear incapable of hatching any sustained or coherent escape plan. They’re hopelessly inert, unable to effectively use any of the tools at their disposal.
In Objects of Desire, Buñuel’s reflections on The Exterminating Angel are in many ways about his regrets—what the work could have been, rather than what it is. He deems it a failure. Incidentally, the conversation isn’t unlike Zambreno’s book: both artists discuss their own work in terms of what it’s not, its alternatives, the possibilities it evokes long after the ‘finished’ version has been settled. Closed off, nothing leaves the room once it’s inside. The room is final. But there remains a longing to bust down the door, pierce the boundary, behold and keep speaking to what’s there, yelling and cursing and revising all the time.
Zambreno writes that art can act like a container to ‘hold and archive’ time, about beginning ‘to think of a paragraph as a room or a cell’. What will this space I make say about me; what of this time will be kept and recorded? Reading, then, is a way of getting out of the room, this room at least, of escaping my own stupor which sometimes feels akin to that of The Exterminating Angel—all the self-absorbed dinner guests jostling inside me. Because reading, too, is about a body in a room. Opening up the house so the wind rushes through. Stretching your legs as you move. How when I annotate a book, I mark sections with a square bracket at each end. Fragments held but never boxed in. I try to keep the door open.
I attend a talk by Dr Nonie May (a favourite tutor from my undergrad) about the 2018 film Border. She cites Hélène Cixous from a 2021 interview, which I go home to read in full, poorly translated from the original French:
To write like an animal is to return to inhabiting one’s body most spontaneously. It is a matter of faire corps, which we do not always know how to do anymore, so much we are forced to discipline ourselves. […] You need a body that uses all its senses, that feels its heart beating, that follows the path of the blood under the skin, that follows the rhythm of the breath. […] A bit like a dog in nature: they do not trample it, they scratch it, smell it, listen to it.
Faire corps, which means making body, might be translated to mean ‘becoming one with one’s own body’. I’m trying to find my way back to this unbound, physical urge, though I suspect I may be keeping it in a different room to this one.
Throughout Objects of Desire, Buñuel consistently rejects his interviewers’ interpretations of his films. He refuses to excavate his images beyond their initial intrigue. On his infamous surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, he says: ‘These images shouldn’t be explained, they should be accepted for what they are. Do they repel me? Do they move me? Do they attract me? That should be enough.’ The body senses before it knows. It reads and writes before the ‘I’ catches up.
When I was 17, I went to Stradbroke Island on a family holiday with a Fujifilm X-A2—my first decent camera. I was reading The Goldfinch at the time, which I never finished. I was too busy filming things around me, figuring out what it means to apply attention, to witness, to produce a world by capturing another. I was trying to make a diary by filming fireworks and my hand in the sand and shadows on concrete. My dad’s childhood friend, whose house we were staying in, shook his head at me, told me to just experience whatever was in front of me instead. And at the time I thought maybe he was right, that it’s shameful to try and be between everything, documenting and living both. And maybe art can’t do all the remembering for us, but I wanted to try. I still do.
I have nowhere to go, but when I do, I’ve been making audio recordings on my phone, trying to capture the sounds of my surroundings. I’m keeping a record of what it’s like to be in certain places, walking down certain streets. The sound of overlapping voices, the hum of machinery, the roar of a storm. Every audio file a container. I’m trying to let listening be a kind of writing, even a kind of reading, breathing in whatever’s around. It feels like going back to basics: learning to sense and gather, to dislodge the junk of my mind before I can start to make something again. I’m so tired of being in the room.
Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor living in Naarm. Her work can be found in The Guardian, Overland, The Big Issue, Senses of Cinema, Scum, and elsewhere. She currently edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and is a 2022 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.