I guess this piece could be titled ‘How I came to change the way in which I do everything’. It could go two ways—and I’ve decided it’s better to resist neither, to do both, even if one is personal and might seem beside the point of workspaces, and the other will make me sound like a real geek. Well, for three years my life (and writing) pretty much circled one point, my mother. And I am a geek. I’ve always been quick to see how some new technology might be used to facilitate my writing work, or storytelling play. I adopted voice recognition software back in 1997, when the speech engines only operated with ‘discrete speech’, where you have to Say. Each. Word. Separately. (And that would have been nearest I ever got to discretion!) I had a Skype ID very early—2004—when my sister Sara and I reassumed playing our imaginary games, initially tied to our PCs by wired modem and headset.
My workspace is an upstairs bedroom, the quietest room in the house (when the boy below isn’t playing Defence of the Ancients, and yelling at Ukrainians.) However, from 2009 through to the start of 2012, my room was often occupied by Sara, who’d come from Sydney every few weeks. First she came for meetings with doctors when our mother was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, then to help Mum move her from her little house in Picton to a villa at Sprott House in Karori, then many times during the year Mum was in the villa, and throughout Mum’s final year in a room in Sprott’s Duncan Wing. Sara took over some drawers in my office so that she didn’t have to lug all her stuff back and forth on those seat-only flights. Her things were in my office, along with Mums’ precious cast-off crockery and glassware, books, paintings, photos, file boxes full of my Dad’s old Listener articles, and drafts of his autobiography. There were so many boxes that there was scarcely room for my legs under my desk.
When Mum’s voice was going, she could still make herself understood on the phone to her nearest and dearest. She would carry a pad and pen, but her writing was only supplementary and, when she wanted to tell a story she’d still get it out slowly in her robotic croaking voice. She’d take phone calls from speech therapists and dieticians and real estate agents, and make affirmative noises back at them as they talked. But she couldn’t talk to them. She’d take their numbers, ring me, and get me to call them. So, when she moved to Wellington, we got her an iPhone. It was way too late for her to get the knack of texting on a regular cell phone; she needed that QWERTY keyboard. And when she got an an iPhone, so did we. It really was the only way to get things said if we weren’t in the room with her. Sara and she got into the habit of writing one another long stories by text. Sara’s about—say—the large snake idling in her driveway (with pictures), Mum’s about being highjacked in her wheelchair by one of Duncan Wing’s more doolally residents. Because I went to see her most days, our communications tended to be her shopping lists, or stuff like, Me: Up in ten. Mum: Thanks pet. Or the perennial weather. Mum: It’s blowing like stink and really giving me the pip.
Mum’s handwriting degenerated as she got weaker, and we bought her an iPad. Towards the end she’d have to support her hand on a pillow and rest between each letter of a word—and the predictive spelling would rush ahead of her to provide words she’d needed and used two months before, but didn’t want now.
So—we all had iPads, and I started reading on mine (Kindle), and editing (in Pages) and watching (via Air Video Server). So when my five year old Dell laptop finally refused resuscitation I decided I didn’t need to replace it.
During that time, when my legs wouldn’t fit under my desk, I’d work drifting about the house, following the sun, and followed by my cats. Or, if the weather was really cold, I’d climb into bed with my exercise books, and Stadler learner pencils, and the three furry furnaces. I wrote Wake and Mortal Fire. I kept drafts under my bed. I didn’t have a workspace, and life wasn’t in any way regular and orderly, despite the stern stricture of helping look after someone who, in the end, could scarcely move or make a noise.
Mum died this time last year and, after the funeral, once Sara and I had done a lot of feverish sorting, my office floor reappeared. Sara went back to Australia and got to stay put for eight months. My Dell laptop turned up its toes, and I had to face getting a new computer. My needs had changed, so I got a desktop, to which I attached a 42 inch Sony TV. Now I sit on my office couch, with my Logitech lap desk, and my wireless mouse and keyboard, and I do a little dictation maybe. But I still can’t stay in one place. I drift about the house, and I’m not carrying pencil and paper anymore, I’m carrying my iPad. And I’m no longer typing, since technology has finally caught up with what I need. This piece was composed in a handwriting recognition app, Myscript Notes Mobile. Then it was emailed to my desktop, which runs the bigger version of MyScript software that, as if by magic, turns my wonky writing into a typed document. The habitual, old-fashioned hand-writer has just used her squishy-tipped ‘capacitive’ pen as a pole to pole-vault over most of the intermediary stages between thought and manuscript.
In my workspace I have a red Bob MacDonald couch. I have Mum’s small coffee table with the hinged top where I keep my lap-desk. I have my computer and TV/monitor. The room has matai floors, a 60s acoustic tile ceiling, and sash windows facing the suburb of Northland and Te Ahumairangi Hill. The bookshelves house perhaps a quarter of our books. I have the essay collections; the art books; the 19th century fiction; all my favourite, touchstone books; and the poetry because, whenever I get stuck I tend reach for Eugenio Montale, or Anna Akhmatova, or Frederick Seidel, like someone sick taking a huff of pure oxygen.
This piece was first published in the summer issue of the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes