Baths and Writing
I’m starting my last full day of my week at Varuna Writers’ House (Katoomba NSW). I still have one goal to achieve, starting a new story. Yesterday, I read over notes and scribblings, hoping a story idea would leap out. A few things were of interest, and I will jot down some ideas today.
This morning, I fulfilled another goal, to restart my daily journal after a couple of months slacking off. I again found the pleasure of writing longhand as I reflected on my week here. I wrote about assessing my early stories and checking them for a heartbeat. Then about deciding to revise one, likening this to putting it into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) for treatment. Yesterday afternoon, after I worked on the story extensively, it fell apart. Was it my use of medical terminology that made me feel like a surgeon whose patient had died in theatre?
What to do? V. I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s crime-sleuth character, has the perfect solution for times like these. In an early story, she states her belief, something along these lines: There’s not much in life that a hot bath won’t cure. So in the middle of a glorious spring afternoon, I take a bath. But not ‘just’ a bath because remember, I’m here at Varuna.
Varuna, the former home of Australian author Eleanor Dark, was built in the 1920s. It is large, plain two-story house in the ’20s style. The bathroom is the original. Traditional medium-sized yellow square tiles run halfway up the walls, and are linked by a band of green tiles to the floor tiles, the size of dominoes and in three colours, making the floor a mosaic of tans, grays and greens.
The ceilings are very high, with one small ceiling light. Above the original wash basin is a single small window, clear glass in the top half and pebbled ‘modesty’ glass below. The tiled shower is original; the toilet is modern.
And then there’s the BATH, a mid-green colour like one of my favourite stones, chrysoprase. It is set into the wall beside the shower and encased on two sides by the same yellow wall tiles. It is long, wide, and deep. Inside, the back slopes slightly but the other sides are dead straight. It is plain—no arm rests, spa sprays or other modern bath trappings. In comparison, my modern bathtub at home seems toy-like. The grand severity of Varuna’s bath reminds me of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Or the baptismal tank that I waded into when young, dressed in a white gown, scared and excited.
The connection seems relevant: My story needs to be resurrected or buried.
When I entered the bathroom, I had set the huge black rubber plug into the drain and turned the old taps on full blast. Now, ready to step in, I find the bath is not even half full. A flicker of guilt—am I draining the hot water tank? I sit on bath’s broad edge, waiting for the water to rise, and tell myself the other four writers are in their rooms, caught in their own web of words and not interested in a bath at all.
I add bath crystals and step in. When I stretch out, my feet don’t touch the end. Bliss. I read a magazine. Soak. Watch the pebbled glass reflect bright flakes of afternoon sunlight. Listen to magpies warbling in the tall gums. A warm breeze carries the sweet peppery scent of Varuna’s old roses.
The water cools. I use its buoyancy to lever myself out of the bath’s depths, then towel myself dry.
When I return to my study and pick up my draft, things have changed. My story isn’t moribund, and the medical analogy no longer suits. My story is a living possibility, and my role is to play with it, explore and shape.
And now, having had my bath, I can do this.