It being the Winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Canberra days brief and frosty, I spent a pleasant few minutes in cold sunshine this week watching the fairy wrens that live in our hedge going about their housekeeping in preparation for the coming spring.
Actually it isn't much of a hedge at present ... more of a stick forest, exposed to the rain and weather, and also to the gaze of passers by and any stray cat on the street side.
It had become much overgrown, and we had it quite drastically pruned – bonzai'd really – in the autumn.
Fairy wren, female by KeresH
There is a great deal for the fairy wrens to do if they're going to get the family nest comfortable and secure in time to mate and lay the first eggs.
But the days have now turned – and come the return of warmth to the sun and the rising sap, the naked hedge will soon start to sprout.
I've seen the first buds on the massacred branches already; and by the time those eggs have hatched and the wrens are pecking in the garden for worms to feed the said nestlings, their abode will be covered with a canopy of new green leaves, and the secrets of regeneration hidden from all except those who know where to look.
Male fairy wren, by Brett Donald
Anyway, I was watching the fairy wrens teasing at fibres in the hanging pot plants for building materials, darting in and out among the compost to find domestic treasures, when I was seized by an irresistible impulse to clean out my own kitchen cupboards.
And I knew that Part Two of my new book was on its way.
It usually happens that way. I'll spend weeks thinking about a new story or the next section of a book. Reading. Burrowing among the research compost. Finding my own small treasures. Storing them away. Positing notes and possible lines of further enquiry...
Pulling at the threads of ideas and carrying them back to that secret literary bower where such stray pieces of material ... bits of ephemera and serendipity ... are gathered into the cradle of narrative.
Not for nothing is this process of accumulation, planning and mental construction called nest-building.
All writers and artists go through a similar kind of process. It's part of the creative life; and although I've rarely spoken to other people about it, I imagine we go about it each in our own way.
Like the fairy wrens in the garden.
Just as we each have our own methods of approaching the actual task of composition.
There's no right or wrong of it. Just the discipline of getting it done.
So with the preliminaries. It might seem all very haphazard and untidy. Disorganised even.
But always the imagination is at work. Sorting out ideas. Arranging the materials. Developing the blueprint of a structure.
Until the point is reached when you know that the composition is ready to begin.
In my own case, the signal from the unconscious is this compulsion to clean out cupboards. Sometimes the linen press. Occasionally my stationery shelves or the laundry cupboard (though that's my wife's domain).
But generally it's the kitchen pantry, for I do most of the household cooking and know what a mess the larder gets into.
Leaving the wrens to their business, then, I came inside and shelf by shelf emptied the pantry...
I threw out empty packets; decanted the overturned soup beans into their appropriate jars; sorted the herbs and spices; replaced condiments and seasonings where they should have been...
...wiped the dripping honey jar; put the bags and wrapping papers in some semblance of order; separated the wine from the vinegar bottles; sponged the debris of spilt sugar, flour and salt from the shelving and...
...oh and, you know, I did everything one does to rearrange the shelves again into what Hercule Poirot called his order and method. Reflecting, all the time, just how I'd approach the next part of the book…
Placing the pages of material I'd come across in the files at the archives into their appropriate places among the tidy rows of tinned peaches, cans of tomatoes and red salmon. Thinking of the research trip I'd made to the mountains and how that would fit neatly between the packets of muesli, porridge and breakfast cereal…
Straightening out the pasta and pondering the material I'd found online about the lovely house where the family I'm writing about lived when first they arrived in Sydney. Thinking that might be the way to start the next chapter...
But no ... as I cleared the jumble of storage jars, plastic containers, light bulbs and household candles from the top shelf ...
no, the proper place to begin was in the mountains, when they arrived at a pretty rough shearer's hut, their next place of abode, and then cast back...
It could begin with something like For once in her life E– M– was beyond words... That was possible. A second sentence formed itself, as I was making the top shelf ship-shape.
And by the time I'd finished, put the step-ladder away and wiped the benches, I thought I had the opening paragraph in my mind and the narrative flow for the next three chapters worked out in orderly fashion from there.
Ready to write
It had taken a couple of hours in all, and I went outside to tell the fairy wrens how much they'd helped me accomplish.
My heroine might have temporarily lost her voice at the sight of the shearer's hut, but I had found mine.
Alas the little birds had flown by the time I returned. They'd probably found more constructive things to do.
Author's Note: No product placement fees were paid in the preparation of this article.
Fairy Wren, female: by KeresH (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fairy Wren, male: by Brett Donald (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kitchen cupboards: author photos.