TEXT review

Agency and the Dispossessed

review by Dianne Morris

Sue Woolfe
The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady
University of Western Australia Press 2007
ISBN: 978 1 920694 968
Pb 145pp AUD24.95

There are many books about writing. They come in all forms and guises. Some are cheerfully ‘how to’, others are more reflective and scholarly. The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady is one of the latter, but the big difference is that this is a book about not writing.

In the preface Sue Woolfe describes her journey as ‘the investigation of a novelist baffled by her own creative processes and seeking to understand them’ (ix). She is looking into areas of science – not her field – and she offers apologies for the possible naivety of her interpretations. To comprehend the task she faced, it helps to first appreciate Woolfe’s way of writing. Her method is to begin scribbling with no plan:

Scribbling for me is work, a time of musing and imaginative meandering and play...I know from experience that I must write, word after word, page after page, on and on and on, about anything at all that comes to mind – notions, snatches of dialogue I hear or imagine, descriptions of landscapes, moods, smells, sounds and their impact, sensations of touch, and details of research that obsess me – until something shifts. (2)

Woolfe eschews any sort of planning of a manuscript because she deems it too Western and prescriptive and withering to her imagination. For her, the discovery – through her scribbling – of a ‘peak shift’ (12) idea too early can lead to the plot taking over. In order to preserve the directionless malleability that she considers so important to her work, Woolfe summons all her will to manage her anxiety and trust that the deep themes will evolve with the writing, not before it.

But in the early stages of writing The Secret Cure Woolfe knew the despair of coming unstuck. Unable to progress by her own methods, she began to question not only her worth as a writer but also as a teacher of creative writing. Her knowledge of the writing process seemed to be failing her and she only felt comfortable teaching what she knew. A black hole of plot had overpowered and numbed her scribbling, in much the same way as the actual initium for the story – the knowledge that her own brother had died in an institution aged seven of suspected autism – must have overpowered her parents with grief and unanswered questions.

At this point, we realize that if not for that block this book might never have been written. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, my grandmother might have said.
This book is part memoir, part research – she ranges far and wide to find primary and secondary sources as evidenced by a four page bibliography and seven pages of notes – part philosophy – every finding is weighed up and accepted or refuted according to her own experience – and part exhilarating displays of curiosity and keen intellect. And yet, despite all this, the voice in which she writes is a quietly intimate one, leaving the reader with the feeling of having had a relaxed conversation with Woolfe or of being privy to her thoughts.

The chapters move through an exploration of creativity and also creativity as ‘sickness’, other writers’ and artists’ methods of invoking their own creativity (including a similar study for similar reasons by artist and psychoanalyst Joanna Field in On Not Being Able to Paint), the composition of the ‘the mind’ (Antonio Damasio and his exciting theory of somatic markers interacting in a ‘body-minded’ brain gave me a thrill of recognition), the engendering of voice, memory and creative states, loose and tight construing, consciousness and brain-mapping and the journey that leads to the final discovery the novel’s themes.

It was a long way from 1998, the year Woolfe’s novel ground to a halt, to a phone call in October 2001 about a relatively minor matter concerning Hans Asperger’s ‘pivotal paper on Asperger’s Syndrome’ (117):

In some conversations, a writer senses a great personal significance, and this was one: I’d heard ...the centre of the novel. I began to see an overview for all the disparate characters and incidents and scenes... (118)

The vast jigsaw puzzle was animated into new understanding. One more little piece in a scribbled unrelated thought was all it took to at last see the way forward.

The experience of discovering the themata is a somatically felt joy. The very rhythm of the words at this stage is often accompanied by imaginary music – in particular, deep, resounding organ music, possibly indicative of my synaesthesia.(124)

That Sue Woolfe is a unique human being is imprinted not only in the quote above, but on every page of this book. Indeed the book itself is unique. Small and yet packed with deep insights into the neurological processes of creating, it will have writers and readers returning to its thought- provoking observations time after time.

I met Sue Woolfe at a Writer’s Festival where she was on a panel.  At the end of the session as the clapping began there seemed to be an expression of pure openness on her face as she looked directly out into the audience. It occurred to me that she was also giving back as well as receiving acknowledgement. And so it is with this book.

‘To my students’ says the dedication page.

‘I hope this inspires you,’ she inscribed the book for me.

It certainly did.






Dianne Morris completed an MA in Creative Writing at Griffith University in 2011. She has written book reviews for M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media and published short stories in two editions of One Book Many Brisbanes.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy