When writers die they hopefully end up at a place like Varuna The Writers’ House. This grand old 1930s home, perched on the hill above Katoomba Falls in the Blue Mountains, was owned by the Australian writer Eleanor Dark and has been a retreat centre for writers for the past 21 years.
Five at a time we come to stay, tucked into the cosy beds under the handstitched quilts, fed (some might say stuffed) by the elegant Sheila who arrives each day bearing far too much food in case we might expire from the mental effort of sitting at a desk all day. We’re given all we need, and then we’re left alone in peace and quiet to create, hopefully with a moody Katoomba mist swirling around us.
I first came here 20 years ago this week, a thought that’s hard to fathom. Back then, the centre had only been running for a year and most people didn’t know what to make of it. What do you do there? Do you get money? Is it a grant? Does someone teach you?
The answer is no to those last three questions. What Varuna has done over the years is select writers and projects that have promise, and support them with fellowships ranging from one to three weeks. As the library downstairs attests, many many books have resulted and this lovely place has made an extraordinary contribution to Australian literature.
I’ve been five or six times, as far as I can recall, and several of those visits have been significant turning points in my writing life. I wrote my first novel here, and I edited my last book The Raven’s Heart, in the HarperCollins editorial program – which led to my current happy relationship with that publisher.
This week’s been rather a different beast. I’m here with four of my co-candidates from the Doctor of Creative Arts program at the University of Western Sydney and we’re working on our exegeses – the critical essays that each of us have to submit alongside our novels in order to graduate.
Working’s not quite the word in my case – it’s been more like wrestling with the thing, and I’ve struggled with that terrible feeling of ignorance and stupidity that I think must overwhelm many doctoral candidates at some stage in the process. I’ve had a few sessions of wandering the nearby bushland close to tears at the inability of my brain to understand what I want it to do.
It’s quite a contrast to my previous experiences at Varuna, which are all about lovely flowing creativity and productivity. But as I pack up this afternoon I think it’s been pretty important – even though I’ve had a negative word count, going away with less than I began with. I’ve been helped by great round the fire conversations with Michael, Irini, Claire and Felicity – four hugely talented writers/scholars who I’ve loved hanging out with.
Humbled, but with a better understanding of what’s needed to write scholarly work, I head back Northwards…