Two weeks ago I rolled up the petal-strewn driveway of Varuna, the National Writers’ House with my breath held, 20kgs of research books occupying most of my luggage, and my heart in my mouth. I’d travelled home to Australia from England, and made my way from Melbourne north to Sydney, and finally into Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. Waiting in the sunshine at the train station for a taxi to take me to a place I had dreamed of going to write for twenty years was surreal, to say the least.
When I was 16 I had a picture of Varuna on my bedroom wall, next to my posters of Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam. When I was 18 I decided Varuna was a circus I wanted to run away to, join, and live in forever (also with Eddie and PJ). By my mid-twenties life had taken me elsewhere and Varuna, along with my writing, felt like the faded smoke of almost-lost dreams.
In February 2015 I entered the first chapter of my unpublished novel in Griffith Review’s Contributor Circle Award competition. The prize was a fully funded week-long residency at Varuna. When I got the phone call from the effervescent Jane Hunterland telling me I had won, my reaction will forever go down as Most Inelegant Language Ever Blurted In A Professional Context in my life.
By contrast in November when I finally crunched up Varuna’s driveway, I was mute with bewilderment. Amongst the fallen carpet of bougainvillea and rhododendrons, my Varuna dream was alive, vivid and unfurling before me in vibrant living colour. After finishing my first draft in October, my week at Varuna marked the beginning of The Manuscript Rewrite. I struggled to believe any of it was happening.
Varuna was the home of Dr. Eric and Eleanor Dark. Eric was a vet and Eleanor was a stalwart of the Australian literary canon for thirty years from 1930-1960. In this house she wrote eight of her ten published novels, between a studio in the garden and the main bedroom in the trees, which, by a stroke of gorgeous luck, I was allocated as my space to write during my residency.
On the afternoon of my arrival, I took to setting my up space with relish. I unpacked the hilarious-not-hilarious tonne of books I’d lugged with me from England, took a stroll under the trees to pick some flowers for a makeshift vase, and unpacked every last thing in my suitcase (read: caravan, a term for ridiculously oversized international luggage I borrow from my beautiful friend and fellow travelling writer, Brooke). I threw open the windows and let the mountain air in. Tiny things settled and awakened inside of me all at once.
That night I met the beautiful, interesting, engaging, giving, and glorious women I was sharing Varuna with for a week. I very quickly looked forward to seeing them all at the end of each day for our evening meal. Their stories, questions, conversations, laughter, and collective spirit linger in my heart.
Each morning, I savoured waking up to this sight and drawing the curtains back to let sunshine fall in golden pieces through the green leafy boughs surrounding my windows.
I worked at my desk until the sun was overhead, and then took myself outside to feel the breeze on my face. Sitting by the hydrangeas under the fruit trees, to write longhand at a crumbling wooden table in the front garden, I made sure to peek up every now and then to take in this view.
In the dappled light I read from a book of quotes I serendipitously discovered on Eleanor Dark’s bookshelf in my bedroom. The ink of her handwritten inscription inside the front cover still reads true.
Most afternoons I lay here on this piece of butterfly paradise in Varuna’s hallowed library of Australian literature, with a glass of wine, and read a book before my fellow writers descended from their nooks for dinner, chats and raucous laughter. During my residency I devoured Courtney Collins‘ visceral, staggeringly beautiful, and long-lingering The Burial, and Favel Parrett‘s salty, haunting, and heartbreakingly beautiful Past the Shallows.
Upon further explorations, I discovered Eleanor’s books still sit on most shelves in the house. This 1909 copy of Through the Looking Glass was another serendipitous find during one of my breaks. The spine was cracked and peeling, the glue long unstuck. And a cockatoo feather I picked up on an afternoon wandering from the leafy path in the hanging swamp behind Varuna.
Morning after morning I sat here, without the hustle or bustle of Normal Life starting around me. I had only the sounds of the trees in the wind and the voices of my characters to keep me company. Occasionally, I also had Eddie Vedder. I might also have sung out loud in my solitude. To my knowledge, I didn’t kill any birds mid-flight or shatter any glass panes in the process.
I’ve never been on an immersive writing retreat before. It was intense and surprising and challenging and beautiful. I worked harder and for longer than I ever have, and fell quickly into a daily routine between writing, wandering the mountains, and losing myself in my book.
The only downside to my time at Varuna was that starting from day one, I came down with The Head Cold of 2015. It hit me with ferocity and left me a wheezing, feverish, clammy, head-stuffed mess that quickly descended into laryngitis. My co-residents were gorgeous. One made me soup. Another gave me sleeping pills. Another, wine. And yet another, endless cups of tea and fresh tissues. Sitting in full sun in an effort to dry myself out in the sunshine, Bec – the latter of my astonishingly wonderful co-residents – and I had one of our countless hearty conversations. After talking (read: wheezing) for a while about our work and what it takes out of us to write our stories, Bec looked at me, and with a wise twinkle in her eye said, “Metaphoric, much? Is it any surprise you’ve lost your voice?”
Even with the sickness and calamity (including but not limited to pouring boiling water on myself and burning my wrist, falling down the stairs, getting the heaviest period out of cycle and being completely unprepared, and finally, going out for a ‘stroll’ and in my head cold fog took a wrong turn on the trail, ending up doing a four hour hike) I was still able to turn up at my desk every day, get under the skin of my story, and stay there until my pounding head cold demanded I move. Then, I would rug up and wander the paths and trails leading from Varuna’s drive way down into the the mountains, where the air was thick with bird song, the scent of gum trees, and the whispers of memory. I surpassed my goals for the week, calamities be damned.
Varuna is a beautiful, creepy place. The feeling is omnipotent. The stories in the landscape are never entirely quiet. The energy in the earth doesn’t feel settled.
On the fourth day of my residency, I learned Varuna is also the name of ‘the Hindu god of water, the celestial ocean, and the underwater world.’ In other words, Varuna is the god of the night sky, the life-giving element of water, and at the same time the keeper of the souls of the dead. Life, death, life. On one of my afternoon walks I thought about this uncanny duality of the name of a house where a prolific Australian writer lived, and where writers have come for the last two decades in search of the quietude needed to draw their stories out from the depths. As I wandered amongst the native flowers and the bell birds, my thoughts turned to what I was doing at Varuna, what had lead me there, what I had entered into and what I hoped to bring back.
Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
– Margaret Atwood, Negotiating With the Dead: a Writer on Writing
As I stood under Katoomba Falls looking into the valley, a breeze blew up gently, nudging me to head home and rest. Walking back through the rainforest towards my writing room amongst the trees, I got goosebumps thinking about the other four women around me in the house, each secluded in their own private universe, all of us in the darkness, drawing our words out into the light. As I shuffled up the driveway, a sight I hadn’t noticed before stopped me mid-step. Right outside of my window was the oldest magnolia tree I’ve ever seen in my life. It towered over me, it’s gnarled and lichen-covered limbs reaching for the sun in glorious bloom. I buried my face into the nearest flower, nearly whimpering with gratitude when, despite my cold, I could still smell the inimitable scent.
As the days of my residency dwindled, I returned to the magnolia tree to watch each flower open and reveal its heart.
What I took away from my time at Varuna is a firsthand understanding of how much is possible when we open our hearts to our creative callings, and are ruthless about avoiding things that distract us from pursuing our art. How vital community is to creativity, and what a gift it is when women support each other. And, also, how very possible it is to create a permanent residency for our creative expression in our lives – if we are determined and disciplined enough to pursue it.
However it is that you might be following your bliss today, I hope you tread gently, with your heart open, and your head high.