The first time I went on a residency at Varuna, my writing consultant, Carol Major, advised me not to worry too much about getting words on the page.
I was surprised and – to be honest – relieved. In the five years since I had graduated from my creative writing degree I had become a slave to words on the page. I had set myself a goal of writing 1000 words a day, six days a week. And while the routine had allowed me to produce three drafts of my novel in three years, the process of writing was beginning to feel a bit like building a house on a swamp.
Each draft of the book – a supernatural dark comedy for young adults – had collapsed from underneath itself in a heap of half-formed ideas, characters and storylines. Part of me just wanted to let the earth claim it, give up on that story and move on with my life. But something about those characters and their world kept drawing me back. I arrived at Varuna feeling lost, worn out and anxious.
Then Carol spoke to me about using the retreat to find a sense of clarity about my project. At first, I wasn’t sure what she meant. I was there for one week, which didn’t seem like a lot of time to solve three years’ worth of drafting problems. But it wasn’t too long after arriving at the house that I began to understand.
Being at Varuna was like undergoing a mental transplant. The house – the former home of writers Eleanor and Dr Eric Dark – is situated in Katoomba among peaceful native gardens and a short walk from the world heritage bushland of Echo Point. I was one of five writers staying at the house. I was given my own room to write and sleep in, along with instructions not to disturb the other writers during the day. (We could talk all we wanted at dinner, a daily feast prepared by Varuna’s own chef.) Signs around the house guarded against interruption, emphasising the need for quiet and warning visitors to contact the office, separate from the main house, if they had business.
The result was that I found myself transported from my life completely – no work to do, no chores, errands, or social engagements. Without the need to cram my daily writing into one hour, or two, I was able to sit back and really think about the story I was trying to tell and see it clearly.
I had help. As well as talk about Varuna, Carol has discussed my project with me and advised that the reason the manuscript wasn’t coming together was that I hadn’t decided what it was actually about. She did this as part of Varuna’s Writer Development Consultations, a program that I have been highly recommending ever since. Rather than give feedback on the chapters I’d submitted, Carol asked me to explain to her what was driving me to write my novel. What were the themes at its heart that spoke to me?
And after an hour of discussion I realised – just like that – I was writing a book about cheating death.
So I spent my week at Varuna sifting through my draft, thinking, walking in the bush and gathering the pieces of my story that were moving it towards that core theme. (And – painfully – letting go of the pieces that were moving it away.) When I went home I began to put words on the page again with a much clearer sense of direction.
Eighteen months later, after a few more twists and turns, blind alleys and one very harsh deadline, I arrived at Varuna again, this time under the NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship. I had a new completed draft, feedback from my writers’ group, plus a manuscript assessment and a newfound sense confidence in the story’s construction.
And yet, as I worked my way through all my notes and feedback, I became aware – the old, familiar panic returning – that there was still marshy ground beneath the foundation.
My story had taken its roots from the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the girl kidnapped by her uncle and forced to live four months of every year in the world of the dead. I had been fascinated by this story since childhood, but after five years of successive drafting I was surprised (and embarrassed) to realise I could no longer identify why I had chosen this myth. The cracks were starting to show and this time I had no consultant to help me.
Fortunately, there were again four other writers staying at the house. We met on day one for welcome drinks, taking it in turns to discuss our projects. I was full of nerves, unwilling to admit the extent of my confusion about my draft. When my turn came I stuttered out an answer about ghosts, grim reapers and the story of Persephone, and immediately someone asked me, “Why that myth?”
I opened my mouth to give some evasive reply when, to my astonishment, I found myself explaining as easily as if I’d known all along, that I had chosen Persephone because she was the girl between worlds: belonging neither with the living nor with the dead. A problem that was also central for my two protagonists.
I could hardly believe it. I’d spent weeks asking myself the same question at home and come close to tearing my hair out. But coming to Varuna had cleared the head-space I needed to see the story more clearly.
I spent my week at the house making notes, solving problems and sealing up holes in the world of the story. I didn’t put a lot of words on the page but for me Varuna isn’t really about that. I can put words on the page at home. But to get a little perspective, sometimes I need to go away.
Jacqui Dent is a writer based in Sydney whose short works have appeared in Voiceworks, Verity La, The Emerging Writer and have been broadcast on ABC Radio National. She is a recipient of the 2014 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship. www.jacquident.net
To apply for the NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship, click here.