Here are some snippets of writing I’ve copied out of my journal from my one-week residency. I hope these bits and pieces hint at the possibilities Varuna offers for conversation, creation and introspection.
Been a long time since I heard the word ‘kindling’.
I like how in this moment where we’re inundated with writing advice, here the wisdom of writers before us has been distilled. The agreed-upon tools: silence, trees, a desk, good books, a kettle, teabags. A sign downstairs that says: “sssh…writers at work”.
I feel that here, I’ve been entrusted with something important; a sense of responsibility – not pressure exactly in the way I’d feared and anticipated, but that I’ve been offered all the ingredients and not to do something with them would feel wasteful, shameful even.
The others call me a “Varuna virgin”. Kris (Olsson) says it’s a good thing I was given the Main Room; that Eleanor (Dark) will be watching over me.
Sheila’s dinner: lemon white rice, beef curry, cauliflower and ginger, daal, mango -fermented in large pieces, coriander yoghurt.
Feeling mildly depressed, but reminding myself that this resistance to the work – fear even – is not a sign that I’m not a writer. It’s to be expected.
People go on about listening to your body. But writing seems to me to be as much about not listening to your body – resisting physical restlessness, ignoring impulses, and forcing yourself to sit still. The others talk about getting to the guts of things, the painful places, and writing through them – like a runner talks about running through the mental barriers. For so long I’ve thought I was perfectly happy writing in snatches in cafes, that too much time or too much quiet would intimidate or suffocate me… but being here makes me reconsider that entirely. It is in a way easier to write amid the café buzz; it is comforting in a way to have a shell around you, but I think it means I can only stay at the surface of things. I’m never really ‘in the zone’, but maybe I never give myself the chance to be.
Catherine says she was listening to ABC Radio on the way up here, and they were discussing the Miles Franklin shortlist. A 61-year-old man rang in to say he’d never actually read a book and he was after some recommendations. It was a very profound thing, she says, her eyes lit-up: a 61-year-old wanting to read a book for the first time.
I like how Kris doesn’t look like how people imagine a “writer”. She’s dressed in leggings and ugg boots (says she’s getting in touch with her “inner bogan”), short hair and a practical, unfussy, wholly Australian manner that reminds me of a high school PE teacher. At dinner she says she can be a bit “pernickety” when it comes to food, so if her friends are like: let’s go for Japanese, inside she’s like: argh, just give me a Vegemite sandwich. She also uses the word “joojie” a lot, as in: “It was at the State Library… it was all a bit joojie”.
She says occasionally she and a friend head up to this place just out of Brissie and rent a room there, have their own residency of sorts. It’s $100 a night. They sleep in the same bed because they’re old girlfriends, and they only stay two nights but while they’re there they “go like the clappers”. I love her turn of phrase. And her grace.
Not since the HSC has my hand hurt like this from writing.
On my walk back from coffee up the street I found the word for the feeling Varuna has given me: it makes me feel held.
Kris, to convey how sweet and sensitive her (adult) son is says that even now, if they’re walking down the street together, he’ll hold her hand. “I know I must look like a cougar” she says.
One of the great things about being here is the serendipitous discoveries of things to read, that one way or another chime in to the thing that you yourself are writing – I just went up to Lurline St café to kick myself out of a spiralling slumber and grabbed a copy of Griffith Review on my way. I read the last essay in it, ‘The Clear Days’ by Josephine Rowe, and it floored me.
I wanted to live differently for a while. I wanted to live differently, despite knowing, with uncomfortable acuity, that wherever you go, there you are… There are those of us who come here (i.e. to writing) because it is the best means we have of making sense of ourselves, of making something worthwhile from the things that would otherwise bury us. To run all the dread and guilt and hopelessness through some wonderful, unlikely machine that spins it into an entirely different fabric.
And this, from Leslie Jamison:
Shame is one of those emotions that feel to me like signposts, pointing at something important happening under the surface, a mark of some deep investment or internal struggle.
Watching half an episode of “Love Island” last night felt like sacrilege.
Catherine wonders out loud whether it’s possible to get away with not having a “platform” these days. She holds up this friend of hers who’s still just focused on the writing. “She’s selling books, she’s got her two babies… and she manages to do it all so elegantly”.
Went up town for coffee and papers. I planned on leaving the paper downstairs so the others could read it too. But first I googled three or four of the crossword clues I couldn’t get, because – embarrassingly – I wanted to be seen by them as someone capable of completing a crossword herself.
In the evenings everyone is brain-dead and it becomes all “whatshisface” and “whatshername”. At one point, Cath says, to express how much she loves some writer’s work: “I’ve written everything he’s read” and everyone turns hysterical.
Wendy has the best laugh of everyone – girlish. At night she makes “orgasms”: Baileys & Cointreau. I stick to water.
Author: Adele Dumont, 2017 winner of the Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship