I live in thrall to my chore-lists. The pages of my notebooks hold columns of tasks that assert themselves across my life, like ivy strangling a tree. But during a recent stay at Varuna, I took a machete to my lists until only one column remained: Daily Writing Chores. That single column, short enough to fit on an index card, represented one of the gifts of Varuna. For one week, I’d been absolved of responsibility from everything but my writing. It was like being released back into the blissful simplicity of childhood.
Before my stay at Varuna, I’d drawn up two lists: an absolutely-must-do list and a do-if-you-can list. Both were ambitiously long. A workmate and seasoned Varunarian had assured me that time would expand when I crossed the threshold of the Promised Land. I hoped so, because at the top of my list was the intimidating task of restructuring my novel. Its two parallel plotlines, set centuries apart until converging at the climax, had become misaligned after a major pruning of the previous draft. I had no way of knowing whether my mapped-out plot points would fuse together in a meaningful way, when I tried to straighten my novel’s bent spine. But an undisturbed workspace and permission to ignore everything beyond writing, tidying the kitchen and turning up on time for dinner, provided the mental and physical space I needed to attack my manuscript. By Saturday, the tasks on both my lists were complete and I had an entire day left to dabble in some research I’d been putting off. Although it felt like the week passed quickly, time had indeed expanded so I could get everything done.
Like most emerging writers, I organise my writing time around my day job, without any assurance that my manuscript has value beyond the pleasure and challenge it brings me. More than once I’ve wondered if I’d be better off at the pub with my friends, instead of tapping away at a keyboard. The thought that years of hard work, research and time could end in a pile of rejection letters is a fear that constantly sits across my shoulders like a yoke. But on my first evening at Varuna, CEO Lis Bastian effortlessly banished this fear. As I sipped wine in the lounge room with my four new housemates, Lis told us how important the work we were doing was. It was the first time anyone had said that to me. I’d always assumed my manuscript would only become important if it was published, if someone thought it was worth the effort and expensive of turning it into a book.
Three of the five of us staying at Varuna that week were unpublished, but there was never a suggestion that our limited literary CVs meant our projects held less value. The wonderful people working behind the scenes all offered little gifts of reassurance as the days passed. Fellow resident Renae Gibson, winner of the ASA’s 2011 Ray Koppe Young Writers’ Residency, summed it up best one evening when she said, “This is a house of affirmation.” And for me, this was one of the most potent offerings of Varuna. If I really needed to, I could take a week off work, lock myself in a room with no phone or internet connection and live on toasted sandwiches. I could cut myself off from the clutter of life and write all day. But Varuna provides more than just meals and a work space. The acknowledgement that the writer’s role is valuable, even if they’re still learning their craft, was exactly what I needed to conquer my list of writing chores and re-tame an unruly manuscript. Thank you to all at Varuna and the NSW Writers’ Centre for providing me with an environment that propelled my work towards completion.
Lucie Stevens is an emerging writer who was awarded the NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship and an ASA mentorship in 2011 for her YA novel The Grace Stroke. You can hear an extract of her novel on Varuna’s Writer-a-Day blog: http://varunathewritershouse.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/writer-a-day-lucie-stevens-reading-from-the-grace-stroke/
The NSW Writers’ Centre / Varuna Fellowship is for an annual program for a writer who has a manuscript, play or suite of poems that is ready for the next stage of development. The writer must be a NSWWC member who is willing to commit to developing their work.
One NSWWC member is awarded a one-week residency and professional development/manuscript consultation at Varuna, the Writers’ House. This will include accommodation and all meals for a seven night residency. Click here for more information on the fellowship.
The Varuna Fellowship opens again mid year 2012