Full disclosure – I am enormously lucky when it comes to beautiful places in which to write (or not write, as the case may be). I have a drop dead gorgeous, book-lined office, an almost complete writing hut overlooking our dam and an extremely comfy couch set 6 metres up a pine tree. I also have a bevy of literary friends with whom I occasionally take off to somewhere rural for a week or so (give or take) to write (and, let’s be honest, drink and talk into the wee hours). So I have a bit of experience when it comes to talking about the effect that place or a change in place can have on writing.
Back in 2010 I really had no idea. I’d only just started taking writing seriously while trying to work in a dark, cramped office with a crappy computer and mouldy carpet. The only thing I knew about being a writer was that you needed routine, self-discipline and commitment – qualities that for me were in short supply. Space didn’t seem to matter as much as time and the ability to use it well.
2010 was also the year I made the only New Year’s resolution of my life that has stuck. In an attempt to instil a whiff of the afore-mentioned qualities into my haphazard existence I resolved that each month I would submit one piece of work to a publisher. The poems started moving out into the world and to my amazement they didn’t all come home with rejection notices pinned to them. Emboldened, I increased the flow and to edit down to the point –by the end of that year I had won Varuna’s Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship for Poetry.
So what exactly does winning Australia’s most long-winded title even mean? Well, to describe it simply, it means that you are given a room with a bed and a desk in a beautiful house with an amazing literary history in the Blue Mountains and you live there with four other writers for three weeks.
But this is just a material description – what Varuna actually gives you is far more than a gorgeous room and more delicious food than you can possibly justify eating. For me, back in 2010 it gave me validation as a writer – and this was of far greater worth than the dollar value of room and board.
For the first couple of days I sat at my desk making lists of things the things I was currently avoiding getting started on and browsing books from the extensive library. Mostly, I was strung out on the anxiety that I was about to be revealed at any moment as a fraud. Someone was going to burst into my room and call me out as a dabbler, a dilettante who had no place taking up such valuable desk space when a REAL writer could be using it.
Fortunately, after a couple of evenings talking shop with the other writers I realised each and every one of them felt the same way, regardless of the number of books published or accolades received. Within days, we were all taking full advantage of the motivation and energy that comes from being immersed in an environment where the only obligation on you is that you be a writer. So that’s what you do.
You would think that was wonderful enough but the gift of Varuna is that once you have this kind of validation, it doesn’t wear out. There’s no expiry date. You take it home.
I kept writing. I kept submitting. My amazingly talented husband built me a dream office. I painted it the same colour yellow as the Varuna house. In 2012, I won a Varuna Publisher Fellowship and got to spend a week writing in Eleanor Dark’s studio as well as having Picaro Press publish my book.
Varuna just kept working its magic and I’m not alone in experiencing and acknowledging the power of it. Back in Adelaide, the wonderful short story writer Rebekah Clarkson and I celebrate Varuna each week – Wednesday is Varuna Day in the Adelaide Hills. I arrive at her house at 7.30am, we go for a brisk walk and after a chatty breakfast we write all day with a gourmet lunch lovingly prepared for us by our patrons (aka our incredibly supportive husbands). Valuing ourselves as writers and carving out the time and space for the work makes us incredibly productive – for both of us it is the day with the most impressive word count.
Now, I’m back here again on my second Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship, getting the PhD monkey off my back and putting the finishing touches on my third poetry collection. This time I’m in the Ladder Room, the trees are glowing with autumn, the sun is beaming in through the enormous bay window and I have nothing to do but WRITE.