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Lessons From a Writer at Varuna House

Once upon a time on a blog far far away I wrote this little piece about going to Varuna House—that was 3 years ago and it’s interesting to now compare that visit with the visit this year.

2013: When I first read the email informing me I'd won a 2 week residential fellowship at Varuna House - the National Writer's House, the icon of writer peace and tranquility, I simply sat there shaking. Oh, and there was a humungous grin on my face.

According to their website, Varuna, the National Writers House is a creative retreat and writers’ network for Australian stories and ideas. Eleanor Dark married DrEric Payten Dark in 1922, and soon after that the couple moved to Katoomba, to this amazing house, where Eleanor wrote eight of her 10 novels. Her best known novel was the best-selling The Timeless Land (1941), the first part of a trilogy, with Storm of Time (1948) and No Barrier (1953).

I could tell Varuna House and their wonderful staff and volunteers knew exactly what they were doing. I was perfectly set up in the Ladder Room (there are 5 rooms named Main, Green, Bear and Maid) which was my bedroom and it had an adjoining writing room. The desk was set up in a bay of windows and overlooked the scenery of the Blue Mountains. I didn't look up much - I simply wrote and wrote, some days for fourteen hours - sometimes at three in the morning, or five in the morning - there was nothing and no one to stop me.

The house is equipped with everything you could hope for - a selection of tea bulged across a shelf in the kitchen, the fridge was fully stocked, the biscuit tins beckoned, dinner was cooked and delivered to the table - and we're talking five star. All I had to remember to do each day was to shower and brush my teeth.

Life couldn't intrude: the other four writers and I worked silently during the day, no phone calls allowed, and we refused to let that outside world, that world of plate-spinning and to-do lists, into our minds. At night we assembled to chat over a glass of wine and a lovely meal. Each of the writers I met (published and unpublished) had something to offer in terms of humour, experience, advice, passion for writing and friendship - we are all still in contact via email, sharing our various setbacks, highlights and frustrations. You can't buy that sort of experience.

I hope we'll all unite again in the form of our books lined up next to each other on one of the many bookshelves at Varuna House. My advice - get yourself there. Enter one of their awards, buy yourself a spot, just make it happen. You won't regret it.

Once lovely aspect of my stay was sitting with Mick Dark, Eleanor's son, for a pot of tea each Tuesday. It was he who decided that Varuna, their family home, should become a gift to Australian literature in memory of his parents.We chatted about all things book, historical and nature, plus his childhood here--his was the Ladder room.

Some unexpected advice I received during my stay? There's always advice, but this was a little surprising and different: The real work is in re-writing - but don't worry about a misplaced comma - if the story is compelling and the characters are besotting, no editor will reject you for a misplaced comma or an extra dialogue tag. Be brave - send your novel out to the world. If you're unpublished, see yourself as a writer. If someone asks what you do, tell them you're a writer. When filling in forms, under the question for occupation, state writer. Buy yourself a mug with the word writer splashed across it. Believe you are a successful and serious writer . . . then watch your motivation, focus and word-output improve. Don't get so sucked into writing every minute you can find, that you forget to live - writers need material, so you need to 'live' to seek, notice and store material you can use in your novels. So while I was there, on day 9, I went abseiling!

Bye Varuna - till the next time!

2016: When I first read the email informing me my novel had been selected by Varuna House and Pan Macmillan for the Publishing Introduction Program, I was so excited about the prospect I sat on the floor and cried—happily. The idea of being back in that surreal world of writers and writing, and getting to enjoy Sheila’s cooking, was just too amazing.

This time I was set up in the Main room--Eleanor Dark’s room. It was filled with historical sunshine, furnishings and character—and a kettle for all the tea I could consume. In fact, with all the windows I felt like I was in a treehouse.

Apart from that, it was exactly the same as my first visit—except this time I forgot to shower and brush my teeth and there was no time for abseiling. However the hours of writing, the amazing company, the awesome food, was exactly the same. Speaking to someone else who’d been there 5 years earlier, she confirmed nothing had changed either. It’s like a writer’s dream existing between the here and now and Narnia. I only wish I could step inside my wardrobe and visit whenever I want to.

The only difference was Mick Dark was no longer there for our pot of tea. Like my own father, he had lived with Parkinson's for many years, and died in 2015 having had an active involvement and impact on Varuna his entire adult life. His son continues to tend the garden and chop firewood--a family of givers.

I guess there was one other important change that marked my stay: this time I could look at the bookshelves and know my book was soon to join the novels there because the Publishing Introduction Program led me to my book deal. So I still say get yourself there. Enter one of their awards, buy yourself a spot, just make it happen. You won't regret it.

Some unexpected advice from this stay? Well everything I learnt last time is true. Plus this: give up watching TV wherever possible as it’ll buy you another 15 or more hours per week for reading/writing. Also, sit down and write every single day—even at weekends and even if only for a couple of hours. Finally, as a writer, it’s your job to keep the tea companies in business so think teapots, not cups.

Bye Varuna - till the next time!

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