I’ve been busy the past couple of days pulling together my first month of Alumni news for the Varuna Alumni website, which Shuckin’ Charlotte manages (with tireless dedication, I might add). In my brand new capacity as the website’s ‘news editor’ (which, by the way, sounds way, way too fancy – Charlotte referred to me in this way in an email she sent to someone else, and I veered from the screen in surprise: news editor? Me? Come on now!), I was rather frantically trying to make the March news both coherent and engaging. I had lots of help, in that Alumni members provided me with their own well-written material, but it was still more work than you’d think. I was knackered yesterday by the time I unloaded it on Charlotte, knackered and anxious.
I have this weird morbidity where writing is concerned – I’m always convinced I’ve done the worst job anyone’s ever done in the history of the written word. It sucks, I’m a fucking fraud, they’ll be embarrassed for me (whoever thought I could handle it?), and then they’ll be worried for themselves (however will they extract themselves?), and the whole thing will be a disaster because I’ve wrecked everything. I think that’s why blogging is such a relief – I can’t hurt anyone’s business or reputation or circulation figures, no one’s except my own. Phew! That’s a load off! Whereas every aspect of my professional writing life gives me crippling worry; there’s this nasty voice inside – a tireless, thin, mean little voice – always ready to remind me that I’m just no good and now everyone’s going to know it. Ugh. Hideous. So I crouch over my computer gnawing at my fingernails waiting for the death knell to fall on my half-baked career. Good times.
Anyway, Varuna. I wanted to talk to you about Varuna and its programs, because there’s a changing of the guard up there in the Blue Mountains, and the outgoing director’s farewell address for the March Alumni News (sorry, it’s password protected for the use of Alumni only, so I can’t even show you) really brought a couple of things into sharp relief for me while I was reading her piece.
I know I’ve talked about it before, but for those of you who don’t know, Varuna, the Writers’ House, was originally the home and studio of Australian novelist Eleanor Dark. It’s in the township of Katoomba, in the breathtaking Blue Mountains, about an hour and a half out of Sydney. When both his parents died, Mick Dark, Eleanor’s son, inherited the house. Not wanting to live there but not wanting to sell the estate, Mick ultimately hit upon the most generous, selfless way to preserve his mother’s legacy that I can personally imagine: he started the Eleanor Dark Foundation, putting the house in trust as a writers’ centre, for the use of Australian writers as a place of retreat, community and creativity.
There is something in the walls at Varuna, something like the sound of children whispering and giggling after dark, amused and reverent all at once – a little scared even, but excited too, too excited to sleep. This low-level murmur is the insistent rustle of writers past, reluctantly leaving the lounge-room after another night of wine and conversation, drifting through the house while the dying embers of the log-fire still smoke, moving up the stairs, perhaps pausing to trail fingertips (still bleeding words) along the sturdy desktops, then out the window and there, there they are again, inhaling the scent of the well-loved garden until finally pausing by Eleanor Dark’s studio door. Hilary Mantel believes in ghosts; after spending a week at Varuna, I believe writers leave something behind.
If there’s a faintly evangelical element to my love of the place, and I do have a tendency toward the extreme, it’s because going there changed my writing life, which transformed and improved my life as a whole. I don’t even know where to start in terms of describing its importance to me. Writers know well the depths of despair and sticky sludge of self-loathing that come of no one wanting your work. It is the pits, that feeling, a big tarry hole of misery where some light might occasionally dribble in but for the handfuls of shit people keep flinging down the well that catch you right between the eyes. So having someone like Varuna’s Creative Director Peter Bishop respond favourably to your writing… and having a fine novelist and all round good egg like Charlotte become a sort of guardian angel, well, it’s like being revived after a terrible accident when all hope seems lost.
And of course Varuna’s responsible for my meeting the Darklings, who have become my phantom limbs, writing things I could not, reading books I shall not, thinking thoughts and living lives that are uniquely their own and yet are also truly shared. I missed them so much before I even knew them. I was so desperate to know other writers, to be part of a community, and that’s what Mick Dark’s generosity of spirit has brought to my own life, because being at Varuna immediately filled a gaping hole in my heart.
I don’t know how I’ll ever repay Mick for the gift he has given us all (because even Australian writers who never attend a single Varuna program will likely benefit from its work), but the one thing I can do – aside from give my time in whatever capacity Varuna seeks it – is tell people about it. I tell everyone I meet about Varuna, I love talking about it, because Varuna is a good, true thing in the world. And it makes me happy just knowing it’s there.