The Writing Retreat in Review

March 18, 2010 at 1:26 am (Uncategorized)

Okay, so I lied. There was no “more tomorrow” yesterday…I got distracted catching up on everyone else’s blogs, writing some interview questions for a couple of prize-winning Varuna authors (what a lovely job I’ve landed! I am wholly fascinated by insights into a writer’s process, and now I have a legitimate means of discovering them – it’s wonderful), and of course continuing my redraft. That was even before Llew managed to escape the office at a reasonable hour, at which point we became wildly over-excited and went out for dinner at our favourite local place Jah Bar, whereupon we ate too much, drank too much, and ended up sitting out on the street chatting with the chefs at the end of the night. I love Jah Bar. Llew and I always have so much fun.

So. The retreat. Darkling JB evicted her entire family from their home to make way for the overnight influx, so the very first thing that needs to be said is how amazing they all are, because not only did they tolerate this outrageous usurpation, they did so incredibly graciously. Not a grumble in earshot. Quite incredible – just try kicking Llewie out of his own bed and see where it gets you. And I was terribly excited about the scheduling change that meant a night in Melbourne, both because I felt it’d been ages and ages since I was last there – certainly B.D. – and because it meant seeing where JB lives and writes. It’s not just writerly processes that obsess me; it’s also writerly spaces. How and where other writers work: I love knowing. In JB’s case, she’s got a delightful writing space, flooded with light and sun dapples, and a bewitching, peaceful garden out the back, complete with magnificent mature trees, right in a bustling urban neighbourhood. Just gorgeous.

We like to ease into these retreats with a fortifying glass of something alcoholic, so we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, sitting out the back basking in the perfect Melbourne dusk while waiting for the Changeling to arrive. A note on the weather: I love March. I’ve never before had such superb weather in the laneway city. While soaking up the last of the day’s sun, I tried befriending JB’s black cat Ninja, but he had other ideas. It seems I should have played hard to get, and now know the key to a cat’s feckless heart is total indifference. I’m determined to try it next time.

Jenny arrived, and then Samantha too, Jenny’s daughter-in-law whom some of you know from January’s IVF posts on this blog, when Samantha kindly stepped out of the shadows to share aspects of her own experience. It was so lovely meeting her after forging that connection online, and we spent dinner heads in, talking about it all a great deal more. Dinner itself was so aromatic and moreish: we went to a fab mod-Turkish place on Lygon St called Baba. Highly recommended, and there were plenty of dips and couscous and vegetable-based things for Jenny and Samantha, so a great place for all those Melbourne-bound vegetarians out there. Yum – there was a pumpkin dip in particular, quite spicy, that I’ve not been able to stop thinking about since (drools…). After dinner we returned ‘home,’ said goodbye to Samantha, and sat up with cups of tea helping JB and Jenny prepare for Day One of ‘Advanced Year of the Novel,’ a selective course they’re both doing with author Andrea Goldsmith at Melbourne’s new Wheeler Centre, now home to the Victorian Writers’ Centre. I’m really quite jealous of their Wheeler Centre… especially its central location. The NSW Writers’ Centre is nowhere near as accessible, not even for writers lucky enough to live in one of the surrounding suburbs. Truth be told, I think it’s in a supremely awkward spot. I made the trek precisely once, and have never been back. Pity. Anyway, it ain’t changin’ any time soon.

We set off for Airey’s Inlet once the girls arrived home from their day with Andrea Goldsmith and the twelve other participants. As you’d expect, they were each in a state of high excitement and enthusiasm – it sounds like the course will be enormously useful, and Andrea Goldsmith sounds like a formidable and committed teacher. She apparently asked the class who’d read her latest book Reunion – you may remember that I have – and to those unable to raise a hand she said, “Well, how stupid are you?” – terrifying! But she has a point: she’s an available resource to these aspiring authors, and they’d be mad not to make the most of her.

Jenny as you know fled immediately upon returning home to collect her car, and spent the remainder of the weekend happily ensconced back at her farm in a writing frenzy; Deb, Catherine, JB and I piled into the car and headed to JB’s beach shack at Airey’s Inlet.

Dear shack: we love you so. We’re unbelievably fortunate that one of us has a shack and is so generous in sharing it – I’m sure you’ll agree JB takes the hosting prize and the cake to boot. The remainder of the retreat was spent working – even when we were eating we were talking about writing. There’s something incredibly enabling about waking up in a house full of other writers – there’s no need to keep up appearances or justify one’s day or even get dressed, so I discovered. When I’m here, at home, I do feel a pressure to keep myself presentable, to really formalise my approach to the desk each day. I think it’s because I know many people in my life don’t regard what I do as work. “Well, isn’t that nice?” someone said to me upon my return. The polite condescension in the tone of voice was absolutely unmistakable, as though the writing retreat and indeed the writing group were nothing more than darling little fancies of mine. “Actually, it’s a lot of hard work,” I said, and there was a long pause while I listened to this idea falling on resolutely deaf ears.

But down at Airey’s, I was with other people who take writing seriously, which meant having nothing to prove. I sat on the bed all day, my computer resting on my knees and a hard copy of my MS in my hand, and I didn’t move except for kitchen and bathroom visits. My bum numbed, but I was in the zone and barely noticed. While down at the shack, I went through the entire MS, all 70,000 words of it, writing notes on the hard copy of all the changes I definitely need to make and many others I need to consider making, and then I began making them. Sunday, after a long day’s work in which we barely spoke to each other, I worked until I reached the end of the MS, and rewarded myself with a long run on the coastal path, down to the sands of Sunnymeade Beach, back along to the lighthouse and home again, where I changed and walked down to the beach with Catherine for a beautiful, refreshing swim. I was thinking about the MS the entire time. Over dinner at delectable a la Grecque (oh my god, that yoghurt cake was in-cred-ible), we all talked shop. And home again, the other Darklings (but one, though Jenny was represented by an empty chair) patiently listened while I read out the 3,000-word short story draft I was working on last week. As usual, we all worked so well for being together – it’s always a phenomenally productive environment, and although there were countless moments of group hilarity, the main memory I have is of that unique hush encasing the whole house, the special quiet of four writers sitting in separate rooms, frowning and mulling, all silently intent on their work.



  1. litlove said,

    It sounds wonderful and like you got loads done! I had to go through the mental barrier of that polite condescension – first because I was teaching literature and then again because of trying to write. Now I instantly turn the question around and ask enthusiastically ‘And what do YOU do?’ then draw back and sniff slightly at the answer. There are very few brain surgeons and rocket scientists out there, it turns out.

  2. Grad said,

    Listening to you write about writing – does that preface make any sense? – anyway – as I was saying…listening to you on this subject always reminds me how hard it is to write well. It is exactly why a lot of us talk about doing it but never get around to doing it since…let’s face it…hard isn’t easy to do. But easy isn’t very rewarding. And this comment is demonstrative of why I don’t write, and am glad that you do. Carry on!

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    How wonderful!

  4. doctordi said,

    It was great, girls. And it seemed to come at just the right time for all of us.

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