Returning Home to the Writers’ House

June 22, 2010 at 12:10 am (Uncategorized)

It’s true I’ve been naughty, omitting posts yesterday and Friday, but I hope you’ll forgive me, as I’ve not been idle. Indeed, I have effected a temporary relocation, and I write to you now from Varuna, the Writers’ House, where I have managed to score a much-needed and brilliantly timed writing week. One of the other writers in residence this week, a GP from the Central Coast, made an enormous pot of porridge for breakfast, a bowl of which I took with me back to bed, with a cup of tea, from where I write to you now. There’s a morning mountain mist blanketing the scene outside, and a light spray is falling. Ideal writing conditions, in other words, though I am desperate for a long walk, and it’s only a few degrees outside.

I’m back in my old room from the September 2008 Professional Development Residency, at which, some of you may recall, the Darklings first met and formed our sturdy bond. I very cheekily put in a request for the same room…and I can see how one might become almost superstitious about such a thing. I’m not in either of the ‘prized’ spaces – Eleanor Dark’s bedroom or her beautiful separate studio – but I prefer this room anyway. Everything has moved – the bed, the wardrobe, the desk, the chairs – but it’s still the cosiest space I know, and the lovely bay windows afford a widescreen view of the surrounding gardens below.

Incredibly, Darkling JB is here too, on a three-week fellowship, and she’s in the room next door. Naturally there’s been much glee and excitement over the coincidence, which really did just fall very happily into my lap. I wasn’t supposed to be here, and now here we are together. It’s just like Varuna to manage something like that – that’s the kind of place it is.

I came up on the train yesterday, and settled straight into work for the afternoon, about five hours straight at the computer until heading downstairs to meet the other residents at seven. Last time, of course, there was plenty of plonk involved – we five Darklings quickly discovering the very first thing we all definitely had in common – but last night’s dinner was dry, which made life very nice and easy for me since I can’t drink anyway. It’s a very lovely group – four fiction manuscripts and a memoir are the focus of the week – and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone better. If A keeps up the morning porridge pot, we simply can’t go wrong.

Today should see me finish the line edit and page summary. It’s taken a long time because the line edit is very slow going. An exercise in precision rather than speed, it has turned up several typos. It never ceases to amaze me that mistakes still slip in even when something has been so carefully read so many times, and now it’s almost like a game hunting down such errors. I feel a little surge of satisfaction every time I catch one out. Gotcha! And thanks to the page summary, I’m also forming a much better sense of ‘sewing scenes’ I have still to write – these are tightening scenes I’m hoping will have a propulsive effect on the narrative – and last night I realised, beyond doubt, which character is needed to drive them. If I can get these scenes at least roughly written while I am at Varuna, I will be very happy indeed.

I was talking to JB back in my study after dinner last night – everyone retired early, partly I’m sure because we couldn’t get a fire started downstairs and the rooms upstairs are all blissfully warm – and I articulated a fear that I may not have the adequate writing chops to do what needs to be done for this manuscript. I didn’t set out to have an ambitious structure, but I fear the story it’s become does demand it, and I’m not at all convinced I have yet acquired sufficient skill to pull it off. This is my first real stab at a full-length fictional work, after all, and I’m afraid I’ve made life terribly difficult for myself by stumbling into a world I can’t adequately control.

I’ve learned so much already, which is wonderful, and I know the manuscript is improving, but I do wonder if this particular story is best served by my fumbling beginner’s hand. I guess I’m just saying that I would like to think I’ll have the sense and maturity to recognise my own limitations as a writer if I get to a point where I know in my heart it’s not working because I don’t have the ability and experience to fix it. It’s a deeply unfortunate and confronting thing to contemplate, but I do think that it’s a distinct possibility. This is a difficult structural exercise, and it feels a bit like sitting an exam in higher calculus without first knowing how to use an abacus.

I think it’s a question worth asking myself: might this manuscript be better later? Might I be able to do more for it once I have more experience? Might I botch it by refusing to let it go until I am better qualified to tackle it? It’s a job one learns in the doing, so the other side of this is just acknowledging that writing any novel is a very difficult thing to do well, and that my lessons are ongoing, and that I’m not even at the end of the line with this manuscript, so why do I keep craning my neck out the train window to try to see what the last station looks like? Perhaps I should worry about all this only once I feel I have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to bring. And yet I’m afraid of precisely that, of that day arriving even as I know the manuscript itself still lags along behind like a recalcitrant child, scuffed shoes, grazed knees, matted hair, still grubby and unkempt despite my best efforts to civilise it. I’m afraid of that mayoral voice of authority booming in my ear: “Leave the urchin. There’s nothing to be done.”



  1. Lilian Nattel said,

    It’s a pretty common thing among writers to have to put a ms away for a later time–so if it comes to that you’ll be in good company. But maybe you just are pulled toward challenge and if so then it might be a longer rougher journey but you’ll do it. Just like some other journeys that have recently begun to bear fruit for you. 🙂

    • doctordi said,

      I do like challenges, Lilian, that’s true, but this is so unlike any other challenge I’ve ever faced, and while of course I hope it will eventually bear fruit (and let’s hope this other journey safely reaches its conclusion!), yeah, it may be that it does so in fits and starts. I just want to keep myself open to the question of whether or not it’s time to step away. I don’t want to be lose judgement, and I can see how one might.

  2. charlotteotter said,

    Varuna sounds like a dream. Your description had me aching for morning mist and light sprays falling. Hope you get wonderful work done.

    • doctordi said,

      Today’s progress was utterly hijacked by the political turmoil, Charlotte, but otherwise, it’s been very productive up here. It’s a fantastic writing environment. The place breathes books.

  3. litlove said,

    So glad you are having a wonderful time! Enjoy the porridge and the view and most of all, the simple process of the writing.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, LL. Yes, I think that’s one of the truly special things about Varuna – it’s a place where the simple process of writing is valued, encouraged and protected. Writing isn’t regarded with suspicion or derision or incomprehension or any of the other reactions one commonly encounters in the course of daily life, and it’s very, very nice not to have to justify it to anyone.

  4. Grad said,

    Enjoy the moment. As for the MS, as you say, as you continue to work on it you will continue gaining experience in working on it…a lovely symbiotic relationship. Porridge and tea and friends and peace – heavenly. Get lots done and stay well.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Graddikins – the daily porridge is certainly going down a treat. Yes, that symbiosis is quite fraught, though, as one can’t help wondering sometimes, ‘When will it end?’ – I think what terrifies me is the idea of this manuscript never going away.

  5. Norwichrocks said,

    Well, from the viewpoint of another type of creative endeavour, that of drawing and painting rather than writing, my experience is that some of the world’s best work was created by people who were ‘finding their way’, struggling to articulate what they wanted to communicate in their chosen medium and pretty much always being disappointed with their own efforts.

    Also, it has always struck me that much the best way to learn is to do, so, perhaps by making attempts to resolve this structural issue – maybe even several different attempts – you’ll learn how and eventually succeed.

    Good luck and enjoy the week – its raining here in Sydders so you’re not missing much.

  6. doctordi said,

    Thanks, NR, I’m certainly HOPING that’s the case, that by making these attempts to fix the structural holes I’ll learn the right way, eventually, to navigate my way through them, but boy, sometimes I wonder!! Yes, I think the struggle is at least part of the art, the alchemy, and I agree sometimes it’s that strain that results in great work, but I also think some people hold on too hard, for too long, and crush their best to death. I just want to be alert to that possibility in my own case – it would be such a shame, after all this work, if I ruined it because I lost perspective on the importance of sometimes letting go.

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