I spent last week as a writer in residence at Varuna, The National Writers House in the astonishingly beautiful Blue Mountains of New South Wales. After a short plane ride and a longer train ride I was greeted by Vera and shown around what would be my home for the week.
My own room, the Bear Room, was simple and almost monastic with a lovely big desk looking out onto the misty garden, a soft single bed with a beautiful handmade quilt, and shelves and shelves of books.
The rest of the house I shared with four other writers, and what extraordinary women each and every one of them turned out to be. It was funny really – I went for the quietness and solitude, which I found in spades and loved, but the company turned out to be just as instrumental in the huge amount of work I was able to complete during my stay.
Our days were spent working almost entirely alone but with the quiet empathy and good wishes that are naturally expressed when two writers happen to be in the kitchen making a cup of tea at the same time. For me, the great difficulty of being a writer is staying. It isn’t just the urge to get up and do something else when the work is difficult. I also, peculiarly, have a tendency to get up and do something else when it’s going well and I’m excited about it. I’ve never understood that! But for those solitary hours I had such an awareness of the silent writers all around me and, even more silent, the writers who have worked between the walls of Varuna for decades before, that whenever I felt even a little distracted the whole house seemed to whisper stay…stay…stay…
In the evenings wonderful Sheila came and cooked for us, working skilfully around dietary requirements and wishes and creating glorious feast after feast that nourished us all in every sense of the word. And each night something new seemed to come alive! Our dinner time conversations were small and personal, huge and far-reaching, winding and whirling and springing out in new directions. I learned and felt challenged and I left the table a little wiser each night.
I promised myself I’d stick to writing and not be seduced by all the walking trails around Katoomba and I only gave in to temptation significantly one morning when I’d woken particularly early. A dear friend of mine uses the phrase ‘headache of beauty’ for such times. The mist in the valley was so dense it was almost like looking into cascading water, except that instead of raging by it drifted very slowly. If I hadn’t taken photos I think I would doubt my own memory.
In the sacred story of the Gundungurra people, beautiful sisters Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo were turned to stone. You can see them in my pictures above, further away in the first image and closer up in the third.
The other times I left Varuna House were to sit and write in its beautiful gardens…
…and to visit a local cafe, the Yellow Deli, which I know is a controversial place but I became quite fond of it during my stay. It has a cosy little one-person booth that could almost have been designed for a writer to work in!
Here is a close up of the little bird painted on the ledge – such a cheerful encourager.
And on the final evening when there were only three of us left we went, perfectly, to say goodbye to the Three Sisters together.
If the usual order of the names reflects the way they stand then I think this must be Meehni, wearing the sunset like jewellery.
Thank you Vera, Jansis, Sheila and all those behind the scenes at Varuna who created such a wonderful, productive, soulful week for all of us.
Thank you Clementine, Mag, Robin and Carolyn for your warmth and your brilliance and for the pleasure and nourishment of your company over the week. I give so much thanks that our paths crossed as they did and feel very honoured to have worked alongside such extraordinary women.
And thank you to my employer, Victoria University, for such a deeply valuable and productive writing experience.