Shhh! Writers at work

‘It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.’ Donald Winnicott

The writers who come to Varuna, at least those I have met over my four visits are a sensitive lot and I include myself here, as ‘I accuse myself of’ my deep insecurities along the lines of what will they think of me?

Do they like me?

Then further along, do I like them?

From the moment you pull up the driveway in your taxi from Katoomba railway station with heavy suitcase in hand, given all the books you’ve taken for a week long’s reading and writing, there’s the sign:

Shhh! Writers at work.

It speaks to a type of monasticism. And fair enough.

Varuna is intended as a sanctuary for writers, a place where they can get on with their work uninterrupted by the pressures of the outside world.

No mobile phones between 9 am and 6 pm. And no talking outside in front of the house on your phone during these hours. The noise carries.

No reading out loud in your room unless you have the good fortune to stay in Eleanor Dark’s studio, which is separate from the main house and offers a level of soundproofing the rest of us can’t enjoy.

Mornings are the hardest time.

That time from when you wake and must start the day’s writing. Breakfast of your own choosing and available in good supply down below in the kitchen. People tend to avoid one another, at least I do, at this time so as not to clutter our minds with too many extraneous details before the writing day begins.

Lunch likewise, enjoyed in solitude though from time to time, one or two or three writers might take it upon themselves to go for a walk into Katoomba, alone or together, to see the Three Sisters, to shop or even go on a day trip to Sydney for research, or whatever else might lure them away.

Carol Major who met us on the first Monday evening for the ritual 6 pm drinks at the beginning of each writing group said she hoped we might bond.

I hoped we might bond, too. I expect we all hope to bond but it’s such an unpredictable task.

Four or five writers of different ages, stages, personalities, writing preferences and temperaments, thrown in together to share at least a week, for some two or three weeks and for those who stay longer, a fresh batch arrives every Monday, a fresh group of writers with whom they might or might not bond.

The official bonding time happens from six in the evenings when people can come together for pre dinner drinks and then afterwards for dinner.

The unofficial bonding time happens at any time when two or three form deeper friendships, usually out of shared interest or prior knowledge of one another.

I’ve stayed in groups where people don’t arrive for dinner till 7pm on the knocker and others where everyone is keen to open a bottle of wine and start socialising at 6 o’clock, as if we’ve hit recess or lunch time at school and we’re free at last to talk and play.

For me, as an emerging writer, with one memoir published by a small publisher, conversations about agents and publishers can be painful.

Conversations with new writers who are yet to publish can also be painful for them when they’re jammed in with well-established writers who exude confidence with every breath. Even though it’s axiomatic, every new book is as hard to write as the last.

Every book requires the writer to learn all over again. But it’s the external perception of a successful published and award winning writer as the one who has it all and the rest of us become could-have-beens or try-hards or simply hopeful.

Rubbing shoulders with ‘celebrity’ writers can also prove inspirational, as a model for the future.

There is the pressure of friendly gestures in a space where outright hostility might exist or subtle micro aggressions might pop in between the lines, without people noticing.

We‘re writers after all. We want our writing to be read. We want our writing to be recognised. We want contracts and publishers to pay attention and all of this in a shrinking market where fewer books are deemed commercially worthwhile and it gets harder and harder to get your book on the shelf even when your writing is good enough.

Good enough, for whom and to whom.

And then there are the tensions between the various styles of writers, the poets and the prose writers, the non-fiction and the fiction writers, the literary and the genre writers.

A hierarchy of ideal forms in the minds of some, with literary fiction at the top of the pecking order along with poetry, half a head behind.

Though poets are a strange bunch, or so I’ve heard more than once at Varuna, and then non-fiction and genre writers running parallel or almost, with non fiction writers at the bottom, but the non fiction writers and memoirists can be comforted by the knowledge the general public go for non-fiction these days ahead of fiction and certainly ahead of poetry or so I’ve been told.

Still, within the writing world, the content of your writing matters and there is usually an attempt at civility and interest shown at dinner.

‘How was your day today? How did the writing go?’

Most of us mumble platitudes in response:

‘It was okay.’  Or ‘not so great’. Or ‘Just shit’.

Most of us are too close to the experience to dominate the conversation when there is so little space to be heard.

Most of us hope to stay hidden for a time, but we also hope, as Winnicott writes, like babies who love to play the peek-a-boo game, we want to avoid that disaster of never being found.

We want to be discovered as writers.

We want our voices heard but it is only on the page that these desires can be met.

In the dining room at Varuna at dinner, even comforted by the wonderful cooking of Sheila, who has been feeding writers at Varuna since almost its inception, there’s a deep hunger within all of us to be fed with recognition, a hunger that makes these meetings, these temporary and enforced proximities sometimes painful.

If you’re lucky, you will meet some one or two who will become life long friends.  Someone who will be forever in your memory associated with the beautiful Varuna.

If you’re unlucky, you might go home scarred by the company you kept, determined never to put yourself through that ordeal again.

Most like me, find temporary friendships that peter out over time, held onto loosely through Facebook and the online world, but otherwise fading over time.

Still the writing remans, the words we write at Varuna, especially those that over time find their way into publication.

These are the greatest tribute to Varuna, beyond the people who will in time disappear, no matter their fame.

The written word lives on. And for writers, it is one sure way of avoiding the tragedy of never being found.

Can you re-make yourself from the outside in?

Last night I watched the first episode of Queer Eye at my daughter’s insistence and I watched it through determined to open my mind to a new way of seeing the world. What I saw I disliked. Not because the five gay men who make up the cast aren’t delightful people who exude a certain energy that has its appeal but because I felt there was something essentially dehumanising and humiliating about taking a 57-year-old truck driver out of his home for a week and gussying him up, both his home and his clothes, his all over bodily appearance to render him more attractive to others, particularly to the woman in his life.

It struck me as such a construction. Given I recognise that all television entertainment even documentaries and real-life shows are all constructions, why would I think otherwise?

Still I kept thinking about all the money that went into reviving this man’s wardrobe, his house and his love life. They did it all in a week, with much cooperation from him.

At least, they didn’t try to make him lose weight or alter his complexion radically. Tom, our made-over man, suffers from Lupus, hence his skin is dry and red.

Prior to his makeover, Tom hid behind a shaggy pepper grey beard that covered the bottom half of his face and a baseball cap that covered the top half of his face and balding head. Only his blue eyes peeked out from his ruddy complexion.

It was clear he was a man who was loved within his community, a man with friends although he was lonely at night after work, after three failed marriages, one daughter who lived nearby and a grandson whom he treasured. He tended to sit in his favourite poo coloured recliner and watch television.

His favourite meal was Mexican nachos and some sort of tequila mixed with Meadow Dew over ice concoction that he clearly enjoyed, but which his five minders found revolting.

In the series, the five make over artists are each ascribed a role, one in clothes, one in design, one in diet, one in culture – whatever that means – and one in grooming.

I did not enjoy this series because it focussed on the appearance of things even as they argue that to give up on your appearance is to give up on yourself and they’re right to a degree. Not just on your appearance but on looking after yourself.

Tom repeated this mantra: ‘You can’t fix ugly’.

It was this statement and the efforts the five guys made to reassure him it was not true that left me again troubled.

I think of ugliness as very much in the eye of the beholder and also something that can reflect our inner state.

When I feel bad inside I feel ugly on the outside and it has nothing to do with the actual aesthetics of my face or body.

It’s a feeling, which is not to say there’s no such thing as ugliness or beauty. There are things that reflect both, but people are people irrespective of their appearance and if we get hooked on merely improving the appearance of things we fail to recognise what lies beneath.

Maybe that’s the point of this show, to get below the surface into what lies beneath but I sensed a missing element, the true complex state of mind of all these people.