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.

Truby King babies

Now in her nineties, my mother tends to remember the events of her
childhood as if they happened yesterday, while the events of yesterday, events
even of five minutes ago, she forgets.  Things slip from her mind but not
her childhood.  Her childhood is her greatest companion and comfort. 
My mother’s family as she now remembers them.  
These days when I make my routine weekly visit to my mother in her
retirement village room, she will tell me again and again how happy she is in
this glorious room that overlooks a small walled garden filled with roses and
in the centre an overflowing mulberry tree, and she will remind me of the
pleasures of her childhood.  
‘I can’t get this song out of my head.  You’d know it.  Oh my
papa.’  My mother shakes her head  as if to dislodge the tune and the
words, but they will not shift.  All day long she has heard the music in
her head. 
‘I loved that song,’ she says.  
I do not bother to ask for an explanation.  It is obvious.  My
mother was her father’s favourite and he hers.  Her beloved father with
whom she walked to church arm in arm.  Her beloved father, a school
gymnasium instructor, a man of short but powerful physique, a man who
disciplined his unruly sons, especially the second, the one below my mother,
the one who was his mother’s favourite.  The other five children missed
out, or so my aunt, my mother’s only sister, maintains.  
By the time they arrived their parents were
already worn out.  My mother, the oldest, considers this a nonsense. 
Long ago my mother told me about the influence of Frederic Truby King in
her life.  Her first babies were Truby King babies whenever my father was
around.  But in the middle times he was either away at work or off
fighting in the war and she could mother as she saw fit.
My mother preferred the times when my father was away she told me because she was then left free to care for her babies, to follow their whims, to put them to bed when
they were tired, to feed them when they were hungry, to hold them when they
needed holding and not to follow the rigid dictates of Truby King as
interpreted by my father. 
As a follower of Truby King my father insisted on discipline.  Four
hourly feeds.  The baby was to be held only for feeding and changing of
nappy then back to bed for the next four hours with no interference from
They might cry, these Truby King babies, but they soon learned it was
pointless.  Their cries would go unheard.
My mother talks about this time now as an aberration.  She thinks
it stopped when there were more babies because it was all too hard for my
father to police.  I was therefore not a Truby King baby nor the one below
me, nor any of my mother’s other babies born in Australia.  
Only the first three missed out. 
I’ve read up on Truby King.  His adopted daughter Margaret wrote a
biography on her father whom she adored.  He was born and lived at the
same time as Freud, and although also a psychiatrist by training, he took an interest not in the psyche but in the body and in preventative  health care.
He trained a troop of mothercraft
nurses to deal with what he considered to be ‘over-feeding’ but the notion of
systematized four hourly feeding came from a Dr Thomas Bull in 1850.
 Truby King pushed it further until people like Dr Spock and Donald
Winnicott turned the tide and helped people to realise the importance of
feeding as an emotional experience that cannot be systematised and deserves
respect and encouragement.
It turns out that Truby king had wanted his mothercraft nurses to become
friendly advisors to the mothers in their care but instead these nurses
tyrannised the mothers and insisted on order and rule bound behaviour in much the way
my father thumped the book of rules at my mother.  
My mother then lost her
confidence and her babies suffered.  
But who am I to judge the past?  I can only speculate and wonder.