I stayed at Varuna, the Writers House in the Blue Mountains for two weeks in the middle of autumn. When telling friends about my fortnight there, I feel like I’ve emphasised the food angle quite a bit. I reckon I’ve said a lot about the biscuits, the fresh peaches, the homemade curries and pasta sauces, the bountiful avocados amid this, a national housing crisis. No small children to wrangle into jumpers and hurry out the door, no daycare bags to pack, no cars to fill up with petrol, no appointments, and no work. Just write. Some mornings I went for a run up the hill into town then back down Lurleen Street to the Three Sisters. It was freezing and dark, so I stopped at a cosy cafe with fogged up windows and walked home with a coffee. I started listening to S-Town during my stay, a strange thing where the misery of the podcast setting was offset by the cold and windy charm of Katoomba.
I wrote the bulk of a novella for Griffith Review and three short stories. I fell short by a few thousand of my total word goals. Strange how the environment will have changed what I wrote. There’s now a scene in a garden in my novella because my bedroom at Varuna looked out on a garden. In fact, re-reading them now, the short stories I wrote are a bit “outdoorsy” (for me, anyway). I am heavily influenced by what I’m reading and where I am.
There’s a Colum McCann piece doing the rounds called ‘So you want to be a writer? Essential tips for aspiring novelists’. The first line of your novel, McCann says, “should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change”. Mine, for the Griffith Review piece, has been largely unchanged since I first wrote it, well before I sat alone in the Ladder Room, my feet in slippers and the table lamp on. The line is: Spring in Launceston, late October, and Elizabeth sat on the floor in the hallway waiting for Wendy to arrive. The novella is set during a single night of young Elizabeth’s life. Looking back, I probably did want to exploit the idea that Elizabeth’s life will change, in spring, at a party at her parents’ place, once her friend turns up.
Read the McCann piece—an excerpt from his new book—if you haven’t. I have friends who hate books about writing, but I could read one per day and not even feel close to indulgent. Not all of McCann’s ideas resonate with me, but SIT DOWN, STAY, is one of the best. At Varuna, I permitted myself cheese and biccies for morning tea if I reached 500 words. Then, after I’d written another 500, I rewarded myself with a plate of leftover pasta or avocado (!) on toast for lunch. For two weeks, I missed my partner and my little daughter. I had given up a lot of things to be there, at Varuna. Other people were inconvenienced, were missing me too. Only a useless bugger (often me) would waste that time. SIT DOWN. STAY. Talk yourself through it. Sit DOWN.
On day one, after flying to Sydney from Brisbane, the wheels on my gigantic suitcase—a gift from an old boss 13 years ago—broke at Central Station. When I got to my platform for the two hour trip up the mountains to Katoomba, Mum texted to say that her sister, the oldest of eleven children, had died after being sick for a while. Mum and I had already spoken about it, and she insisted I not come home for the funeral. I climbed onto the quiet carriage and felt terrible and sad. Two days later, tropical cyclone Debbie reached southeast Queensland. Some members of my family weren’t able to get their cars safely to the funeral at the Sunshine Coast. What I mean to say is: it was a strange time to be away.
Perhaps the other four wonderful women I was delighted to share my time with at Varuna felt strange too, but also grateful and productive like no other time. We spent our evenings around the fireplace chatting about stories written, walks taken, books read, neighbourhood cats seen and, back home, the dogs and children we missed.
Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. Her work has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Kill Your Darlings, Award Winning Australian Writing and Griffith Review. In 2016, Laura was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for an unpublished manuscript by an emerging writer. Her story, ‘Joiner Bay’, was the winnner of the 2017 Margaret River Short Story competition, and appears in Joiner Bay and other stories, soon to be published from Margaret River Press.