Writing Week of Wonder ~ Wendy J. Dunn
Sigh! Thinking again about how much I am going to miss our annual writing retreat at Swinburne University’s Lilydale student village. To the grief of many, including myself, Swinburne’s Lilydale campus will be closed down by the end of June, 2013.
Originally published at The Word Shop, I thought I’d share here a piece I wrote about our first writing retreat.
The last day of the retreat the rain fell heavily. The first wet day during our time at Lilydale, rain rang down on our apartment roof with a sense of finality. Not a sad finality, but one of completion.
That rain should come at the end of the retreat seemed right and fitting, especially when we had been blessed with a wonderful week of writing weather at the Lilydale Student Village. All the other days had been mostly mild, the blue sky and a scattering of cloud reflected in the pretty, peaceful lake viewed from the back of the student apartment. The bedrooms overlooked this lake – I woke up to the whisper of nearby water and songs of birds welcoming a new day, after nights of moonlight streaming into my room.
Last year, in August, Nerina Jones and I approached the manager of the Lilydale Student Village to inquire about the feasibility of conducting a writing retreat during summer. With many of the students going home until the start of another academic year, we were told it was very possible an apartment could be made available to us, but the village could not confirm this until the end of November.
“Very possible.” Tell me that and I seize it as a fait accompli. Build it, and they will come. “We’re planning a writing retreat. Would you be interested in coming?” became my opening gambit in my conversations and emails to other PhD students and writing friends over the next couple of months. It didn’t take long for the number to climb to fill one apartment. Why not – the village offered a reasonable price, perfect location (also known to be cooler in summer than Melbourne), communal kitchen and student bedrooms, each provided with its own ensuite and large desk; everything a writer would want for a retreat.
Jessamyn West once wrote: “Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking”.
I felt slightly savage sending out emails with Retreat Rules. Despite knowing the writers “booked” in for our retreat were serious writers, who would support and respect the space others needed to write, I believed it was wise to know what to expect and what was expected.
Karina Machado (author of Spirit Sisters) and I, at different times, had been to Varuna. Once owned by author Eleanor Dark, this lovely house is now known as the writer’s place and is sought after by writers all over Australia as the place to go for writing retreats.
From 9am to 6pm, Varuna is a place of silence, a place of writing. There is no television, no interruptions from incessant demands of annoying mobiles, resulting in the writerly distraction of eavesdropping on fascinating one-way conversations. If you cross the path of another writer during this time, speak to them at your own peril. Likely you will be shushed and glared at disapprovingly.
Whilst this may sound harsh and pedantic to non-writers, for writers, silence and solitude, the expectation that you are there to write, is why writers want to go to Varuna. I believed we would be able to use their model for our retreat at the student village.
Seven writers (Carol Ann Croker, Mairi Neal, Glenice Whitting, Nerina Jones, Pauline Montagna, Karina Machado and, of course, myself) ended up coming to the student village in January. I was with the group who stayed for the whole week, revelling in the solitude, silence and the opportunity to surrender to writing without the interruptions of day-to-day life.
So how did we go – what did this retreat help us to achieve?
For myself, having a space of silence and solitude from 9am to 6pm gave me the opportunity to utterly immerse myself with my work in progress. The retreat reassured me I was still capable of churning out over two thousand words of fiction a day; I became a scribe to imagination and my Tudor narrative went back to full swing again.
The reflection time was also vital. Important links opening up in my mind, I began to draft the novel’s cause and effect, and its impact on my character. After a year of health, family, teaching and academic challenges that reduced my time to write fiction to a weekly snatch and grab affair, my story charged forward three new chapters.
Other writers, too, found time at the retreat helped them move ahead. When I asked Nerina about her time at the retreat, she had this to say, “By dint of physically removing me from domestic demands, distractions and preoccupations the retreat allowed my head to quieten and focus on reading and writing essential to the preparation of my PhD thesis proposal. I was thus enabled to force a way through the impasse that had hitherto obstructed my efforts, to organise my thinking and to break the back of the proposal. Having discovered what it is I am actually proposing to do, thanks to the quiet time of the retreat, I ended the week chaffing to start work on my artefact.”
Pauline Montagna, Glenice Whitting and Carol Ann Croker also valued their time at the retreat. Similarly to Carol Ann, Glenice told me, “The writing retreat provided me with several scarce resources for writers—a safe space, time to work on my writing and the opportunity to discuss my work with other writers. I came away brimming with ideas for my project. The setting was idyllic and we had the added advantage of being close to the campus research area and library”. Pauline added, “When I told the manager of the student village, that I was spending all day writing, he wondered that I wasn’t tempted to just sit back and relax in that lovely setting. But I told him that for a writer, writing is relaxing, because when you aren’t writing you get anxious and frustrated. And that’s what that week achieved for me, a week away from all obligations except to myself, from all those external causes of anxiety, from all those obstacles to being myself, a week in which I could know myself, and know that I really was a writer”. Pauline’s words reminded me of writerly wisdom of Ursula Le Guin, who wrote: “When the participants have been practicing writing with a bunch of other practising writers for a week, they can feel with some justification that they are, in fact are, in fact, writers”(Le Guin 2004 p.256).
Karina Machado also stressed how important this week was to her. She says, “The retreat was the turning point in my writing: it turned my book from something stalled into something active. It breathed life back into the words, all 10,000 fresh ones. I’d been so tired, so very tired, of the day-to-day juggle of day job/family/writing that I’d put my book down at the bottom of the list, and there it had stayed. It was just all to hard – until the retreat. A week of nothing to think about except my book gave me the impetus I needed to dig deep for this once more. It reminded me that it’s worthwhile. I am certain that if I’d had another week there, I would have almost finished it”.
For Mairi Neal, recovering from breast cancer treatment, the retreat was about reclaiming “the discipline of writing every day and to make my writing important. When I’m at home the persona of mother takes priority – no blame attached it just happens. I realised how important ‘a writing place of one’s own’ is and what can be achieved when the focus is on the words”.
Yes – the retreat ended with not with a sense of sad finality, but completion, the rain pattering its beat upon the roof of the apartment. As I closed the door of the apartment behind us, effervescent water globules hung like crystal tears on the balcony railing. “Do not cry,” I felt like saying, “we’ll be back next year.”
Le Guin, U. K. (2004). The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination. Boston, New York, Shambhala; Distributed in the United States by Random House.