Varuna the Writers' House from the front

Varuna the Writers’ House from the front

I’ve just returned from a magical two weeks at Varuna the National Writers’house in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. For over twenty years, writers from Australia and around the world have been coming to Varuna to retreat and write. All made possible by Mick Dark’s generous donation of the house and grounds where his parents, environmentalists and writers Eric and Eleanor Dark, lived and worked.

After applying for Varuna’s many programmes for over eight years, I finally scored a 2nd book fellowship. I’d been waiting a long time to get there so my first day was spent in the blissful haze of a waking dream achieved.

Eleanor's Studio

Eleanor’s Studio

I was lucky enough to have been allocated Eleanor’s studio as my work-space and it worked a treat. A framed poem by Eleanor said it all in the first few lines.
“This is the excursion, interlude, respite
From the house, from the broom and the soapsuds
Foaming in the copper…” (extract from poem by Elanor Dark)

I arrived thinking I was going to be writing a memoir, and left two weeks later with the complete first draft of a novel, Dear Madman. My first morning in the house, I woke up with the madman’s voice strong in my mind and with a clear vision of how the book wanted to be. THANK YOU ELEANOR!

I was inspired to keep writing on by the following photograph of Eleanor with her massive manuscript for Storm of Time that looked down on me from the wall of the studio.

Eleanor Dark with Storm of Time manuscript

Eleanor Dark with Storm of Time manuscript

And also by this, which I found in one of the drawers under the bookshelves. It is a tradition at Varuna for writers who use the studio to leave a piece of writing behind.

You are NOT here to
(strike out inapplicable)
The whip crack! to your tower or
dungeon desk now. I command you.

There was no name attached. Would love to know who wrote it.

Inside the studio

Inside the studio

Whatever it was, a combination of all things, I averaged over 5000 words a day! It’s amazing how much time and head-space was opened up with all household demands removed. Joan took care of the cleaning and shopping and dear Sheila cooked up wonderful meals every evening.

Sheila and Jansis

Sheila and Jansis

Jansis, the director, Vera and Brian in the office took care of all the admin, keeping and protecting the space for us. Which brings me to the lovely writers I shared this experience with – The Francothropes – so called because of a mutual disdain for poor old deluded James Franco. It was a delight to go for a thinking break and stroll around the gardens and to look up to see everyone beavering away at their desks. A community of writers all working hard. LOVED IT!

It wasn’t all hard work however, every evening we sat down to one of Sheila’s beautiful meals and glasses of wine and talked and laughed and did readings and ceremonial burnings in the fireplace of Fifty Shades of Grey, until we even sickened ourselves. I cannot thank Sarah Schmidt, Vahdia Berborovic, Brett Dionysius and Jo Chipperfield enough for the pleasure of their company. If they’d stayed one more week we’d have had a musical up and running. Yes, all singing, all dancing – and bird watching too.

The Francothropes

The Francothropes

Ghosts? Did anyone say ghosts? Let’s just say a few “incidents” were reported, the clearing of throats, a pressure on the bed. And this turned up in my photos –

In the maid's garden

In the maid’s garden

It really was a magnificent time and I’m so relieved to have been able to come away with an entire first draft to rework over the year. Varuna has a special magic, so enter, apply, donate and go!

Inspired by our resident poet Brett, I even wrote my own poem about it.


There is magic in the walls here.
Not just Eleanor and the Dark’s great gift.
Not only the clouds floating past the window,
And a fire in the grate in the middle of summer.
Not the dance and call of the cockatoos,
Or the ghost gums,
and ripe plums in the garden.

It’s in the air,
The sweat of every writer who has ever sat at this desk
And poured words onto the page.
Writing like furies, building worlds,
Singing songs, telling tales, crying, laughing,
Healing ancient pain.
“Write!” they say. “Just write.”

Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark


5 thoughts on “THE MAGIC OF VARUNA

  1. So glad it was everything you hoped for!
    Love the note you found, the garden walks you took, the evenings with other writers you describe … what a magical place.
    And over 5000 words a day? You’re a machine!!
    Welcome back and congratulations on your completed first draft! 🙂

    • Thanks Fiona. My record for one day was 6700!!! Amazing what you can do with nothing else to think about but the work. I hope all your writing is going well and that we get to meet up this year. Happy writing! Ed xx

  2. Pingback: RETREAT! | Edwina Shaw

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