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The Big Yellow House in the mountains

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

The big yellow house itself

Last week I went on a writing residency to Varuna, in the Blue Mountains. That sentence feels like a miracle.

This is the first residency I’ve ever done, unless you count my annual winter DIY writing retreats to a modest Air BnB in Warburton; just me and a box of food, whisky and writing supplies. This year will also be the year my debut novel is published and those two facts are definitely linked. I never applied for residencies before 2019, as if in my own head it wasn’t justified until I had the validation of a publisher and a book that would be out in the world. As if I thought that other people were more deserving than me - that residencies and grants went to people who were more in need or writing more ‘urgent’ things. It was an almost unconscious and extremely powerful assumption, and a psychologist would probably find all sorts of things in there.

It also feels like a miracle because I was awarded the residency just over a year ago, at the beginning of Covid, and I’ve been trying to dodge slamming state borders ever since. This was the third time the dates had been re-arranged; the last attempt was in January, when borders between Victoria and NSW closed just a few days before I was due to fly. It wasn’t until I was on the plane, mask on and selfie took that I actually, finally believed I was going to this hallowed place.

I had heard about Varuna a few years before - it’s a stalwart of the Australian writing scene and I think the only national writing house in Australia. It’s always spoken of with reverence and love; a big yellow house set in beautiful gardens on the edge of a cute, vibrant mountain town, edging onto the magnificent Blue Mountains themselves. These ancient landscapes are breathtaking - a short 15 minute walk up the road from the house reveals incredible views, dropping away in a blur of blue and green until the horizon. It’s the former home of writer Eleanor Dark and her family, before being generously donated to Australian writers by Mick Dark in 1989, and is today deeply embedded in the Australian literary community, including running the Blue Mountains Writer's Festival.

The lookout 15 minutes from the house

Varuna is all about writing excellence and innovation and it actively champions inclusivity and diversity. It houses six writers at any one time, who each work on their own projects during the day, with enforced quiet times from 9am-6pm (no mobile phones or reading out loud permitted). Food is plentiful in the downstairs kitchen, with writers helping themselves to breakfast, lunch and many snacks, including The Magic Pudding-esque biscuit jars. The glorious octogenarian Sheila serves a delicious cooked meal every evening. I would put money on Sheila being the most glamorous member of that house at any time, elegantly preparing mouthwatering meals with silver chignon, full make up and huge earrings.

To say I’d had high expectations of Varuna is like saying a person in lockdown wouldn’t mind a dinner out with friends, followed by a spot of live music and dancing. It almost shimmered in my mind, this hallowed ideal that brought together writing space, absence of domestic chores, natural beauty and nightly dinners (that I didn’t have to cook) with like-minded writerly souls. Combine this fantasy with constant thwarted attempts to get there and Varuna had become an impossible dream by the time I boarded the plane. My rational mind knew it was very unlikely it would meet my bloated expectations.

The minute I got to Varuna and felt the warm hug of the place; felt my tense post-2020 shoulders drop to the sound of unfamiliar birdsong in its idyllic gardens; smelt the woodsmoke-sweetened lounge, where conversations around countless fires had been shared over the decades; discovered the ever-filling biscuit jar and the bursting library shelves; and then, met the most amazing group of writers, all of whom would become firm friends, I knew that my expectations had been things of paucity. Varuna is all the things and more. It is magical and healing and inspiring. I woke each morning in my beloved Bear Room and looked out over the gardens, and couldn’t believe that this place existed.

View from the Bear Room

We quickly entered a Varuna bubble where the world revolved around writing, books and ideas. These were the central tenets of existence and we could relax around that solid assumption, where our writer selves were present and explored all of the time. There were no competing demands to be anything other - not parents, partners, day-jobbers, bill-payers, shoppers or cookers - and in that rarefied space we shared our writing with each other, as well as our writing methods, ideas, hopes and frustrations, and our excellent senses of humour. We also had sunset picnics overlooking mountains, explored Katoomba nightlife after dark, went on waterfall walks, and looked at rare pink flannel flowers that flowered once or twice in a lifetime; which might have been the official flower of Varuna.

Pink flannel flowers

Katoomba Falls, just round the corner from Varuna

Pink flannel flowers flowering in burned landscapes

I also made great strides on Book 2, When Souls Tear - I finally cracked the big structural challenges that had been looming over me before the retreat. In that week I thought deep and hard about big chunky edits, plastering the wall with Post-It Notes and almost memorised the essential Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, which is my Number 1 go-to resource for plotting and structure. (If you write stories, read it - it’s amazingly clear and full of practical help).

Post It productivity

The other thing that Varuna brought home was that writers come in all shapes and sizes. All types of people, all topics, all ways of approaching writing. There is no right or wrong way to write, just what works for you, and there is no such thing as a ‘real’ writer. Just writers.

The thing is, people who write are writers. Not just people who have publishing deals, or stories in an anthology, or poems that the world applauds. People who write intense entries into journals; who scribble down bits of the day that struck them, or characters they passed in the street, or snippets of conversation from the bus or the laundromat. People who can’t properly process things until they’ve written them down and explored them on the page. People who write cringeworthy poetry and over-written stories and self-conscious meanderings that the world will thankfully never see, because that was also me. You have to allow yourself the terrible, self indulgent writing before you get to the good stuff. That’s where you start and there are no short cuts round it.

And when you get to the good stuff maybe, just maybe, Varuna will be waiting. The blessing of a place like Varuna is that people who don’t have the privilege of time and space to write - who are not supported, as most aren’t, whose lives and heads are full of other pressing concerns, who perhaps think they are not ‘real writers’ - can explore their own voice. They can deep dive into that unique view onto the world that no one else shares, and find the best words to carry it. Can find other people who understand the joys and anxieties of writing, and realise that all of our perspectives are needed - the more diverse, the better.

For now, just knowing that big yellow houseup there in the mountains exists is enough. Until I can't stay away any longer.

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