A spy in the house of writers

Day 1: Monday, late evening

This has started well – 2000 words of notes in three hours since I have arrived. I go downstairs at 6 pm to sit in front of an open fire and meet the four other writers staying at Varuna this week – Isabelle, Peter, Joshua and Helen. Jansis, the CEO, details the history of the Writers’ House and I recall details of Eleanor Dark’s life from Drusilla Modjeska’s book Exiles at Home. I read it a lifetime ago, before all this ‘political economy’ business. Jansis is unsettling me. She says Varuna is a place for quiet and creativity, and at times for conversation between writers about their practice. She is talking to me as if I’m writer who performs creatively, as opposed to instrumentally, and seems sincere. I feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure I really see scholarly non-fiction as creative. I’m on the verge of declaring I’m here as a fraud, that I’m sure I’ve been accidentally let in. My verbalisation of these silent anxieties is preempted by the other person working on non-fiction this week, Helen, when she states that, prior to her first visit, she rang ahead to find out if she was really allowed to stay. That she didn’t write fiction and thought she might not be the right kind of writer. The others don’t appear to be looking at us like we are foreigners and I don’t hear that I’ve been voted out of the house.

Day 2: Tuesday

I write 1800 words on wages policy in the Whitlam era before the day is done. It is colossal number of words for a PhD chapter that has been an ongoing frustration, but now I’m mixed up as to why I’m not this productive every day. I fear that if I can’t do similar amounts most days this week, this chapter might never get completed. I’m anxious by day two about whether the words are flowing or not – who would have thought? I overhear Peter say he hopes we can all share some of our writing with each other on Saturday night. I secretly promise to find something less potentially grating than shifts in AMWU attitudes to wage moderation in the 1970s. Helen tells me my topic sounds engrossing(!), and that scholarly writing is a creative process. She seems genuine: I’m declaring her my new academic crush. Peter sets a fire before dinner, and Joshua and Isabelle stack the dishwasher after. Not only are all three working on creative non-scholarly work, but they also have practical household skills that I lack. Who are these not-non-fiction writer creatures?

Day 3: Wednesday

The sun is streaming into my study. It is so hot behind the windows that I’ve been dragging my desk backwards out of its direct light, but my chair is now hard up against the wall. Isabelle says she has closed her curtains, but I’ve opted for seeing the sky. Well, seeing the sky … and dehydration. A friend calls me a Stakhanovite on Facebook overnight after I update my status with my writing progress. I’ve posted an ungracious brag and feel a bit icky. I set my awkwardness aside and words flow all morning. I leave the house to get coffee and encounter a traffic jam in Katoomba. I realise that in the last two days I’ve stopped clenching my jaw, but it only takes this minor frustration for it to reappear. New resolution: no more gritted teeth. Second resolution: stop eating the lovely shortbread biscuits on the kitchen bench. The sun is setting and cockatoos circle and squawk greeting dusk. The house is still, with five writers in their own rooms working. Today I even turned my mobile from silent to off.

Day 4: Thursday, morning

Joshua told us at dinner last night that he has finished the first draft of his novel. I want to read it and tell him this, but he looks slightly pained amongst the happiness and relief. ‘I’ll have to find a publisher now,’ he says. The way he speaks is as if the novel will not be a novel until that happens, that between the author and the reader is this third party who will decide on what terms that relationship will happen. Until now I’ve been a little jealous of the non-scholarly writers around me, listening to them talk about the craft and art of writing. Joshua’s comment makes me think a PhD is easier, despite his and Helen’s protestations about how hard a PhD is to complete. A PhD seems less complicated, as once it passes examination it is finished. This seems within my control. Joshua’s book will be a novel when it is finished, but ‘the book’ is more thorny and unstable. A ‘book’ seems less in a fiction author’s control than I’d first thought.

Addendum, late evening.

In February 1975, John Halfpenny, Victorian State Secretary of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, writes in a report to state conference that the ‘year ahead will undoubtedly be a difficult period for workers because of the critical economic situation in Australia, and because of the political crisis which that situation will undoubtedly cause’. I wonder if anyone ever reminds him of those words, spoken after the Whitlam government Dismissal, before he dies.

I have written less today but I’ve closely read some archive documents. There are worse ways to become distracted.

Day 5: Friday

There is drizzle! Proper Blue Mountains writing weather has arrived! And it is cold. The mist sits low all morning and a funk about my seemingly circular writing yesterday has been replaced by elation. I’ve woken to a tweet about one of my book chapters. It is from a professor at one of the top-ranked universities in the world, and so I’m pretty sure I just get given a PhD now.

Day 6: Saturday

It is half past nine and Joshua, who has been here for three weeks, is leaving for the train station. It is an extended travel back to his regional home for work next week. As Peter drives him in to town, Helen leaves for a walk. It is just Isabelle and me for the moment. Some hikers walk through the property and see the sign ‘Shhh … Writers at work’ in front of the house, but it is so quiet they are confused as to whether anyone is inside. I make my bed and notice on the patchwork quilt a little square saying that it is the work of the Southern Cross Quilters (the Australian and New Zealand online quilting guild), produced especially for Varuna. They are inspired by Eleanor Dark’s own patchwork and each quilt is labelled with a different book of hers. Mine is Lantana Lane. I’m moved by the generosity of the makers. They have made these to be used by people they will never meet and yet it feels a personal gesture.

Day 7: Sunday, 6am

I haven’t said much about our resident nun yet. Peter is one of the original Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He’s working on a memoir and a ‘mosaic’ about being diagnosed with HIV, the latter of which he describes as a collection of writing across several genres. This morning he tells me he was one of the first few hundred tested for HIV in Australia, and that it has been thirty years since his diagnosis. He tells me it has been thirty-six years since he protested at what became the first Sydney Mardi Gras parade, a demonstration about the Stonewall riots in the US. ‘It was a riot in ’78’, he says, underlining the different political nature of that event compared to the parade now. Peter’s life is one forcefully lived. We discuss the Gay and Lesbian Archives in Melbourne, started the same year, as we both have material we need to send – items we’ve not found the time to send, and items from activist campaigns from which we find it hard to part. In my PhD I’ve written that Derrida says in Archive Fever that the arkheion is the ‘locus of social and historical authority [and] the place where those who guard the records of the past create and recreate social order’. The Gay and Lesbian Archives are also about documenting disorder and the effort to create a social order of a very different kind. I read two of Isabelle’s short stories, one before she leaves that evening and one after. They are just the sort of writing I like to read but I don’t get the chance to tell her.

Day 8: Monday, 7am

It is very early, and today is my last morning at Varuna. I’m reading a little about the Darks in Barbara Brooks’ introduction to Eleanor’s novel Waterway.

She writes:

A combination of economic issues, fascism in Europe and what dissenting voices called fascism at home made a comfortable liberal humanism seem inadequate. By the late 1930s the Darks, like so many others, were looking back to the First World War and fearing another war. Her awareness of the economic crisis just past and the war soon to come creates an underlying tension in [her book].

Eleanor wrote after the First World War that ‘[i]f we don’t find the causes of this thing and destroy them it will happen all over again’. I see what Jansis meant on the first night here when she said that Varuna is not only a place for writers to work in commemoration of Eleanor’s creative work but also part of the commitment of the Darks’ to social justice. Eric Dark was a GP in the Blue Mountains and as the Great Depression unfolded he wrote on the ‘connections between medicine and society, poverty and disease’. Jansis says that towards the end of her life, Eleanor stated she wished she’d written more hard essays focussed on social justice – although her contribution in that regard was not absent. Eleanor called herself a socialist (‘Of course I’m a socialist … anyone of any intelligence is a socialist these days’) and Erik was radicalised by the economic crisis of the 1930s.

This week I’ve written ten thousand words on the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, the deepest economic crisis in Australia since the one the Darks lived through. Varuna seems, all of a sudden, a place for me as much as the novelists and poets with whom I’ve spent my time here.


Varuna is Australia’s national residential writers’ house in the former home of writers Eleanor and Dr Eric Dark. In 1989 their son Mick Dark gifted their home to the Australian public through The Eleanor Dark Foundation. The details of their programs are available on their website.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Freud may not be very fashionable now, and I’m certainly not a neo-Freudian, but he would have defended your writing as ‘creative’. You take some other writing, have a think, and make something original from it. It’s something that couldn’t have existed unless you had made it; no-one else could have made it just like you did. Yes, all writing is creative, even if it’s derivative.

  2. Thanks MH 🙂 And of course we all know beautiful creative scholarly writing when we see it in others. (I did notice I started paying much more attention over the week to how I crafted individual sentences, and was not as worried about how many words. Although back to worrying about not enough words after coming down with a cold this week! So much guilt involved in the PhD…)

  3. A beautiful piece Liz. Thank you for recording this. I think you have passed on the bewitching. It reads like a writer’s church. I now want to visit.

  4. A wonderful piece, Elizabeth! There were a small number of editorial mistakes (that’s the editor in me, not the poet/short story and memoir writer). It was a true pleasure meeting you and enjoying your company.
    Dick Head, oh sorry, Umbrage, no we’re not ‘a privileged lot’. We work hard; we write hard; we work through all the other infinite tasks associated with being working writers.

  5. No need for such a tone dear Peter. How crass you are! Also, you have made a categorical error. Of course it is a privilege to be able to work on your own writing, to have the time and space in which to do it without the the stresses of the ‘outside world’. I often say to myself, what a privilege it was for me to do a PhD, and now have a reasonable decent job. I worked hard — damn hard — and i have to write in my own time and still struggle to pay the rent. And I still call myself privileged, because compared to most others i am. In fact, i dare say I am privileged even over you, given your churlish name-calling.

  6. Hallo Dirk, I apologise then. Yes, my tone was churlish because I understood your comment as the usual right-wing criticism of arts institutions like Varuna Writers’ Centre. Your second post, while quite rightly criticising me, explained more fully the context/perspective you’re writing from. Now I understand your point of view more fully and that’s a positive. In the end, there are positives for both of us. For yourself, a more rounded post would probably avoid a churlish response like mine; for me, a posting asking for clarification would have been a better comment.

  7. Your experiences–conversations with other residents, lovely quilts & shortbread biscuits, mountain weather,the sense of belonging as a writer–highlight some of the many elements that make Varuna special.
    Marsha, Chair, Varuna Board of Directors

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