A few months after I met Peter Bishop of Varuna Writers’ House, I received an email inviting applications for residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Western Australia, another retreat where writers may find ‘a space’ in which to progress their writing. Like Varuna, KSP offered an ambience that would be ‘excellent for creativity and inspiration’, and mentioned that a four-week stay often resulted in twenty to sixty thousand words. (Whether any of them would be good, or even legible, was not stated.)
Around this time I was living in inner-city Melbourne, which meant that ‘other’ places, where silence and solitude could be found without cost, were not easily at hand. My PhD was kicking my head in, and I had started to suffer the kind of frustration that occurs when you haven’t left the house for five days, your washing is hanging off the light fixture, and you have so many deadlines your corkboard is more pinned than Lindsay Lohan: all semblance of a schedule disappears along with any remaining vestiges of sanity, and every tram bell that can be heard from the street sounds like the death knell of your creative spirit.
I needed to retreat. Before I had even applied for residency at Varuna and KSP, I was fortunate enough to be awarded funding to complete research in Iceland (which I’ve written more specifically about here). Hooray, I thought, a chance to get some space and time. I started finalising my bookings, and made sure to organise a week’s accommodation at a hostel close to the historical events I was writing about. This was a remote area of northern Iceland, far from any bitumen road, and other travellers had warned of the necessity of bringing your own food. This is what I need, I thought, a bit of isolation. This could be my Icelandic Varuna.
Three weeks into my research trip I was driven half an hour up a dirt track to ‘Ósar’. The place was overwhelmingly beautiful. Positioned on the eastern side of the Vatnsnes peninsula, the hostel looked down over a slope of barley fields to a black shore fringing a fjord, across which the contours of the opposing mountains could be seen. After meeting the friendly farmers who ran the small hostel, I was shown to my accommodation. Thanks to the off-season and the almost total lack of other visitors, I was offered a small wooden cabin overlooking the ocean and seal colony below.
Naturally, I was thrilled. What writer wouldn’t be? For the first time in my life, I had a cosy little house to myself, a desk (kindly lugged in by the farmer’s mother for my benefit), a kettle, a few bags of supplies, complete solitude and time. No telly, no frickin’ tram bells: only the distant sound of the ocean, and the wind whistling over the heath behind.
My retreat started out well. The northern lights and sunrises nurtured my creativity as only nature can. I rose early, walked down to the shore and watched the one hundred-odd seals play. I worked all day, stopping only for regular slugs of instant coffee. Occasionally the farmer would check on me (as my mother reasoned: ‘Probably to make sure you haven’t broken a leg. Or died.’), but other than that, I may have been the only person on earth. After only a few days I noticed, happily, that I had completed a lot of work. I’d written some articles, completed a chapter plan, and had processed a great deal of raw data. Not only this, but the absence of all the things I normally used to distract myself (housemates, YouTube, Alan Rickman fantasies), helped me to reflect. A strong sense of clarity pervaded my mind, and I realised I was finally thinking about my novel as a whole and unified creative work.
Unfortunately, there were also side effects. One week in, stopping to stir up some Swiss Miss (a brand of hot chocolate, not a girl from Geneva), I had a series of disturbing realisations: I had not seen another human in two days; I was wearing my coat and my underwear inside out; my instant coffee consumption was making me irrationally weepy; I had nearly eaten a whole jar of mayonnaise since my arrival,;and finally, my last conversation had been with a cow (don’t ask). Is this what happens on writers’ retreats? I asked myself. Does Charlotte Wood start to cry into her Nescafé after a week at Varuna? Did Peter Bishop have to remind Sophie Cunningham to stop talking to the resident lizard? I had just booked another week at Ósar – what was going to happen to me?
Fortunately my concern for my sanity/basic motor skills was soon assuaged by the farmer. Perhaps he noticed me talking to his cows; perhaps he saw my light on at night, my shadow scurrying around like Gimme from United States of Tara; or perhaps he had seen me eating mayonnaise with a spoon, but one day he asked me if I’d like to help bring in the cows, and before I knew it we were firm friends. He began dropping in on me and we were soon regularly discussing my novel over coffee, and having philosophical discussions about the afterlife in the dairy. I began to dress normally again. I put the mayonnaise down.
By the time I left Ósar I was well and truly back on my feet, thanks to the company of the farmer (and the conversations with his cows, let’s be honest here). My notebooks were full, I was brimming with ideas and words and ambition, and I still had the wonderful sense of clarity that the hours of uninterrupted thinking had delivered me. I was ready to return to Melbourne and finish my book, and the first thing I would write would be the acknowledgements:
‘I’d like to thank my sister for her patience and tolerance of my blatant exaggeration of her character, my parents for remaining healthily unconcerned at my fondness for writing in cupboards and, especially, the kind and generous people at Ósar – Knútur and Sesselja – for the cabin, real coffee, space and peace, without which this fairly facetious article, and undoubtedly my future novel, would never have been written.’
Read Part 1 of Hannah’s musings on writers’ retreats here.