Alumni Feature May 2016

Reasons to Write and Cause to Celebrate

By Diana Jenkins

TNWOT cover Many of you will know by now that long-time Varuna Alumna Charlotte Wood recently took out the 2016 Stella Prize for her celebrated fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things.

I doubt nearly so many of you realise that it’s only thanks to Charlotte’s tireless efforts that the Alumni News/Monthly Feature even exists, and it’s a direct result of Charlotte’s involvement that, for better or ill, I’ve been producing these interviews and features for you ever since Charlotte handed over the reins. I owe her a great debt of thanks for this role and other things as well, some of which I’ve been reflecting upon since reading Charlotte’s, er, stellar acceptance speech.


Charlotte Wood Ever since The Natural Way of Things went shooting off into the stratosphere, I’ve been carefully correcting anyone who’s referred to Charlotte as my friend while discussing her success with me. I’ve done this because I very particularly don’t want to make any undue claim on her as she launches into literary superstardom – is there anything worse than a stubborn sheep-dag you just can’t shake? No. There is not. Nonetheless, I have to stop doing it, because I’ve realised it’s both stupid and wrong. While we’re not personal friends in a conventional sense (eg. we’ve never been in each other’s homes and we don’t socialise together), I certainly have no desire to disavow the association, so I’d like to set the record straight by outing myself as a sort-of-pen-pal-half-friend-half-unofficial-mentee and raging fan of the woman.

bad day
I admire many things about Charlotte Wood, some of which are evinced by her speech, a commanding address I know many writers here and abroad shall study, quote and cherish. You’ll find the speech reproduced in its entirety here, but for now I call your attention to Charlotte’s ‘5 Reasons to Write.’ She says she compiled this list on a dark day, when all in the writing felt lost and/or meaningless. Though I would never wish such a day on anyone, I do accept as given that all writers have them – at least every writer I’ve ever known or read about – thus these five pillars of Charlotte’s personal creativity speak to something universal: the molten core of what writing is and why it matters so much to us:

Iris Murdocj Reasons to write:

  1. To make something beautiful. Beauty does not have to mean prettiness, but can emerge from the scope of one’s imagination, the precision of one’s words, the steadiness and honesty of one’s gaze.
  2. To make something truthful. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’
  3. To make use of what you have and who you are. Even a limited talent brings an obligation to explore it, develop it, exercise it, be grateful for it.
  4. To make, at all. To create is to defy emptiness. It is generous, it affirms. To make is to add to the world, not subtract from it. It enlarges, does not diminish.
  5. Because as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act. To write truthfully is to honour the luck and the intricate detail of being alive.

I have been the recipient of Charlotte’s wisdom, good sense and generosity too many times to name. I think the above extract from her speech makes that case very ably for me, but there are a couple of other standout examples I’d like to share with you, because they were lessons that forever changed my outlook on writing and being a writer. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had Charlotte’s influence acting upon me just as I began to really focus my creative energies on fiction. What a lucky break (especially in the absence of others!).

The first monumental change was freeing myself of any notion of competing with other writers. I still enter competitions, because deadlines motivate me, but I don’t attach any meaning or value to the idea that I’m pitted against other writers, and I haven’t done for a very long time. I just square up to myself these days. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a competitive person by nature, but countless rejections helped cure me of that, and so did Charlotte Wood. Here’s how:

Another writer’s success has nothing whatsoever to do with your own writing: that’s the gist of an email I received from Charlotte one day, years ago now, no doubt in response to evil-minded blather of mine about some new failure to get anywhere, even as my writer friends had the gall to go on being awarded, published, signed to agents and so on. And she’s right. No good ever came of believing my writing was competing with anyone else’s. It wasn’t. It never was and it never will be. I know this to be true. Each writer’s work stands alone; neither its merits nor its shortcomings ever implicate anything outside of itself.

Gladly share everything you know. Anyone who regularly reads these features knows I’m an open book when it comes to recounting my stunning lack of success with fiction writing, but it’s mainly because Charlotte’s example taught me the value of passing on everything I learn along the way, be it good, bad or putrid. The main thing is being as transparent and helpful as humanly possible.

Here comes another categorical, a priori truth: there is no downside to giving your 100% support to other writers. It’s always a good thing to do – and it feels great, into the bargain. Much better than harbouring toxic, envious thoughts, which are so pointless and consume so much energy and which won’t ever change a single thing (except perhaps where one sits on the Tedious-Dinner-Guest-O-Meter). Whereas actively throwing your weight behind the idea that we’re all in this together, well, that turns out to be a lovely, productive way to expend one’s energy and I’m all for it. Carry on, you good, dear people, carry on.

Seek and consider feedback carefully. In my eagerness (many would say desperation) to find someone, anyone, willing to work with me (not publish me, you understand, but work with me to get the manuscript into a publishable state), my manuscript went out of my hands much, much too soon. I can’t point to a specific email or pearl of wisdom from Charlotte here, but her modest and considered habits as a writer left a profound impression on me as I grappled with that tidal wave of hope, fear, arrogance and insecurity that greets most writers upon completion of their first major project. It’s the ‘Fuck, I’m good/Kill me now,’ paradigm – I’m sure you’re familiar with it.

teens car The point is, I learned not to be quite so eager to get it out there, and not to be quite so free with passing it around. It’s a little like realising speeding is reckless and dangerous only once you’ve miraculously survived your teens. Most fully-fledged adults are careful, conscientious drivers – and if you think about it, so are most fully-fledged writers.

One thing it’s easy to forget is that people always want your writing to be good – no one agrees to read a manuscript secretly hoping it’s going to be atrocious. One can assume, therefore, that constructive criticism is almost always given in good faith. You do have to back yourself in order to keep going, but after my first two rejections, when an agent and publisher passed at much the same time, I didn’t blindly push on. I didn’t think, ‘What would they know?’ and respond to their reservations by sending out the manuscript to everyone listed in The Australian Writer’s Marketplace. Because the truth is, they know plenty, so I retreated, taking my very badly flawed manuscript with me. Which is just as it should be, frankly.

Charlotte and others gently suggested that perhaps I should put it aside for a while and start something else, which I eventually did. That lengthy break away from a troubled project was so important. Not only was it unhealthy and unhelpful to keep hacking away at it, it was also blocking any chance of moving on to something new and less fraught. Plus, by the time I narrowed my eyes enough that I could bear quickly glancing its way again, I had the kind of revelation that’s only possible from a distance: I had not written a novel after all. I had written a YA novel: a whole different kettle of fish. One that required – you guessed it – significant rewriting.

howler When I started this particular project, I was still eligible to enter The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, Australia’s most prestigious annual award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35. Now I’m old enough that a well-meaning friend suggested to me only days ago that perhaps I’ll be “one of those late-discovered authors.” Thanks for that. Better yet, maybe I won’t! But you know what? Last month, after ten years, I had a win: the publishers at UQP chose that same manuscript for a Varuna PIP Fellowship. It’s really the nicest kind of win, because it was both thanks to Varuna, but based on a blind read, meaning the judges did not know the manuscript was mine. When I got the email late one night, telling me it had been selected, I just howled and howled and howled.

Things haven’t gone to plan, it’s true, but I really don’t care anymore. I write for a living. I write for and from my heart. I can’t do nor ask for one single thing more from my creative life than everything I am already attempting. I won’t ever look back and wonder, because I’ll always do this. For as long as I live, you’ll find me here: trying to get better, endeavouring to learn from the best, but needing to read and write on regardless. I am completely absorbed by these two fundamental drives of mine, they challenge and sustain me, and in those moments when my focus is so total that the world around me slows and sometimes stills, there I find my bliss.

Charlotte’s fifth point, with thanks to Iris Murdoch, resonates with special force for me. Writing truthfully while alive is far superior to the alternative: not writing at all while being dead. June 1, 2003, my 14-year-old niece was the victim of a murder-suicide carried out by her stepfather. What we learned in the aftermath was every bit as nightmarish as the worst of the worst night terrors. But later, much later, when I could begin to think of her sunny nature and gigantic grin without my mind hurtling into abject darkness, I realised I owed it to her, because I was alive and she was not, to live out my luck with everything I’ve got to give.

So yes, I have a tendency to over-invest, then I agonise about it, but I hope Charlotte won’t mind anything I’ve said. She knows me well enough to know I’m permanently set on ‘Compulsive Disclosure.’ Years ago, she also gave me the greatest compliment I could have ever hoped for, right in the middle of delivering a brutally honest assessment of my manuscript that was full of hard truths about its systemic problems. These words bring me unimaginable comfort when nothing is working and they always shall:

I do think you are a real writer.

Thank you, Charlotte. Thanks for everything, most especially for inviting us, your readers, to come with you each time you ‘climb right inside your own dark wormhole of fascination and stay there.’

Stories flourish in the long days of an Irish summer

By Kathy Sharpe

3 Alumni
Three Varuna Alumni pictured at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland; poet Leni Shilton and writers Kathy Sharpe and Eileen Naseby. June, 2015.
On one of the long, silvery days I spent in the countryside around Annaghmakerrig in Ireland, I came across a stone wall with a plaque announcing the site of the former residence of John Robert Gregg, the inventor of Gregg’s shorthand.

I told one of the new friends I’d made at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and the next day we set off so I could take him there. Despite pleasant hours of driving along country lanes, past stone bridges, hedgerows and haystacks, we couldn’t find it again.

I was baffled - I knew it was very close to where we were, and as we drove, I kept thinking it would surely be around the next bend in the road. The villagers we spoke to gave us detailed and cryptic information, even making us wait while they consulted neighbours, but all eventually admitted to having never heard of any such place. Eventually, we were quite lost, and took a long time to find our way back to Annamaghkerrig.

Over dinner that night an Irish poet, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight told us the fairies had probably gotten hold of us. They lead you away, he said, and then you drift into a state of confusion and have trouble finding your way home. Sometimes, he said in hushed tones, by the time you get back, years have passed and everyone you know has grown old.

It was easy to believe such things while ensconced at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre with a group of people whose livelihoods depended on over-active imaginations. And there was something enchanting about being drawn into a rarefied world where the making of art, music and stories took centre stage, and where all else was incidental.

Tyrone Guthrie House
Tyrone Guthrie House
The house itself, gifted to artists by the eccentric Irish/American playwright Tyrone Guthrie, looms in gothic storybook grandeur above a sprawling estate of lakes and woodlands.

In the northern summer, the silvery bright days stretched on and on as the solstice came and went, creating great luxury of both time and space.

Stories were woven on long rambling walks late into the night, where we would talk about our work, our memories, our dreams.

swans at Lake A
Swans flying over Lake Annaghmakerrig
We walked through country lanes and green fields dotted with yellow buttercups while watchful swans drifted on the lake. A red squirrel eyed us briefly before fleeing into the woods. Everywhere was the sweet smell of cut grass and the sound of birdsong.

In the streets of the nearby village old people would stop me, and before I knew it they would be telling me a long story, or some funny anecdote, and I didn’t know how to get away. I began to think the words of the Irish people sounded like musical notes running up and down, or like quick raindrops against the surface of a pool.

Our Irish poet took us on a walk through a maze of lanes to a fairy fort, a circular planting of whitethorn, ablaze with flowers. These are all over Ireland, he said, and no farmer will dare to disturb them, unless he wants a failed crop or sour milk or wishes to invite some other terrible disaster upon himself.

Lake A
Lake Annaghmakerrig
Around the dinner table each night we talked about art, books and songs we knew. People read poems aloud. One night someone sang Irish folksongs, and someone produced a violin. Another night we listened to a composer play a piano piece inspired by the pink petals that drop silently, like summer snowflakes, onto the banks of Lake Annaghmakerrig.

We went into the village and drank at the pub, singing along with the musicians, though we knew the locals smiled to each other at the passing parade of international artists who came and went from their town.

The fields of County Monaghan are made up of oval shaped mounds called drumlins, so that people call it Ireland’s “egg basket”. Hedgerows square it off like checks on a picnic blanket. It looks innocent, and quiet, as though it has a lot of secrets.

Against this backdrop, where the farms once grew flax for the linen mills to the north, Tyrone Guthrie’s grandiose country manor must have always stood out. Inside the house the lavish furnishings, stacked bookcases and profusion of art works speak not only of the eccentric benefactor himself, but of the spirit of the place. The air is soaked with all the music, art and poetry that has been made there. Stepping on its sweeping staircase and through its expansive rooms you can easily imagine the lavish parties and soirees that would have been held as Tyrone entertained his friends; the artists, the bohemians, the avant garde of the time.

Time did seem to take on its own pace there, and suddenly the generous days were at an end for me. They had drifted by in flying whitethorn petals, voices that sounded like music and footsteps following winding country lanes.

I often think about Annamaghkerrig and about Varuna, and about time and silence and space. And with gratitude I think of Tyrone Guthrie and Eleanor Dark, who could see beyond the boundaries of their own creative lives to be make a truly grand gesture - a gift for future generations.

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New Works by Alumni


Nursing Fox cover

The Teacher's Secret
by Suzanne Leal
(Allen & Unwin, June 2016)

Set in a small coastal community, The Teacher’s Secret explores the lives of its residents as they struggle to cope with life when forced to give up the things they most cherish: Terry Pritchard faces the loss of his life’s work as a teacher; Rebecca Chuma tries to adapt to a new country while negotiating the difficult path to gaining asylum; Nina Foreman struggles to cope as a single mother while managing the challenges of a new school and a hostile classroom.

The Teacher’s Secret, Suzanne Leal’s second novel, is a tender and compelling story of scandal, rumour and dislocation, and the search for grace and dignity in the midst of dishonour and humiliation.


Read about other Alumni books online at Alumni Books.


Alumni Profiles


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  • Thank you Diana for such a wonderful May News with the most inspiring speech from Charlotte. It is pure fresh air and beauty in itself.
    Also Cathy's melodious account of her experience in Tyrone Guthrie. Now I hasten to enter my name for the draw.
    Last, not least I enjoy your editorial and look forward to it every month.
    Many thanks for a great job well done and congratulations for your PIP!

    Andrew Y M Kwong Sunday, 08 May 2016 05:55 Comment Link
  • Agreed, Andrew. I love a great speech and I find this example from Charlotte particularly stirring.

    Yes, doesn't it sound wonderful?! Good luck in the lottery - it sounds like the perfect sister institution to Varuna and Ireland is wonderful.

    Thank you so much - that's really kind - thanks a lot on both counts!

    Diana Jenkins Monday, 09 May 2016 17:29 Comment Link
  • Thanks for writing another inspirational piece, Diana. The writing process is just so shitty at times and your honesty is refreshing and uplifting. Huge congratulations to you! Good luck with the fellowship!

    Sarah Price Thursday, 19 May 2016 08:14 Comment Link
  • Thanks so much, Sarah - and sorry my response is so woefully belated. I'm not sure I can take much or any of the credit this time. But I will take your well-wishes, carefully pack them in my bag and carry them with me to Varuna. I still can't believe the manuscript was selected. Here goes - the last stand! Really. The absolute last bloody stand.

    Diana Jenkins Tuesday, 14 June 2016 16:18 Comment Link

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