Alumni Feature December 2012

Varuna’s Strategy Day: Lingering Thoughts in a Muddled Mind

The alarm went off at 5:30 am, but I only fell out of bed and into the shower a full 15 minutes later. I’ve never been a morning person, and since my son (who’s two on Sunday – two!) has taken to hallway sprints anytime between 3 and 5am daily, I’m even more resistant. When my alarm sounded, my first thought was, ‘What fresh hell is this?’ – but then I remembered: I needed to be in the Blue Mountains in precisely 4 hours for Varuna’s Strategy Day.

Until I got there, I wasn’t sure whom I should thank for my invitation to attend. The day, entitled ‘Varuna – the Way Forward,’ was held at Leura’s Fairmont Resort on November 17. Naturally I was thrilled to be asked, but doubt I was an immediate candidate for inclusion. My role as Alumni News Editor is marginal within Varuna’s broader framework, and thanks to that old chestnut – inadequate funding in the arts sector – it’s conducted largely pro bono. I’m not ‘proper staff.’ My contribution might best be described as just mucking in, really.

And yet ...I’m not quite a volunteer, either, though I gladly put in significant unpaid work each year. It’s an odd area of employment, hours in kind, made stranger by the virtual nature of my workplace, and I’ve never interrogated my small part in the bigger scheme of things. I’m just happy to contribute because I love the place and the invaluable work it does. So it was with pleasure that I accepted a seat at the table for the Strategy Day; supermodels don’t get out of bed for under $10,000 a day, but I’ll happily haul my bum out at 5.45 am for Varuna.

train Norman Lindsay picture It was only once I was on the train that I allowed myself the shiver of pleasure at the thought of two whole hours alone on public transport. As I emailed several Varuna friends en route, the carriage was a grotty combination of graffiti and grime, and the train passed through some of Sydney’s most forbidding stations, but to me it felt like I was warmly ensconced in a luxury day spa.

These are high-intensity times with my tireless toddler, so as far as I was concerned, the Golden Door had nothing on the State Rail Authority. That train trip was sheer bliss.

Thanks to my jolly Leura cabbie, who warmly recognised the Varuna name and was quick to joke about the absurdly persistent caricature of the caviar scribe, I arrived on the dot of 9.30am and quickly made my way to the Norman Lindsay room (apparently so named for a collection of etchings that’s no longer in evidence).

Weight of 
Silence cover It was a rush of familiar faces: Mick Dark, son of Eleanor and Eric, without whom there would be no Varuna; his son Rod, who maintains Varuna’s beautiful grounds; Peter Bishop, Varuna’s long-serving Creative Director; the lovely Madeleine Dignam, Executive Director, in caretaker mode until new CEO Jansis O’Hanlon moves into the hot seat from Darwin; Carol Major and Helen Barnes-Bulley, part of Varuna’s tireless creative team; Sheila Atkinson, Varuna’s beloved dinner caterer; Vera Costello, office and residency miracle worker; Julie Bail, winner of both a Varuna Fellowship and a HarperCollins Varuna MS Development Award, and Catherine Therese, author of the award-winning memoir The Weight of Silence, with whom I’d greatly enjoyed corresponding but never met.

Jansis O'Hanlon Then there were names I could finally attach to lively faces, including Chair Dr Marsha Durham, Gregg Borschmann, Sharryn Ryan and David Rowan White, all on the board; longtime alumnus Mark O’Flynn, author of the novel Grassdogs; workshop directors like Patti Miller and a number of the many volunteers who help deliver Varuna events. Jansis had also flown down from the Northern Territory for the day, and I’m delighted to report Varuna looks to be in great hands there.

In other words, present was a full cross-section of individuals who are involved with Varuna. In corporate speak: all key stakeholders were represented.

By now you’re probably wondering why all this was necessary; why was consultant Carolyn Quinn managing the day’s agenda, why was there a need to define Varuna’s future focus, and why was it deemed important to articulate the organisation’s core values, mission and vision at this point in its history? Well, there’s no short answer, and frankly it’s not my role to attempt one.

Varuna will deliver its own message to Alumni in due course, as will Jansis, I’m sure, once she’s had a chance to catch her breath and scoff a scone, so for now I thought I’d end the Alumni News year by sharing a couple of observations and a few of the thoughts that have lingered in my mind since.

After Marsha’s welcome and acknowledgement of the land’s traditional owners, Peter delivered a stirring opening address that set the tone for the entire discussion. Gee it was lovely to see him, and in such fine form to boot. Most of us who know Peter aren’t accustomed to seeing him with a flawlessly prepared, type-written speech – his belief in the transformative power of conversation is one of his guiding principles, I think – but it turns out he’s a natural born killer (speechwriter, that is).

Creative Nonfiction cover Peter proposed several new avenues for Varuna’s ongoing commitment to supporting and disseminating Australian writing, including developing close partnerships with international outfits, such as the one he’s independently nurtured with Lee Gutkind, editor of respected American journal Creative Nonfiction. Their collaboration with Leah Kaminsky delivered the excellent Australia Issue, out now.

Peter also suggested that in this rapidly changing industry, facing technological transformation and an intensely competitive funding climate, Varuna must focus on its points of difference in order to remain relevant. There are countless institutions offering innumerable writing courses these days – how will Varuna differentiate itself in the coming years?

It was a good question and one that’s stayed with me. Just how will Varuna survive and prosper as ‘a creative retreat and writers’ network for Australian stories and ideas,’ its core purpose as reaffirmed by all present on the day?

Now, before I continue, I should make explicit that henceforth I am expressing my own views here, views that in no way should be interpreted as representing Varuna’s position on anything at all. I’m just trying to get a handle on it myself, not just as someone who works for Varuna in whatever capacity I do, but as a writer who’s keenly invested in the organisation’s future health. I happen to believe Australian writers need Varuna. We need to look after this place – and not only because it’s done such lasting work looking after so many of us.

corporate presentation It’s my observation that people physically recoil whenever the language and practices of more commercially driven enterprises are applied to organisations like Varuna, and the Strategy Day was no exception. Some of those present seemed utterly bewildered and/or alienated by the whole ‘strategy day’ model. I can completely understand that. We’re all so emotionally and creatively invested in the joint, and it royally sucks that a place like Varuna is subject to something as sinister as ‘market forces,’ but personally I’m also frustrated by the natural tendency of arts practitioners – myself included – to instinctively respond with open hostility to terms like ‘potential revenue stream’ and ‘untapped customer base.’

I caught my own lip curling and thought, wait a second. What? Do I think bottom line concerns are beneath me? How about the poverty line? How do I feel about that? I’d like to avoid it, wouldn’t I? Of course I would; with an income, thanks, generated via the professional practice of my trade. What’s so bloody unseemly about that? And how is it any different to what Varuna needs to do? It’s not, darling, so wipe that stupid sneer off your face (which I duly did).

Another layer of appalling snobbery – this one I don’t happen to share, but you could easily catch me at it elsewhere – is the closely related disdain that some ‘established’ or ‘serious’ writers apparently feel toward ‘hobby,’ ‘beginner,’ and/or genre writers making use of Varuna via paying programs.

Hmmm. It must be nice not to be so tacky or untalented as to want to explore writing as an activity to be enjoyed for its own sake – bully for you, oh gifted ones, showering the world with your literary lights – but personally I’ve always thought of Varuna as a safe house for writers. And if it is to be a place of inclusion rather than exclusion, how does Varuna manage feedback that some established scribes find it onerous fielding eager questions from the pesky unpublished? Perhaps management could look at a tiered system to better accommodate the legends that fear to tread among all the grasping aspirants, though sorting elite egos into A, B and C lists could get a trifle ugly...

It’s a tricky balance to strike. How closed do you want the club to be, kids? You know, I’ve always intuitively believed it makes sense to offer the local Blue Mountains community and others a way to access Varuna no matter their area of interest or level of expertise. I think it’s a genuinely inspiring place. Some people also need a so-called ‘hobby writing’ workshop to build a bit of confidence after a lifetime of making kids’ lunches – are they to be disqualified from the Varuna experience, just when they’ve finally got up the courage to put pen to paper? And what about those of us whose manuscripts are still in development? Are we hobby writers too, or can we slide in on the ‘seriously committed’ requirement? How does one decide? And hang on... I’ve met plenty of people who are seriously committed to their regrettably atrocious writing – what’s one to do with that...? What about the next generation of Australian writers? Personally I’d love to see a competitive young writers’ residency established. I can well imagine it would be a defining experience for four 16-year-old writers to share a table with an established author/playwright/poet/graphic novelist during a week at Varuna. I get emotional just thinking about unearthing all that currently unknown raw talent, though as potential revenue streams go, it’s unlikely to prove a whopping earner...

And that’s when I have to keep reminding myself to take a step back. One thing that became abundantly clear during the Strategy Day, where these ideas and issues were indeed debated among many others, is that Varuna can’t be all things to all writers. It just can’t. Its limited resources simply won’t stretch into infinity. To ensure its future health, Varuna needs to be clear on its remit. Part of why we were gathered together was the idea that Varuna needs to know – and be able to clearly define to others – whose interests it primarily intends to serve.

money house Discussing economic viability and strategic development isn’t exactly communing with the muse, is it, but I think Varuna’s management and board should be roundly applauded for embracing the need to engage more robustly both with its own community and with the tough, unpalatable and deeply counter-intuitive reality that everything Varuna does costs money. There. I said it. Money. Money, money, money. As Madeleine succinctly put it on the day, there’s no pot of gold paving the way for Varuna’s future.

Think about it. Every little thing Varuna does costs beans. They’re not magic, and they all add up. So let’s be grown ups and speak plainly: Varuna needs to be able to pay for itself. In the coming years (the world being what it is rather than what we’d like it to be), it faces increased pressure in all areas of operation. While I like to think Varuna is somehow immune to escalating costs and the sorts of alarming economic changes I’m experiencing in my own life, deep down I know it’s not. I know it’s as vulnerable as the rest of us. I’d like to offer whatever flimsy protection I’m capable of providing, and I’m sure many alumni out there feel the same way, but I’m no cash cow and I doubt many of you are rolling in dough either. Nonetheless, I do think we’re a grossly under-utilised resource for Varuna and I fiercely hope the future includes making much more use of our combined talents. We may not be a source of funding directly, but whom else do we know? What else can we do? Where else are we needed?

It’s not just about funding – it’s about profile, too (and of course an enhanced profile greatly assists in procuring better funding – round and round the whirligig goes...). It’s my own belief that Varuna’s profile should and could be much higher in Australia and overseas than it is at present. We are writers, for god’s sake – of all people we ought to be capable of spreading the, er, word.

For my part, I want to improve the Alumni News until it becomes compulsory reading for members and online visitors: that’s my humble pledge to all of you for 2013. Have a safe and very happy end to the year that was – see you in February.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: Varuna Alumni News will return in February 2013.


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  • Hear hear! What a practical, yet loving perspective you bring Di. Varuna needs to be viable for the future of Australian writing.

    Jennifer Scoullar Friday, 12 April 2013 10:43 Comment Link
  • It does indeed, Jenny. And the good news is that there are such dedicated, passionate people working to that end within every layer of Varuna's operation. I just wonder how alumni can help along the way...let's talk about it in the new year!

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 12 April 2013 10:44 Comment Link

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