The Lure of the Writers' Colony


Alice Nelson

Alice Nelson

Varuna Guest Post by Alice Nelson

In Rachel Cusk's latest novel Kudos, one of the characters is ensconced at a writers' residence in an Italian castle owned by a lascivious countess when she comes across a young male writer who drifts from one writers' colony to the next in a kind of privileged literary retreat-hopping lifestyle. His future seems to unfurl before him as a long series of well-funded creative sojourns in exotic locales. Cusk's character wonders if such a lifestyle is sustainable: 'Still, after two weeks she could see it was possible to have too much of a good thing. There was a man there, a novelist, who was going straight on to another residency in France, and then another one in Sweden after that: his whole life, as far as she could see, consisted of writerly sinecures and engagements, like a whole life of eating only dessert. She wasn't sure it was healthy.'

There are times in my own life when such an existence seems not only healthy but eminently desirable; long interrupted stretches of writing time away from the clamour of my everyday life, stimulating temporary communities of fellow writers, houses cloaked in the deep hush of writing. What conditions could be more perfect for a writer? Over the years, I have spent many a spell working at various writers' colonies around the world and I've grown profoundly attached to the nurturing environment they offer to the writer. Most of my forthcoming novel was written during various residencies at Varuna. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that this book would not exist without the unique space for sustained creative work that places like Varuna offer writers.

I'm not alone in my love for writers' colonies; in the decades since the establishment of the hallowed literary communities of Yaddo and McDowell in the US, there has been a global proliferation of writing residencies of every imaginable variety. From a 'treehouse' retreat in a modernist box hung from a perforated metal roof that evokes a canopy of trees in the Swiss Alps to a deserted lighthouse in the windswept Shetland Islands, there really is something for everyone. If the life of an Italian renaissance poet appeals, you can apply for a residence in a medieval castle in central Italy through the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, or if you prefer more austere environs, there is the Arctic Circle Residency aboard a tall ship sailing to the North Pole. There are residencies in vineyards and on boats, in former fish factories and army barracks, in monasteries and on cattle ranches.

What is it that is so compelling about the concept of the writers' colony? The quiet and space so necessary for creative work is the most obvious benefit of a writing residence. I've never met a writer who does not long for more sustained writing time away from the general chaos and commitments of life. But for me there is something else as profoundly valuable about places like Varuna as the sacred space for writing they provide. The sense of literary solidarity that I have absorbed from my various residencies over the years has sustained me through many a season of self-doubt and difficulty. Varuna, and other residential centres like it, is a place of deeply nourishing companionship, a fertile ground for the establishment of enduring friendships, and a powerful reminder that we are not alone on this strange and often difficult creative path.

The first writers' colony I ever stayed at was in northern Vermont. Located in a ramshackle old house on the edge of a small village in the Green Mountains, it was a perfect antidote to my frantic urban existence in New York, where I lived at the time. My month-long residence took place during the middle of a particularly fierce winter. Snow sealed us in and frost branched across every window; the conditions were perfect both for writing and for the necessary forging of friendships as the six resident writers chopped wood, shared supplies and battled the elements together. On my first morning in Vermont, stealing downstairs for cup of tea just after dawn I found a melancholy East Anglian poet at the kitchen table, an enormous dictionary bound in midnight-blue cloth spread open in front of him. 'Did you know that ammil is a Devon word meaning the sparkle of morning sunlight through hoar frost?' the poet whispered reverentially.

I was delighted; here was someone who loved words as deeply as I did, who was willing to talk for hours about syntax and language and meaning. Over the years I've had many such thrilling conversations around the fireside or huddled in the kitchen at Varuna, and at the other writers' colonies around the world I've stayed at. I've met writers who have powerfully expanded my conceptions of writing, who have challenged and provoked me, and who have contributed enormously to my development as a writer. I've come across conceptual poets, mystics, romance writers, memoirists, screenwriters and environmental activists. I've had conversations that have yielded important breakthroughs in my work and I've formed friendships that have sustained me across the years. I was introduced to my agent through a writer I met on my first Varuna fellowship and the most trusted critics of my work are writers I've met there. I've done a huge amount work, and I've also had a great deal of fun. I love writers' colonies so much that part of my new novel is set in one!

Not all writers feel like this, I know. Many people find the often intense, cloistered atmosphere of the writers' colony overwhelming or confronting. The essayist and non-fiction writer Michael Paterniti wrote candidly in the New Yorker about his experience of attending a fabled American residential writing conference, which he found to be a disconcerting hall of mirrors. Wanting to write, he said, become confused with many other sorts of wantings: 'Human vulnerabilities manifest as extreme, the preening and posturing and deep panic attacks of inadequacy are acute, occasionally insufferable. I'm quite certain that, were we to revert back to our primal selves in such a place, the peasantry would otherwise rise up and devour the hearts of the star authors. Everyone—if secretly—is thinking about their own ascendancy, or overthrow.'

Perhaps the temporary intimacy and potential intensity of the writers' colony is not for everyone, but for me and for many other writers, spaces like Varuna are invaluable sustenance. Varuna, and the web of connections I have formed there over many years, has always been the one of greatest antidotes I have to what Virginia Woolf called 'the world's notorious indifference'. The world, Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own, 'does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them'. The world may not need writers, but part of the special charm of places like Varuna is that they make us feel that we are necessary, that what we do is vital and worthwhile.

Writing is not always a place of safety, and it is not always an easy path, but every time I walk down the quiet hallway at Varuna and see all those closed doors, I remember that I am not alone. And for this I will be forever grateful. Alice Nelson was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. Alice's short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of BooksThe Asia Literary ReviewSoutherly and the West Australian Newspaper. Her new novel, The Children's House, will be published by Penguin Random House in October 2018.

Rebecca Goosen