Alumni Feature September 2017


A Life Sentence

By Diana Jenkins


Oh, for Christ’s sake, who’d be a writer?
Your own mother thinks you do it to spite her.
But it’s a lifelong affliction
Far worse than addiction –
A dark hole in which lives a spider.

There’s no known cure
For this pile of manure
That teems out of you day after day.
And despite what friends say – and it should be this way –
Only the finest endure.

Tales of struggle and strife,
A flawed hero, a cheating wife:
There’s nothing a book cannot do.
Stories move and amuse you, frighten and confuse you –
They may even save the odd life.

With a pen in your hand, ideas in your head,
Your characters the invented, the living and the dead,
There’s no greater bliss
Than Fate’s poisonous kiss,
When you hear what such ghosts might have said.

Still, the rumours have stuck:
“There she is, Madam Muck!
Scribbling while the planet goes to ruin!
Have you seen her, the sow, sat bovine and chewin’?
Oh, if only we all had such luck!”

Yes, the whole world thinks you’re indulgent,
When the truth is, your family’s insolvent.
What a witch is the muse,
Whose real gift’s to abuse,
Leaving all the worst doubters exultant.

As if it’s a life that you’d choose,
When the odds scream so loudly you’ll lose –
Because there’s no living wage,
Writing page after page,
Unless it’s soft porn that you use.

Ten years spent writing one story?
Darlin’, that’s failure, not glory.
And yet still you can’t let it go.
Though it’s madness, you know, and you won’t reap what you sow,
You stopped caring the day you turned forty.

Some scribes are unbearable pretenders,
Others merely pretentious, like Wim Wenders.
But most of us are doomed to keep trying
Though we all know that no one is buying,
And oh, how we mourn the surrenders.

It’s tough aiming for first,
Even at being the worst.
Will Shakespeare did everything better,
Dot Parker nailed life to the letter,
And today we’re left feeling their curse.

Waiting all day for meagre lines to appear,
Only one thing remains constantly clear:
It’s a universal truth that all writers need snacks,
Especially true when the written word attacks,
So do keep those butter biscuits near.


ABBA You’re probably wondering what just happened. Well, it’s my anniversary, you see. Nine years ago this week, I stayed at Varuna for the very first time, and boy, was it love at first sight! So while I sadly didn’t prove capable of a Shakespearean sonnet on this occasion, I did find myself…well, reflecting, I suppose, on the writing life, and I wondered how best to commemorate the path I’ve wandered ever since. Somehow the result of that was a limerick rhyming structure: AABBA. Drop a letter and we might have had a disco instead.

Fortunes Son cover It’s been very fine. That first week was unforgettable. Along with my fellow housemates, I became a founding member of the Darklings, and nine years later we still love and support each other. One of us – Jennifer Scoullar – has since become the bestselling author of an armful of rural romance titles. Penguin has just published Fortune’s Son – and what a thrill to see her tale of the last days of the thylacine in print, because it’s the same historical novel she was working on nine years ago this week.

Fellow Darkling Jewelene Barrile won the prestigious Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize the year after we met. Catherine Lee’s adventure self-publishing the Dark series has been an astounding, lucrative and extremely educational success. And ABC journalist Deborah Rice (who incidentally authored the most viewed Varuna Monthly Feature of all time, by my reckoning) and I have each continued building our journalism careers while raising young children (I’ve had both of mine since that first stay, and both my sons stayed at Varuna in utero), writing fiction in whatever cracks of time were left over.

I’m so very proud of my fellow Darklings and their success. I love, admire and respect them, and they were the beginning of something I had craved my whole life: a community of writers.

My every stay since has been wonderful in its own way. Terrific writers and invigorating conversations around the dinner table, all of us falling on Sheila’s cooking with an enthusiasm I’m grateful no one recorded. I have such vivid, affectionate memories of you all.

Brenda Saunders I’m going to start with the poet Brenda Saunders. Ah, you can be prickly and impatient, Brenda, but I think I’ll risk your ire and blame you (with the greatest regard and fondness) for my rather wobbly attempt at a poem this month.

As I considered the increasingly difficult lot of writers today, I began seeing that I am personally responsible for failing to give poets enough room to breathe. What a terrible oversight. I fear I’m in danger of being able to individually name all the poets who’ve appeared on this page over many years, and that’s only because they’ve been so few. This feature exists for the benefit of Varuna’s poets too and I haven’t done nearly enough to celebrate and interrogate your work. I’m sorry. I’ll work to correct this imbalance.

The Lucky Galah cover I’m not going to be able to name everyone I’ve been in the house with – I was pregnant on two occasions and almost wholly preoccupied by one infernal manuscript or another on the others. Bur I do remember Tracy Sorensen. She was, at the time, still working on the manuscript that will published by Picador early next year: The Lucky Galah. I’m delighted to see it’s out in the world. We shared the house that week with Dr Andrew Kwong: physician, scholar, gentleman, memoir writer.

Leaving Elvis cover Pregnant with my second son, I developed an instant writer crush on Natalie Kestecher, the frighteningly talented radio writer and producer, all-round cool chick and supremely awesome watch-this-space aspiring novelist. We screamed with laughter around the fire with Wendy Searle, chick-lit writer and founder of the Conversation Klub, and beautiful Carolyn Marshall, whose YA manuscript is right on track to one day find its tribe.

My most recent stay in the house was just over a year ago, as part of my PIP Fellowship. I came face to face with Michelle Michau-Crawford, acclaimed WA author of Leaving Elvis – and yes, I did do a little pelvic thrust at the bottom of the staircase when I read the list of incoming writers. I had an odd sense of déjà vu meeting freelance journalist Nicola Walker that day – I was never able to shake the conviction that we’d met before, but I wasn’t familiar to Nicola (though she sure knows plenty about me now!) and I’ve never been able to fill in the blanks.

Weight of Silence cover Catherine Therese, the always glamorous author of celebrated memoir The Weight of Silence, also graced us with her presence that week. Catherine was in great form, sharing her vast store of hilarious Varuna stories after countless stays in the house, and Julie Bail, legendary wit and style maven, kept us all falling about in fits. How I loved that week. I shan’t ever forget it. It was another bumper crop: seven glorious days spent in the very finest company life has to offer, even while accomplishing such a lot of extremely challenging work. It was a double dose of Varuna magic at its most potent.

I also owe a huge debt to Varuna staff past and present. Former longtime Creative Director Peter Bishop was instrumental to the success of that first week. His unexpected response to and faith in my writing left me sobbing at my desk. Peter's support has never wavered; it's kept me going over many years of rejection and uncertainty and I know he's done the same for so many of you. I must also acknowledge Varuna's tireless consultants, including Carol Major and Helen Barnes Bulley. Most recently, the crack editor Jody Lee was an incredible asset as I completed my PIP Fellowship.

Charlotte Wood Then there’s writers with whom I’ve never stayed in the house, primary among them Charlotte Wood.

Natural Way of Things cover Charlotte, where do I start? Nine years ago, I knew nothing and no one. I was a freelance journalist with a few well-placed editorial contacts and that was it. Charlotte was instrumental in welcoming me into Varuna’s family. It’s a debt I can never repay. Charlotte’s example has taught me so, so many things (though not, regrettably, how to “do it properly”), chief among them how to give myself over to other writers and make myself available to them as a resource, freely sharing what little I know. I still don’t know much, but I do know none of it belongs to me. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but we’re all in this together.

Six Bedrooms cover Tegan Bennett Daylight: another of Australia’s finest and most modest writers. Again, such kindness and generosity, always. Tegan has never read any of my work, but her patience in the face of my over-familiar fandom and my tendency to run at the mouth is . . . well, frankly rather saintly. As for the eternal question of how great writers do what they do, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Tegan’s very fine 2015 collection of short stories, Six Bedrooms.

And let’s not forget the magnificent Ann Moyal: oh, how I loved talking to Ann in her Canberra apartment, this time last year! A classy and razor-sharp broad, Ann is one of my all-time career highlights as an interview subject.

The Last Days of Ava LAngdon cover Finally, if you ever spot Mark O’Flynn across a room, I suggest you cross it at a brisk clip to reach him. Mark, a finalist in the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award for The Last Days of Ava Langdon, is not only a true all-rounder – poet, novelist and memoirist – he’s also one of the industry’s good guys. Mark’s current high-flying success as a first-time Miles Franklin nominee shows my opening silly little ditty to be wildly off base. It turns out all good things really are possible for those of us who work the hardest, write the best, and never, ever give up. Onya, O’Flynn.

So stick with it, friends (as you already know you must). And Happy Anniversary, dear Varuna – you are one of the great loves of my life.

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  • We did get bloody lucky, didn't we? The Darklings are irreplaceable in my life. Great post, Di. Bring on year ten!

    Catherine Lee Tuesday, 12 September 2017 14:22 Comment Link
  • We did, Catherine. We really did. Long may the good times roll!

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 20 September 2017 12:57 Comment Link

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