A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending five days in the gorgeous Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at the Sydney Artists Retreat. This is an annual gathering of artists run by the Annandale Creative Arts Centre, which is based in Newtown, Sydney, and it’s a close cousin to the summer school I often go to at the Poatina Arts colony in Tasmania. So the group was a mix of old friends and new faces (who became old friends by the end of it) – and it was fantastic.
The last time I went to the Sydney Artists Retreat was in 2014, and at that point I was doing the second lot of edits on Greythorne, after it had come back from my beta readers. I was also working full-time, so having four days (the 2016 retreat was a day longer) where I could do nothing but write was an incredible luxury, and I was very productive.
This year was different. I’ve been through some major upheavals work-wise over the last 12 months, accompanied by at times quite high degrees of stress and anxiety, and I didn’t realise how much I needed to decompress until I got to a place where I didn’t have to worry about anything for a few days. I’d planned to be fairly productive, but I wasn’t, really – at least, not in the sense of getting words on paper. But I actually felt relaxed for the first time in about 9 months, and having the chance to just hang out and chat with other artists – writers, musicians, actors, dancers and film-makers – was exactly what I needed. There are certain aspects and challenges of creative practice that I think are hard to relate to unless you’ve experienced them. It’s not all sitting round waiting for the muse – it’s often bloody hard work and accompanied by existential (and financial) angst and, more often than not, a fair degree of guilt for doing something that the world tends not to value too much.
One of the big themes of the retreat was ‘permission’ – giving ourselves and other people permission to be authentic and true to who we are in terms of our creativity. That may sound a bit hippy-dippy, but it’s actually a huge struggle for many artists, me included. When you’ve been told from a young age (by family, friends and society in general) that you can’t make any money at your art and you should keep it as a hobby and get a ‘real’ job, it can be hard to get over the feelings of guilt you get every time you devote time to producing it. That’s not saying artists should ignore the financial realities, but there are actually ways of making a living through art, and if you’ve got a bit of business sense you can make it work. So it was a huge thing for me to actually acknowledge that I want to make writing a significant income stream. It won’t be the only one, because reality, but it can certainly be a legitimate part of my business. For this reason, I’ve decided to independently publish The Iron Line, because I want to have more control over my rights and publishing timeframes. So I’m having a crash course in indie publishing at the moment, but it means that the new book should be out later this year.
I’m a huge advocate for artistic communities where artists support and value each other (as opposed to competing, which unfortunately is often the case). Becoming part of a community centred on Poatina and Annandale had a huge impact on me as a writer – not only have I learned so much from other writers and artists, but I’ve felt truly supported as I’ve tottered out into the world as a baby artist and started to grow and learn to walk for myself. Without that community I think I don’t think I would have had the courage to give myself permission to write properly, and I would have been thoroughly miserable as a result (I know, because that’s the way it was for most of my 20s). So here’s to the crazy ones – the artists, the writers, the dreamers – who taught me to be brave.