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Karen Ginnane: My Path Took an Unexpected Turn

The Uber pulled away and I took a deep breath.

The astringent smells of dry bush, the wandoo gums, the scutter of bandicoots, the shoe-staining red gravel and the clear, pouring light were all so familiar. The soaring view of a tiny CBD was the same one I used to gaze at en route to my boarding school in the Perth Hills, back when I was a WA country kid.

After a warm welcome from the wonderful Sofija, I dragged my bag down the steps and opened the door of Phillips Cabin. I had two whole weeks for just me and my book, in a self-contained wooden cabin that had everything a writer might need, from welcome note and gifts, to corkscrew and word games, a whiteboard and a gleaming expanse of a desk. Even a big pencil pillow on a squashy armchair made for daydreaming in.

I had 30-odd thousand words of my new WIP, interviews to transcribe, research to collate. The path was clear. I would take a couple days to settle in and then the words would be pouring out of my fingertips. I couldn’t wait.

Reader - my path took an unexpected turn.

I had arrived on this retreat emotionally and mentally exhausted - work, family worries, the world, you know. I knew this was nothing compared to what others faced; nothing that a two-week retreat couldn’t rebalance.

But into that sudden space rushed powerful emotions. I looked at the world and then at my work and thought, how does this matter? I stared my creative self in the eye and asked, who the hell are you? I wrestled with big ideas that I couldn’t pin down, but instead dragged ever bigger demons of self-doubt in their wake. I faced myself on the page, over and over again, with nowhere else to turn.

During that first week I hit rock bottom. It felt existential, but also ridiculous, because for the love of the writing gods, this was the thing I had been holding out for months. This was time and space and freedom to write! It was a GIFT. Looking back, I understand that what seemed an embarrassing, self-indulgent waste of time was essential. That space forced me to face my own demons and wrestle with them until I was exhausted and frankly, bored. I had space to read other, wise writers, who helped me remember key truths. George Saunders, Ursula le Guin, Anne Lamott, Alan Watt, Natalie Goldberg, Terry Pratchett, Octavia E. Butler, and others - each one reminded me of something vital. That writing is deep play. That the universal is found in the specific. That trusting yourself enough to let rip was the path to your own voice. To stop trying to force the story. To follow the kernels, grain by grain.

And I climbed out. I saw, crucially, that my big, messy story was actually more than one story. I stopped thinking I needed all the answers right away. I allowed myself to reach out to others for inspiration and sustenance and to understand that this was also an essential part of my writing practice. I trusted the process. 

The connections I made on this retreat were also sustenance - my sole fellow Fellow, Katharine Sanders, with whom I shared meals and drinks and bonded firmly, and the writing group I joined one evening. I met up with old WA friends and newer writerly buddies. I went to the State Library to research and wander a changed city. I hiked in the bush and watched the full moon rise over the escarpment. And I understood my story – stories - anew.

In the photo: Karen with Australian author, Tess Woods

It was a rich, challenging, joyful and ultimately, deeply productive experience. I’m forever grateful to KSP.


Top 10 Tips


1. Put bum on chair and write. Do not wait for Muse, as Muse is notoriously unreliable.

2. Write first thing in the morning. I love that uncluttered time just after sleep before the world intrudes. Don’t look at social media or read but turn straight to the page.

3. Write first drafts without judgement. You have to write through the awful stuff to get to the gold. See the dross as an essential part of the process.

4. Stay curious. Watch and listen. Walk without headphones and take in your environment - and those fascinating snippets of conversation!

5. Read widely. Read everything.

6. Nurture your writing community and support them - they will do the same for you. They are essential.

7. Trust your subconscious - it has all the best ideas and solutions. Find space for it to do its work.

8. The universal is in the specific. Sensory detail is key.

9. Freewrite (closely connected to points 2 and 7.)

10. Move your body regularly and very importantly, have fun! Don’t forget to play.

Karen Ginnane, KSP Fellow 2024


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