Retreating to Sydney: a writer’s tale

Once upon a time, in a land far away, actually just south of Sydney, a writer lived with her two children, her jazz musician husband, her two cats, and her little brown dog. She lived beside the sea and loved it almost as much she loved imagining, and not nearly as much as she loved her family. Every morning she got up early to work on her novel or to daydream. If she could pull herself away long enough to notice the rest of the world, she would spend the rest of her days hanging out with her children, taking her children places, mentoring other children, and walking beside the sea.


The writer’s life was quite close to perfect, but one day it got perfect-er. The writer was offered a mentorship with an author up north, the magnificent Kathryn Heyman. Together they formed a marvellous plan: Kathryn would work with the writer on her novel until it was polished to perfection…or at least until it was better. All the writer had to do was write. The writer seized her quill and got to work, even harder than she’d been working before. She could hardly sleep; she drew up plans; she barely noticed the birds outside the window. She pulled apart her novel until it was in a thousand hundred pieces and then reconstructed it, turning what had once looked perhaps like a VW bug into some kind of lawnmower-coffee maker, with indefinable spare parts spread on the lawn. She gazed at what she had done. What had she done? She clutched her hair in dismay.

The writer felt consumed. The writer felt anxious. The writer’s family was noisy. The writer’s dog was needy. The writer needed a bit of space.

So the writer went to Sydney. For a 2.5 day long ‘writers retreat’ in the cafés and libraries of the city, bunking at her mother’s place at night. All the writer had to do for almost three whole days was write her novel, think about her novel, dream about her novel, talk to very few people, and just Be. The writer got on the train. The sun was shining wildly. The day turned technicolour.

The writer spent the entire train ride reading about Multiverses. When she arrived in Sydney almost two hours later, understandably it felt like entering another world. Perhaps she had. Books are powerful things.


The writer landed in Martin Place and walked up the stairs into daylight. She felt giddy. Over the streets whizzed buses, motorbikes, taxis, cars, people, people, more people. She saw a lot of grey suits. Above her rose countless towers. The writer went below again, searching for food; she stood in a glass-ceilinged food court, buzz and hustle all around her, and felt happy. She was invisible and no one would talk to her for DAYS.


Fed and already content, the writer made her way to a place that she’d loved since she was a University student about a hundred and fifty years ago. The State Library of New South Wales. She’d crammed for law exams here, searched for obscure books here, written essays, and rifled through card catalogues with their ancient paper-meets-wood smell. She got a thrill in her stomach just walking towards it, like a kid going towards a ferris wheel, because she already loved libraries, and this was the creme-de-la-creme of libraries, and who needs theme parks when you’ve got an entire, enormous building dedicated to books?


The writer made it about two hours in the most beautiful library she’d ever known before becoming too sleepy to function. It was quieter than one of those immersion/isolation tanks people go into in spas, just after getting their cucumber facial scrub and just before their meditation session. A whisper would have brought the guards. It was Sleeping Beauty castle quiet. The writer couldn’t stay. (Sadly, 16 years of child noise had done something to her. Turned out she needed a bit more clatter).

The writer went for a walk through the Domain. The sun was still shining wildly down. The day was still technicolour. The trees were beautiful beasts.


She ambled across the Domain, wandered almost into the Art Gallery of NSW before a guard waggled a finger and said, “No, you cannot bring that suitcase-looking bag into the premier art gallery of the state, this shining jewel.” (Or something like that). She pottered on, past the Cathedral, into and out of the Hyde Park Barracks courtyard, and finally arrived at a little French heaven. Welcome! Beinvenue!

A café. Nestled against an old stone church. With a fountain. And a tiny orange tree. And a seat that seemed made for her and the waitstaff speaking French and enough noise to be able to write. She stayed for hours.


Just like that, the first writing day was done. The writer wandered to the St. James train station, into the tunnel, down the stairs and down, into a 90-year-old underground station. The air was close, hot, it was like being in a tomb. The train sent wind ahead; it came shrieking on its rails. A noisy tomb then, with wind and people heading home from work, and no pith helmets.

The writer went to Newtown for dinner with her Mum. Vegan burgers and a cider in a pub with stained glass lampshades. An hour or two of chatter, then the writer’s Mum did her thing while the writer daydreamed. The writer fell into bed that night with visions of towers and multiverses dancing in her head.

Next day: where to go? Where to go? The writer looked up ‘most beautiful libraries of Australia’ and found the Surry Hills Library. The writer looked up ‘best cafés in Sydney to write’ and found two: Orto and Ampersand, both in Surry Hills. The writer gods had spoken. Surry Hills it was.

The writer spent two hours at Orto’s. Two hours of hot chocolate and tasty food, friendly staff, and just the right amount of bustle to write.

Then it was time to visit the famous Surry Hills Library. It was a short walk away, past the ivy-covered house, past the gate into a secret garden, past the park the size of a polaroid, the old woman and her dog, the wrought iron fence, the letterbox matching the leaves, and along the tree-lined streets. And here it was.

This is what the writer found:


Gorgeous. Funky. Beautiful. Modern but cosy, built with sustainability and effortless cool in mind. Quiet, packed full of people reading, kids being read to, writers writing, and a kid doing her homework on a seat that looked like a twist-tie .

This was the seat (minus the kid):


Did the writer stay? Did she find a nook? Did she curl up on a twist-tie seat and write the next page of her deconstructed future masterpiece?

She did not. The library was full. Plus, Café Ampersand was Just There. She went across the plaza to the café and found a spot between a bookshelf and a window. She got a pot of peppermint tea and people-watched and heard a storm come in and listened as the rain sang outside. It was like being in a tree house; it was that perfect.

She did also write: she promises she did.

So far, the day had seen five hours of writing, one peppermint tea, one hot chocolate, one short walk, one rain storm, one gorgeous library, two lots of food. It was time for a good long wander.

Now, this writer used to live in Sydney. And Seattle. And San Francisco. And Boston. And Rome. And Oakland. And quite-close-to-London. And Barcelona. And Lima. Until she had children and moved to a town by the sea, she had been a city girl. Her favourite thing to do in every city she’d ever been to was walk. Wander everywhere with her camera. No big plans. Some notion of a destination and a bottle of water.

It felt a lot like that today. The past bumped up against her present. The moment felt delicious.

Today’s destination: maybe Circular Quay? In hand: a chocolate sorbet from Messina. In her pocket: the iPhone, ready for a photo or not. The route: walk down Crown St to Oxford Street to Hyde Park to Macquarie St to the Quay. (If she didn’t change her mind.)

All the writer had to do was walk and watch.

WR14 IMG_2404.jpg




The writer arrived at Macquarie St as clouds began to pool overhead. She was at the State Library again, her journey a turned circle, and she thought, Go in? Stay out? Go somewhere new? The choices felt like a candy store.

She walked into the Library—so beautiful! So silent!—and out. She walked on, past the Botanic Gardens. The rain began to pitter, patter, then pelt. Should she rush on through the wet, grab a train, go back to her mother’s house? The day didn’t feel done.

So she ducked into the Intercontinental Hotel to wait out the storm. Landing in an actual, literal, lap of luxury. What an inconvenience! What hardship. The writer braced herself for a terrible time.

The hotel had these teensy weensy pots of tomato sauce for your fancy chips. The writer had to take a photograph. The writer was not above such things.

The writer wrote and wrote and wrote and felt indescribably happy. Overall she had spent less money than if she’d gone to a proper retreat, and less money than a single night in a rented cottage. She had been alone (while being completely not alone),  with the perfect amount of chatter and clatter and bustle. She had, in HAND, a tiny jar of ketchup. She was waiting out the rain in the same hotel she’d gone to for big pasta feasts when she was a Uni student a hundred and fifty years ago. It was like she was walking a memory map, and it was folded over onto itself, and if someone put a pin through it they’d find her youth, bonded to now. The gap felt seamless. Of course. Here she was as she was then, same as before, same as always.

It was twilight. Time to go.

The rain was done, the world washed.

Circular Quay looked painted on.


She headed to her mother’s flat. Another train ride. A walk through the Marrickville dark. Then time with her Mum, a night of simple connection and simple quiet.

In the morning, the rain was too thick for all her plans. So the writer wrote in her mother’s home: the jacaranda tree outside, and inside, cushions with blue birds stitched on.

And after a trip to Glebe, quite suddenly the city closed in. It was too busy, too loud, too wet, and the writer thought, There. I’m full. Time to go home.

On the train ride home, the writer made a little film.

It felt like the perfect end to the most lovely writing retreat she’d ever had.

p.s. The writer got a lot of work done on the novel. It now looks a bit like a ride-on lawnmower-mix-master-toaster. Progress!



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