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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thanking reviewers

Do other writers feel this huge humbling gratitude to the reviewers of their books? Or are they better at sending their babies out into the world and letting them have a life of their own--praise, criticism 'n' all? Admittedly, as a mother, I'm a bit of a hoverer--not quite a complete control-freak (I hope), but watchful nonetheless. I'm still learning to let my kids fight their own battles (within reason)--observing with pride or defensive rage and not interfering. I suspect this tendency is going to carry over in to my relationship with my creative 'offspring' (or 'orphans', as writer-philosopher Damon Young calls them) too.

Anyway, the point of this little rave is that this week I am feeling immensely grateful to two reviewers of The Divided Heart--Jo Case on Triple R's Breakfasters program and Rachel Cunneen in The Canberra Times. Both summed up the book's virtues with such generosity and insight that I wish I'd read them before I wrote the book and I might have felt like I knew what I was doing!!

Thank you Jo and Rachel--and anyone else who has read my book, blogged about it, mentioned it to a friend or just thought kind thoughts about it!

You can listen to Jo Case's Triple R review here.
As I can't seem to find an online version of Rachel Cunnean's article, I am just going to use up lots of space and run it below:

The mother of all artistic dilemmas
(The Canberra Times, 20 September 2008)

Rachel Power's new book on art and motherhood is that rare and wonderful thing: a work that reveals careful research and a keen intellect, but is also accessible, passionate and deeply personal. There are many books about motherhood on the market at present, as well as a burgeoning public conversation about the conflicts Australian women face when they have children. However, The Divided Heart carves out its own special space within this genre. This is partly because it has been written and compiled by a gifted writer, who brings unusual insight and intelligence to the subject. It also looks searchingly at the particular dilemma experienced by young women who are both mothers and artists.

Last week, I came across a quotation that read: "Not everything that can be counted counts, not everything that counts can be counted." It seemed an apt aphorism for this book too. Many commentators Anne Manne, John Marsden and most recently Mem Fox have been arguing of late that the care of children cannot be reduced to economic considerations. As Wendy LeBlanc wrote in her study of early motherhood, ''In spite of their diversity, at the heart of every mother's story I have recorded is a profound sense of being undervalued.'' It would seem that many, if not all, Australian parents experience at least some frustration with a society that has difficulty acknowledging the work of nurturing children, because it cannot be measured and calibrated.

Imagine then, how doubly difficult this is for a woman whose other life's work is also something that has an uncertain monetary value, at best. Power has interviewed 26 women in this book, as well as recording her own story. Her subjects are visual artists, actors, dancers, writers, musicians and film-makers and all are successful in their fields, some extraordinarily so. They include Rachel Griffiths, Clare Bowditch, Alice Garner, Nikki Gemmell and Jocelyn Moorhouse and many remarkable others. Many speak with gratitude about the amount of support they have had from the men and other family members in their lives. However, in different ways, they all articulate the extreme courage that is needed to persist with vocations that are often not seen as valuable in this economic-rationalist age. Some readers may be surprised to discover that even some of the best-known women in this book live hand-to-mouth, unable to own a house or to provide financial security for themselves or their children.

Power also makes it clear that while there are still significant political, financial and societal barriers to being a mother and an artist, some of the internal battles are the most deeply felt. Western society is still entranced with the idea of an artist as a solitary, temperamental creature, divorced from the mundanities of everyday life. As any new mother discovers, life with children is one of chaos, demands and endless practical tasks the antithesis of what is often supposed to be necessary for artistic creation. This is not all. It can be physically and emotionally impossible to turn away from a little body that has so recently been inside your own. As Power writes, "No amount of money, no amount of structural change, can entirely resolve the fundamental dilemma for the artist-mother: the seeming incompatibility of her two greatest passions. The effect is a divided heart: a split self; the fear that to succeed at one means to fail at the other."

Most women interviewed, though, said it was not possible for them to stop being an artist, despite occasionally wishing they could. They didn't find it possible to shut off the imperative to record, to live twice, as it were, attuned to the business of lived experience but also to the business of turning that experience into art. Power comments on some of the relief she felt with the ego-lessness of caring for a baby and how much simpler it would be to just enjoy the immediacy of the moment without feeling a contradictory pulling away.

One could get the impression from this that The Divided Heart is a collation of women whingeing about the impossibility of their lives, but nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary: the lives of all of these women demonstrate that it is possible to combine art and motherhood sometimes magnificently, although never without a price. In fact, one of my initial reservations was that the collection perhaps lacked the perspective of those modestly plugging away in the suburbs, creating daily but barely visibly. There are also no records of those who didn't survive the "tearingness" as one interviewee calls it. This is not a book about the Sylvia Plaths or Paula Modersohn-Beckers of this world.

These early doubts had evaporated by the time I had finished this book. It is a terrifically inspirational read, as well as an exhortation to those who use motherhood as a means of avoidance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. "Motherhood is just one of the things that can be used as an excuse for not realising our dreams", printmaker Franki Sparke warns. Another writer quotes author Chester Eagle: "If it matters, it'll get done. If it doesn't get done, it didn't matter enough." These are all stories about just getting on with it: none of these women has the time to do otherwise. The Divided Heart is utopian in that it holds up in front of us the proof that it is possible to nurture children and to create artwork of lasting significance. As more than one subject remarks: parents don't have the luxury of despair.

I admired the way Power positioned herself and her story within the stories of the women she interviews. She makes no pretence of scholarly objectivity and it is clear she was driven to research her material because of her own experience as an artist, writer and mother. Each interview comes across as an authentic dialogue between two intelligent, informed women. I was struck by how fortunate young women are to have such a group of brave, passionate and thoughtful role models.

I think that the appeal of The Divided Heart will go beyond those who are women, mothers and artists. It is really a book for anyone who feels they have a vocation and are compelled to make a distinction between their work and their deeper life's purpose. It is a rich, important book because it explores the really hard questions: How do we want to live our life? What will we ask of those we love and who love us? What sacrifices are we prepared to make in order to live as fully and truthfully as possible?

Rachel Cunneen is a Canberra writer, academic, researcher and mother.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The profound insight of children




At night I read in my kids room (using just the light from the hallway--my poor eyes) as they go to sleep. At the moment I am reading the very sad biography of Assia Wevill (A Lover of Unreason), the woman Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath for. In it there is a photograph of Plath, with her gappy teeth and wary smile. My 3-year-old, Freya, wanted to know what I was looking at, so I let her get out of bed. She stood beside me, gazed at the picture for a moment and then said: "She looks funny." I asked her: "Do you think she looks happy or sad?" "Sad," she answered. Then my 6-year-old son, Griffin, wanted to see. He jumped out of bed and came across the room, looked down at the photograph, and said definitively: "Not sad. Jealous." And got back into bed.
I am still reeling!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Those self-indulgent artists

(a bit of a follow on from the previous post re: "Is it all just a whinge?"...)
After my discussion with Elly Varrenti on Radio National last week, an artist rang in to say "how self-indulgent" to be talking about the situation for artist-mothers, as if we are different to other working mothers. She mentioned that she was in her studio, her son at school, having given up paid teaching work to paint full time.

Just a quick reponse to this, which is something I am asked all the time. Are artists different to other working mothers? Well, no... and yes. And, of course, it depends--on the art form you work in, on how successful or established you are, on whether you are supported in being an artist by those around you... There are so many variables.

It is a vexed question, and one I have struggled with. So the best way I can answer it, I think, is to speak personally.

In many ways, I think the issues for working mothers are universal and well-known. I don't see why it is deemed more indulgent for artists to talk about the struggles (or indeed the positives) of working and mothering than for other women--and indeed there is a lot of talk out there about the guilt, the overwork, the exhaustion and dilemmas felt by all working mothers, artists included (and I acknowledge that many professions have creative elements).

Historically, the "artistic life" has been romanticised, and so it is all too easy to suggest that artists think they're "special". In contrast, one of the things I think The Divided Heart shows is just how normal and mundane the act of making art can be. And there are many who do, as Joanna Murray-Smith said on the radio, just bang a few sentences out with the laptop propped on the kitchen bench surrounded by 13-yr-old footy players eating chocolate biscuits. Joanna, who makes a good income from her work (and deservedly so), is mostly able to treat her work as a 9-to-3 job, much like the Radio National caller, by the sounds of it.

For me, and so many of the artists I know (including many with high profiles in their field), art is still stuffed in around the edges of bread-and-butter work. I guess I feel I know whether or not being an artist is different to being any other kind of worker because I am both. By day a journalist; by night a writer (or something like that!). Unfortunately I can't treat my art like a job because it doesn't pay--and so it all too easily feels an indulgence; something that is of little benefit to anyone but me--except that it's a necessary outlet and vital to avoiding martyrdom! I struggle to justify paying for time to write when it doesn't bring in an income, and so find myself largely writing in the wee small hours after everything else has been attended to.

But apart from those practical issues (the inspiration vs perspiration ratio holds true in art as in anything), art is also a mysterious thing. I feel that writing asks very different things of me than does my day job, whether it be journalism or any of the other kinds of work I have done over the years. Most jobs have clear parameters--fairly set hours, tasks than can be scheduled, guaranteed benefits. Work, on the whole, is a socially sanctioned activity, while art is still seen by many as egotistical self-indulgence.

For me, creativity is a fragile thread, easily broken. No one is asking me to write. It must come from me, and it is a profoundly personal act--in that way, very different to completing a task at work. I was talking to my partner, Alistair, recently about this issue and he said: "Art is like asking a question and being available to receive the answer." I think that's a lovely way of putting it--ideas visit you at strange hours of the day and night and if you are not in a state to receive them (as I find is so often the case as the mother of small children), they can be lost to you forever.

This last paragraph has been written with my daughter tugging on my arm, telling me she's in need of some baked beans on toast. So might just leave those thoughts hanging and maybe anyone who reads this has other ideas on this question...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is it all just a whinge?

Artist Sophie Milne and I have been having a little inter-blog discussion about whether talking about the art and motherhood issue can all too easily amount to having a good ol' whine (yes, that's a whine, not a wine, which would be a far better outcome!). It's something I've thought about a lot in writing this book, because I am aware there'll be plenty of readers (or non-readers) out there who will view this book as a collection of middle-class-women-with-white-goods complaining about their lot in life, when everyone has obstacles and limitations in the way of the things they want to do, and if you want to make art then you'll make art, whatever the context.

I agree with Sophie's comment that if you get a bunch of mothers together, a bit of shared complaining is almost inevitable. And also agree with her suggestion that to a degree this is cathartic; after that it is just unhelpful and only digs us in further.

Certainly, if you read the book, there are those women who are of the opinion that motherhood is no different to a plethora of other barriers that confront people in pursuing a life of art. (I remind myself of these statements daily.) And I didn't set out to say that mothering is necessarily harder than other experiences--but it is particular. The book is an exploration of this angle on being an artist--just one that happens to mean a lot for me and that I feel has significance for the history and nature of art, as well as for individual women.

I admire those women who see things clearly and feel no ambivalence. However, my own experience and those of so many women I speak to (among them the many who have kindly got in touch as a result of reading my book) does seem to be an often painful sense of guilt and 'tearingness', as one put it. I feel almost constantly pulled in opposite directions, and still fear that in struggling to be fully present to either my art or my kids that I end up doing a half-arsed job of everything.

Having said that, though I admit my book does come at the art and motherhood issue as a kind of dilemma, almost all of the women talk about the benefits of mothering to their creative life. I hope readers make it to the conclusion of the book, where I talk about the potency and urgency that comes with mothering, which has proven a real boon to so many of the artists interviewed.

Friday, September 5, 2008

More publicity

Just a reminder--playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, artist Sarah Tomasetti and I will be chatting with Elly Varrenti on Radio National's Life Matters program at 9am on Tuesday 9 September.

Also, another review--a generous write-up from philosopher Damon Young (check out his latest book Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free), who's done a great job of contextualising the book in the September edition of The Big Issue.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A message for anyone who comes across this blog

I have set up this blog because a few readers of my book, The Divided Heart, have suggested that they'd like a way to link up with other readers and share their responses to the book, or just chat about their experience of being both artist and parent.

There are lots of great blogs out there written by creative mothers making links with other women, so another one might not really be needed. But it also does give me a chance to thank all the people (women and men) who have approached me over the past month and talked to me about what the book has meant to them. I didn't know, when I wrote this book, whether it would strike a chord out there, and it is extremely humbling and gratifying to feel that it is actually speaking to lots of readers who are also trying to work out how to keep their creative needs and desires at the forefront of their lives amid the huge (and also very worthwhile) demands of parenting.

So big thanks to all those readers who have approached me to thank me for writing the book, or to tell me about their lives. I hear so many fascinating stories--from those who have chosen to put off making art till their kids grow up; to those who have chosen not to have children for the sake of their careers; to those who are managing to make their whole lives, kids 'n' all, one big creative act.

I was on a Melbourne Writers Festival panel last weekend with my dear friend Clare Bowditch, the exquisite poet Lisa Gorton, and Catherine Deveny, who's a scream. She was really tough about this issue: "Put the writing (or other practice) first" was Catherine's message. And don't micro-manage your bloke--just point to your copy of 'Baby Love', chuck the phonebook at him, and let him work it out for himself. If there's a man (or another woman) on the scene, then you're a team. Don't make yourself the sole expert on what your baby needs.

In writing The Divided Heart, I have learned that mothers have to have extra gumption to say: "This is me; this is what I do", even if it means asking a lot of those around them--and at times feeling that they have to fight for their right to keep making art (often largely against their own temptation to admit defeat). But the ones who are managing to keep creating are the ones who are willing to give themselves permission, even if it means at times feeling overwhelming guilty about time away from their kids, or less money for their family.

There are also great benefits for the artist in becoming a parent; it gives you a big boot up the arse because you have so little time. Nothing better for helping you do away with the genius complex! No more faffing about, waiting for the muse to descend somewhere around the fifth latte--you just make use of every moment you've got, no matter how small.

The message from most of the artists in my book is: If you are conditioned to put the needs of others first, as so many women still are, then circumvent this conditioning and find a way to put your art at the forefront of your life. Carve out time for your practice (even one hour a night or early in the morning) and don't let anything get in the way of that sacred hour. It's too important! Give yourself permission to be an artist and others will just assume that's how it is. And your kids will get to grow up in a house where ideas and creativity thrive, and making and sharing is more important than consuming.