Saturday, February 28, 2009

The nature of creativity

Just a quick post as I am launching Barefoot Magazine tomorrow (see upcoming events to the right) and must get my beauty sleep (which is a euphemism for must work out what the hell I'm going to say, it being 10pm the night before and all).

I expected to write my 'speech' during the three hours of freedom meant to be provided by a birthday party today, which instead turned into three hours of monitoring my over-sensitive 6-yr-old, who didn't get enough sleep last night (the joy of sleepovers) and ended up repeatedly bursting into tears because the wind blew his hat off or some such tragedy.

Anyway, my dear friend and fellow blogger, Kim, alerted me to this talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert, which I think you would all find fascinating in the light of what we have been talking about lately.

The rest of you have probably already discovered the fantastic world of TED--which hosts these great presentations--being such media savvy types, but it was a revelation for me.

I have to admit I have up until now avoided Gilbert's bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, but perhaps now I'll reconsider... Love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Vague thoughts on the difference between acting and writing

Having written a hell of a lot of non-fiction in my life, when it comes to fiction I feel like I am still wading blind. I have not yet learned to have faith in what I think gets called "a voice"--my voice--to the degree that I can just get on with telling the story. I feel as though, no matter how long I have been putting pen to paper, I am still learning the most basic lessons.

Lately, I have been struggling with what I was describing to my partner as "restraint"--meaning, how to know where you, as writer, end and the reader begins. How to judge when enough is enough? We all know, as readers, how much more powerful a story is that leaves space for your own knowledge and insights to rush in.

My partner has done a lot of acting and so I often ask him for the actorly equivalent to my writerly problems--it's amazing how often ideas make more sense one step removed from the subject at hand. He said, "Well, it's all about being present, isn't it?" And I am still trying to get my head around what it might mean to be present as a writer.

Of course my partner tells me the solution is to meditate, which is his solution to everything--"letting go" being the key. (And I suspect he's right, though I immediately start thinking "When am I going to find time for that?!".)

I was talking to our resident philosopher Damon Young recently about a fiercely intelligent friend of mine who studied drama but was always struggling to "bypass her intellect", as she was being instructed to do. I told him I find this fascinating about acting--that it requires a different kind of intelligence, more physical or instinctual than intellectual. In writing, too, I am still trying to understand the role of instinct, and how to get ideas to sink beneath the surface--to drive the action rather than tell the reader what to think.

"Fiction involves the intellect, but, yes, it's not calculative, analytic," was Damon's response. "Fiction is informed by what you know, by how you think, but it's a very different kind of process. I think acting is similarly divided from academic work, though the aspect of embodiment--like dance--is more crucial than in fiction."

Then today I read this wonderful quote in the paper from actor Ralph Fiennes--currently starring in The Reader, which I can't wait to see:
"I think [acting's] about openness and being present. Thought and analysis are not good. Instinct is your engine. I once had an argument with someone who said that acting was an intellectual process. I said that it wasn't that at all; it was closer to sport, where you are open to the next moment. I'm not a sportsman, but I have played enough sports to know that you have to be absolutely present and in full possession of your skill. The acting I like is very transparent."

What a great analogy. As for how that translates to writing, I am still giving it some thought. But I can only guess at what it might feel like to be "in full possession of your skill". Exhilarating, I imagine.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What children say at times like this

Yesterday my son asked me:
"Who invented dying?"

He is very interested in the difference between nature and God--and whether there is a difference, and if there is a God, what form he/she/it might take.

"I suppose nature invented dying," I answered, with all the authority of someone increasingly at a loss to explain anything.

"Well, I don't really like it that nature did that," he said.

And we all knew just what he meant.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Victoria's bushfires and our Bev

We have a wonderful babysitter we call our "gravelly old groover". There is no-one else like Bev (that's her in the VW with my Freya in the back). She has a colourful past, having run Carlton restaurants and partied with rock stars in her youth--she even came up with the riff for a big hit, though she never staked her claimed to royalties. She is one groovy granny.

In all the years she has worked for us I have never once heard her raise her voice. She is seemingly unflappable. Bev is not one of those babysitters who turns up with her magazines and hopes the kids will mind themselves. She comes complete with a new stack of library books and activities and stickers and all the paraphernalia she has gathered, tailored to their interests, and from the minute she walks in the door she is completely dedicated to the kids.

Four other mothers and I take turns each week to host our 'playgroup', which means Bev and one mum mind the kids while the others have a break or work or do whatever needs doing. It's a great system--and a lovely chance for a chat with the precious gravelly one. This week was my turn, and of course Bev and I wound up discussing the bushfires--the trauma and sadness and our fears for the future in this harshening climate.

"I have been worried about these things for years, Rachel," she said to me. "Since the seventies I have been terrified about what the future holds for these kids." Bev only had one child--and for the first time I discovered that this choice was made because of her concerns about the world she was bringing him into. But now she has grandchildren, of course, and that has only brought it all up again.

She told me that this was the reason she decided to become a childcare worker--because she wanted to dedicate herself to giving as many children as she can the most magical possible childhoods, because they will need to carry that sense of joy with them into the future and "the horrors" they will be confronting. She had never told me this before. I walked into the kitchen and shed a few tears, and then I made us both a cup of tea and helped the kids into their fairy costumes. I will never be able to explain to Bev how grateful I am that our kids are among those lucky enough to be in her orbit, sharing in some of that joy she so passionately bestows.

Check out Our Community for ways you can contribute to the bushfire relief cause. Watching the community rally in support of the bushfire victims has made this not only a terrible but also a moving and heartwarming week, hasn't it?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Making and Mending--giving to those affected by the fires

I have spoken to so many people today who are feeling helpless in the face of the suffering caused by yesterday's horrific bushfires across Victoria, now expected to claim up to 230 lives. Many of the stories are just unbearable.

At work today--the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union--we heard that we had tragically lost two of our members. We also spoke to terribly distressed principals whose schools were destroyed and who were marking the school roll with a very different agenda, desperately ticking off the names of children found to be safe amid all those still unaccounted for.

If you are one of those wonderful crafters who reads this blog and you are able to contribute some of your wares to bushfire victims, your fellow creators have set up Handmade Help to help co-ordinate donations.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Birds and Balloons

The other day I was at my daughter’s dance class when I ran into writer Lisa Gorton, one of those extraordinarily gifted people too over-qualified for anything but poetry. We were both on the “art and motherhood” panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival and I was quite in awe of Lisa’s poise. Last year she published two books, Cloudland, a fantasy novel for children, and Press Release, for which she deservedly won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry.

Lisa told me that she had been in a café recently when she overheard two women taking about The Divided Heart — which is such a flattering thing to hear. While we were talking another mother jumped in to ask if I wrote TDH, as she had several friends who had been stirred to revisit their art and rethink its importance in their lives after reading it. That was pretty special feedback.

We had a brief chat about that sense of frustration at the work always feeling off there somewhere just out of reach. When a story idea comes to me it often arrives, in a sense, fully formed; graspable — if only I can just grab the string and hang on for dear life. If too many distractions get in the way, I start slipping and all too often that hot-air balloon — so beautifully shaped, containing whole worlds within, but so easily popped — deserts me altogether, flying off and taking with it all that excitement I felt at its possibilities. That is a heart-breaking moment.

I hope Lisa finds a way to clutch one of those strings and keep dragging that balloon around above her head no matter how inconvenient to be attached to something so fragile when life is so full of thin doorways and jagged edges — and you constantly need two hands to tie up shoelaces and that kind of thing! Just hang on by your teeth, I say, if that's what it takes. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Lisa produces next.

In the meantime, I can recommend a book I’m reading, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which was recommended to me by writer Susan Johnson, and which I keep hearing about, coincidentally — perhaps because there is a new local edition of this book available. For example, see this recent post by Loobylu.

Also my illustrator friend Kim Fleming today introduced me to this extraordinary photographer, Joey L. If you take a look at his breathtaking images, you will see why there’s no need for words — and why they are worth sharing. I love his notion of the “dignified portrait”, mentioned on his blog.

OK, I am now escaping to the seaside, hopefully out of the 43˚C (107˚F) heat. I have been cooked well enough this past fortnight. Good luck to us all!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Art, money, family, life...

Who else noted Sonya Hartnett's answer in The Age yesterday when asked if she keeps a diary? "No. Like Truman Capote, I am physically incapable of writing anything for which I won't get paid" was her answer. Hmmmm. Am I jealous? Yes. Very.

For me there is still a stark contrast between the writing I do for money and the writing I do for myself, i.e. that I love.

In one of the repeated conversations I have with my partner on the subject of our mutual creative frustration (he music, me writing/art), the one thing that differentiates us is that he is not currently in a position to make money from his music, which he does around the edges of full-time work. And in a way, that has its own freedom.

I, on the other hand, feel a constant tug-of-war between writing for money (freelance articles etc) and writing for myself (short stories etc), both done on top of my part-time day job.

These questions of how/where art fits within a family dynamic are an area of constant fascination for me. How do you calculate what's 'fair' between couples, especially where children, a lack of money and a need to make art (or pursue any passion) are in the mix? To me, this matter is endlessly complex and fraught.

From a feminist perspective I also find it humming with ambiguities. Are there areas of life where women still benefit from the persistence (even resurgence) of traditional arrangements--the assumption that men will be prepared to work full time, which gives some women a certain freedom of choice about when and in what form they will work?

I am aware that it would be hugely controversial for my partner to say that he is giving up work to make music full time and to hell with the consequences. Whereas I can imagine my women friends, at least, applauding me if I were to make the same declaration. And yet, there are times when I would love to swap--he work part time, me full--but, for all his support, I don't entirely trust that he could really take over the rest. The cooking, cleaning, the pick-up and drop-offs... the holding of a thousand little threads that keep this household operation ticking over.

I have a lot of female friends around me whose creative lives are in a sense supported by their partner's willingness to be the reliable breadwinner. I think this is an enviable position to be in--though that's not to take away from the amount of work these women do around the home, in terms of housework and caring for kids, which is in itself a full-time job.

I am not going to attempt a review here, but Susan Johnson's novel Life in Seven Mistakes has some extraordinary passages on this theme, as does her memoir, A Better Woman, which I quote in The Divided Heart. The trajectory of the conversation (page 211-212) between the main character Elizabeth, a potter, and her husband, a wannabe filmmaker, is so familiar to me as to be painful to read. "Are you going to give up making pots and get a real job so I can give up work to become a genius filmmaker?" he asks her. Ouch.

Also a compelling read on this theme is Wendy James's wonderful novel, The Steele Diaries, about a woman who as a child was adopted by patrons of her famous parents, both obsessively driven artists working in the 1930s. In it, there is a letter from mother to daughter (I have lent the book to someone, so can't tell you the page number, sorry) that powerfully sums up the situation for a woman artist who cannot reconcile her maternal and creative selves, particularly in an era where women artists had to show their capacity for single-minded determination in order to be taken seriously. I hope that much has changed.

Oh, and you must go and see Sam Mendes' masterful new film, Revolutionary Road, for a truly devastating picture of what can happen to a woman who needs more than a domestic life.