Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Just Kids: the book Patti Smith hoped people would read and say was good

I have long been an admirer, if not an actual fan, of Patti Smith. Musically, that brand of New York punk has always left me a bit cold, though I am in awe of its spunk and its energy, and also the poetry at its heart. In truth, I have always felt faintly overwhelmed by Smith, as one of its gutsiest performers.

So when a friend convinced me to read Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her affair with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I wasn’t expecting it to really speak to me.

How wrong could I have been? This book moved me to tears. Buckets of them. And not just because of the tragedy of Mapplethorpe’s early death — though that made me terribly sad — but because it really shook me up. It was cathartic reading.

Some might enjoy her story for its picture of the New York art scene in the 1970s, which was pretty out there and full of amazing characters. But for me, what was really moving about this book was its story of profound connection between two people, both of whom epitomise artistic integrity.

Reading about the relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that they were fated to meet. Their relationship was intrinsic to their development as artists — especially for Smith, I think, as the less overtly ambitious of the two. Though I suspect she would have found her way, her confidence as an artist was much more fragile than his, and he gave her huge amounts of encouragement and belief.

Whatever drew them to each other, their initial encounters were certainly uncanny. Mapplethorpe was really the first person Smith met when she moved to New York — albeit briefly, until by sheer coincidence he again turned up to save her from an awkward situation — and became arguably the most important.

What also strikes you about them is the egalitarian nature of the relationship. He was domestic and nurturing, and in a scene peppered with phonies, they had a true meeting of minds.

There is no doubt that Smith and Mapplethorpe were innately talented, but her story reminds you that creativity is largely about commitment and passion. Their devotion to their work — and to living creatively — is all the more inspiring because they are both so unpretentious about it.

Perhaps what surprised me most about this book was its lack of cool; as Smith says, they were “too busy trying to pull enough money together to buy lunch” to be conscious of making a grand political or cultural statement.

Though their sexual relationship couldn’t last — Mapplethorpe eventually settled on his homosexuality — their connection retained its purity. It was deeply romantic and it sustained them both.

As you may already know, Smith is pretty legendary among mothers for letting her career take a backseat for a time while raising her daughters. As her much-adored husband died not long after Mapplethorpe, she also spent those years dealing with enormous grief, something she says has "put her on another plane" far more than mysticism or even intelligence.

After her album Gone Again was launched, and before she had written Just Kids, a 50-year-old Smith said: I'm very proud of my new record, and I wouldn't put it out unless I was. The last thing I want to do is inflict a piece of mediocre art on the planet. But I've also, as a single mother of two children, got practical reasons I've never had to consider before. I still have a part to play in rock 'n' roll, and I'll do that, but I'd love to write a book that people would read and say was good.

I read that book. And, yes, it was 'good'. But it was also so much more than that.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Peggy Frew on writing and motherhood

A member of my writing group, Peggy Frew, is about to publish her first novel, House of Sticks (Scribe), which won the 2010 Premier's Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. I have known for years that Peggy is a writer to watch, and so it's very exciting to see her getting the attention she deserves -- and this is just the beginning...

If you read this blog because you are interested in mothering and art, then you have to read House of Sticks, a novel that wades into this territory with great insight and honesty. And if you want to know more about Peggy and her work, look out for my profile piece in an upcoming edition of The Big Issue (September).

For a taste of just what a brilliant writer Peggy is, you can read one of her short stories in the current fiction edition of The Big Issue magazine. I got hold of a copy yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and (from what I've read so far) it's packed with great stories.

Without wanting to steal the article's thunder, there were some chunks of the interview I did with Peggy that didn't make the final cut. Inevitably we spoke about writing and motherhood in detail that might leave the average reader cold, so much of that got left out of the article. Instead, you can read those bits here:

What Peggy Frew said:
Somebody who read the book, a published author themselves, wrote me this email saying writing any novel takes such determination and dogged hard work but, in the case of House of Sticks, it also takes courage.

It's not like it's a memoir where it's all about the bravado of exposing your own dark life or something. I think people think it's brave because ... it's taking a subject that a lot of people wouldn't think is worth writing about. It was what I was compelled to write about; I didn’t think strategically at all. You do connect with what's going on at your life at the time. I didn't set out to be brave or controversial; I just wrote it because the characters and the scenario came to me.

Almost everybody lives in a home, a lot of people have children, so how can it not be a valid subject to write about? Family is a key matter for a lot of writers. But it's the mother and baby thing that mean people put it in that pigeonhole. Now I'm a bit worried it's not going to be taken seriously because it's "only" about motherhood. Fortunately, my next book is far removed from that.

The initial urge [to write] is really unfocused usually. It's almost like a bodily urge, really, like a need to eat or something. But with working on a novel then it very quickly moves beyond that and it actually becomes a slog; I have to shape that initial outpouring into something. And then you have to commit to it and it becomes a task that you don't necessarily feel compelled to do at all. It's like that Dorothy Parker quote: "I hate writing, but I love having written."

If the book's there and you want to write it, you have to. There is definitely room to be a mother and make art. The main reason for me to keep writing is that I’d be a less happy person if I wasn't and therefore a worse mother.

Once you've had a child, you have to live with a sense of responsibility and therefore hope. You can’t just be selfish and you can't just give up on the world. It hasn't stopped me from confronting horrors, but my children are still really young. I haven’t had to justify anything about what I’m doing yet.

I recently read The Slap, and there’s this really great bit in that where a character talks about a friend who has this theory that there are three genders: men, women who have had children, and women without children. So men stay the same, while women are almost two different species. I thought that was really interesting. Though I think having children does change men as well.

I heard an American author on [Radio National's] The Book Show and he was a doctor who had become a writer of fiction and he talked a lot about working in hospitals. In the middle of this interview that was quite kind of high-brow, he said, "I feel like there's one thing that changes your life and that's having children. I feel like that's changed me profoundly and I'll never see the world the same way again." It was almost jarring when he said it. I totally didn't expect him to say something like that because men so rarely mention those things.

I’ve never had anything but support from my family. I think the fact that Mick [Turner, Peggy's partner] is a painter and musician himself means that he has respect for art and he understands that what you produce -- of course it's tied to you and who you are. And there are elements to that book that are based on real experiences and real feelings. But I think probably because he's done it himself, Mick understands that when you take real experience and make it into art, you do fictionalise it. You take a moment in which you felt a particular way, and you inflate it and heighten the drama, and explode it out into a huge story. There's a kernel of truth that relates to your real life, but it doesn't mean that the big story is real life. I think he just gets that. Well, fingers crossed he does, because we could be in big trouble otherwise.

We're both really productive. I imagine it would be really rough if one of you was going great guns and the other was dealing with writer's block or whatever. But we haven't had to deal with that yet.

In the book, [main character] Bonnie idealises Mickey [a musician and free spirit]. She is Bonnie's opposite. She's the living myth. It doesn't matter who you are, everyone has someone like that in their life, the people you idealise. I know I do with other mothers. In the school playground you see those other mothers who look really relaxed and calm and their like life is together and they're really well dressed and their kids seem really well behaved. You feel like they're somehow living this other life.

Parenting's like anything else — some people are just really good at it. My biggest issue as parent is containing my own frustration.

I've got one day a week [to write]. Otherwise, I write in small spurts — evenings, maybe twenty minutes in an afternoon if [third child] Fraser goes to sleep. And on the weekend I might lock myself in a room for an hour.

When I went on that writers' retreat I had six whole days and I wrote about 7000 words. That's comparable to what I’d write at home if I was really in to something and writing every night. It was just that [at the retreat] I had lots of time to go on walks in between and I felt really refreshed and relaxed, but the actual output that wasn't that different.

I’ve been so much more productive since I had children than I was before, but that could just be a maturity thing. ... I was really lost in my twenties. It [having a family] has worked really well for me. I wouldn't change anything at the moment about my writing practice. Actually, I would change something: I would love to have, say, two hours every mid-morning when I just went in to my study alone. But I wouldn't want to go into an office every day and write all day.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life and reading, reading and life

I was honoured to be among those approached by author/publisher/blogger Karen Andrews, aka Miscellaneous Mum, to contribute a spiel about the most life-changing book I’ve read in the past ten years.

If I'd know the company would be so illustrious I might have tried a bit harder! The result is a wonderfully varied list of books that is about to become the pile on the desert island that is my bedside table.

I have always been a big fiction reader. Apart from books read for study or research, I can probably count the number of non-fiction books I've read "for pleasure" on one hand. (OK, maybe one hand plus a foot or two.)

Most of what I know about art, politics, religion, human nature -- if not learnt through living -- I've learnt from novels. What I love about fiction is the depth of insight you can gain about what it was like to be a human being alive in a certain place, at a certain point in time. And I suppose being partial to a domestic drama, no-one can plumb the nature of relationships and family life like fiction.

As I mentioned to Karen, I have been forced to recognise that the books which really resonate with me tend to reflect or deepen my understanding of my own experience, as opposed to taking me into totally other worlds. Even as a child, I recall being slightly suspect of books in which animals talked!

I have often worried that this is a limitation of mine. But lately I've decided to just sit with the fact that there is something in these stories that I still need: that is feeding me. And I expect that one day this need will be expelled and I will feel ready to open myself to less familiar territory. A kind of graduation from the internal to the external perhaps.

My theory is that all writers exist on a spectrum that runs between pure observation and pure imagination. When author/artist Antoni Jach recently put this idea to a masterclass I'm involved with, I was surprised that most put themselves at the imagination end. Me: I confessed to being about 80% observation and 20% exaggeration (by which I really mean embellishment).

Interestingly, the list of books on Karen's blog is about half-half, when it comes to fiction versus non-fiction (not that it's a competition -- especially nowadays). But either way, all evidence that books really do change lives is fascinating, and heartening, stuff.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A few absurd things that happened to me last week…

Monday: Very, very nearly got hit by one of those 300-tonne skateboarding rhinos while riding to work. Who could have known that there would be a second tram directly behind the one that had just passed me?!

Tuesday: Had 10 minutes to woof down my lunch and (ideally) read my book while sitting in the car. Spent entire 10 minutes trying to find the page I was up to.

Wednesday: Had a very efficient 15 minutes with my accountant doing my tax return. Just long enough for some fucker in a truck to back into my car in the laneway outside. And drive off!

Wednesday (2): Got the times of my children’s parent-teacher interviews mixed around — hence, managed to miss both of them.

Thursday: Took four little girls to the first ballet class of the semester… (each week I pick up said four girls from school at 3.30pm, change said four little girls into complicated ballet outfits, shove said four girls into ballet studio by 4pm, spend next half an hour trying to sort out whose school uniform was whose)… only to realise that I had forgotten to enrol my own child. She and I went and had a hot chocolate.

Friday: Literally wasted half an hour ransacking the house searching for my favourite coat, only to realise my partner had put it away in the cupboard. Of all places! Sheesh…

Hmm, think riding a bike might require clarity and focus. Hell, think life might require clarity and focus.

Sorry for the silly post... Will try for something more profound next time.