Sunday, December 8, 2013

Divided hearts

Currently on in Sydney is an exhibition that the artists say has taken its name from my book.

When they contacted me to ask if they could name their exhibition "The Divided Heart", I had to move beyond a fleeting sense of possessiveness and remind myself that before the book was printed, it was my publisher who said: "I've found the name of this book; I think it's "A Divided Heart".

I always feel slightly embarrassed that the title wasn't my idea, because it's clearly so right. My only suggestion was the shift from 'A' to 'The'!

It is not a phrase I have any ownership over. It does nothing more than describe the experience that so many mothers instinctively relate to.

So much that is written about being a mother and an artist uses exactly the same, if not very similar, words. And when my book is reviewed, this is the phrase that most often gets quoted as resonating with the reader:

“A divided heart; a split self; the sense that to succeed at one means to fail at the other.”

These artists generously asked my permission to use some of those words, but really it's just that, in terms of using them as a title for the a creative response to the experience of being artist and mother, my book just got in first. The feeling is universal.

"The Divided Heart" is a group exhibition about navigating a balance between creativity and motherhood. It is on now at Gaffa Gallery in Sydney.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Spreading the love: Big Hearted Business Virtual Conference launched today
There are a lot of amazingly creative people out there. Then there is that rare beast who is both a startling talent and who also wants to use that talent to create some real change in the world.

If you know Clare Bowditch like I do, you'll know that when this woman believes in you, she becomes not only your friend but your greatest champion.

Through all the time in which she has been cultivating her own creative career, Clare's determination to see others succeed to bring her friends along with her has been an equally mighty, passionate force. 

That means that there are times  those times when you feel less than deserving of her persistent faith in your potential when that can be wee bit confronting. It's not always easy to face up to your deepest desires. But Clare will remain determined to see those around her be the best they can be; to help you find a way to do the things that actually make you happy.

As a long-time friend of Clare's, I've been lucky enough to be among the beneficiaries of her constant encouragement over the years. But with Big Hearted Business, she's now sharing the love far and wide, so everyone can get some of that tough (and oh-so-warm) love in their lives.

Clare really believes that with the right knowledge and support you can “Do What you Love, Make Money, Save the World (even just a little bit)” – and the enormously generous speakers at her BHB Conference offered the practical, living proof of how. 

Since that event, I've heard from so many women who've said the conference finally gave them the permission, the confidence and the tools to forge ahead with their creative lives. 

If, like me, you were there, you probably can't wait to re-live it and finally get down all those pearls of wisdom you wish you'd written down at the time! 

And if you weren't among the lucky few to win a golden ticket, Big Hearted Business has launched its BHB Virtual Conference 2013, so that you can watch all the best bits anyway.  
This virtual version is a "super-highlights treasure-chest" of the finest moments from the BHB Conference 2013. It includes talking videos, downloadable audios and transcripts of most of the keynotes, stories, question-times and exercises.

And most importantly, thanks to Catherine Deveny, you'll learn how to develop serious “F*ck off Status” some of the best advice you could get on putting fears and doubts in their place and getting on with the creative dream!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Motherhood, time and the art of surrender

For my birthday this year, my partner gave me the most thoughtful possible gift: a week at Varuna, the writers' centre in the Blue Mountains.

I have been to Varuna several times now, and each time induces a different emotional response -- sadly, often characterised by an existential crisis on the first or second day that finds me wandering the streets of Katoomba in a state of panic about my neglected creative "practice".

Between full-time work and my family's needs, my life feels almost entirely controlled by external demands, so time at Varuna is usually the first chance I've had to stop and really think for months. This time, after a particularly busy period at work, I also seemed to have completely lost the ability to structure my own time and felt completely at sea! 

Of course once you finally get your bearings, you realise it's already Wednesday and what felt like a luxurious surfeit of time stretching out in front of you suddenly seems to be spiralling rapidly toward the inevitable end date. But a luxury it still is. A chance to once again glimpse the possibilities, if nothing else. Each time helps me remember that to write is really just to pay attention to what's around you -- so simple, but so easily lost in the chaos of "normal" life.

Angst-ridden moments aside, each time I'm at Varuna there are also lovely instances of synchronicity. Years ago, I was doing a residency alongside poet Kylie Rose, who left a book outside my door: Object Lessons by Eavan Boland. It was the perfect thing at the perfect time. Boland provides such an acute description of the new relationship with the sensory world (and therefore, peculiar form of creative power) that comes with mothering that she almost single-handedly inspired the conclusion to the book I was working on, which became The Divided Heart.

Julienne van Loon
This time, writer Jane Messer just happened to mention a Griffith Review essay, "The Play of Days", written by Julienne van Loon, a novelist who was at Varuna at the same time as Kylie Rose and myself all those years ago. At the time, she had recently won the won the Australian/Vogel Award for her first book, Road Story.

I recall discussions with Julienne and the other residents about the feared threats motherhood might pose to a successful writing life. So it was doubly fascinating for me to not only discover that she had had a baby but that her experience had been characterised by such blissful surrender to her son's agenda-free pace, amid all the risks that that state poses to our "selfhood", which she describe so beautifully in her essay:

I have taken twelve months leave from my usual work to be home with a new baby, and one of the biggest adjustments I had had to make is to arrive at a new understanding of time, one measured only by the fragile, mutable pattern of basic human needs: sleep, food, warmth, contact. ... And it doesn't matter. Unless you can't shake the itch for something more meaningful to do.   

Yep, that pesky itch...

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In Conversation with Jo Case

This Sunday author Jo Case and I will be having a good ol' yarn (but in public) about her wonderful, moving and very important new memoir, Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s.

The event is at the The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville at 11am. Jo has written a very candid memoir about coming to terms with what it all means when her son is diagnosed with Asperger's. We'd love to have others join the conversation. 

The event is free but if you want more info, you can ring 9689 0661 or email

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why you must see "Lost in Living"

It has taken me two weeks to write about Lost in Living here since a copy of the DVD arrived it in my mailbox.

I just haven’t been able to find the words to encompass my feelings about this remarkable documentary.

Still now I don’t know how to express my admiration and gratitude for it. The final film is even more wonderful than I expected it to be when I first heard from director Mary Trunk a couple of years back and watched the early footage she shared online.

Made over eight years, Lost in Living has been a labour of love for Mary, and the time and passion she's invested is evident. It is such a moving and profound document of the situation for mothers trying to maintain their work and their identity as artists.

It never ceases to amaze me how familiar and universal the issues are for creative women: the guilt and frustration, as well as the perspective and motivation, that comes with motherhood. The terrible feeling of being constantly torn in two... And what a comfort it is to hear other women describe the same feelings we all struggle with.

As Caren says: “I still don’t know how to make art without having time!”
Lost in Living features four utterly candid and down-to-earth artists: painter and mother of seven Marjorie Schlossman; prolific author Merrill Joan Gerber; and friends actor and filmmaker Kristina Robbins and visual artist Caren McCaleb.  

Together, these women offer great insights into the nature of creativity, the complexities of mothering and the intensity of friendship between women. It is fascinating to see the contrast between the experience of the two older women -- the isolation they have felt and the impact of that on their relationships -- and that of the two younger artists, whose barriers are more personal than societal.

There is nothing I can say here that could do this film justice or describe the power it had on me. Watching Lost in Living, I cried bucketloads. I've seen no other film so successfully investigate the fraught relationship between motherhood and art, and all I can do is urge you to do everything you can to get your hands on a copy.

While you wait for it to arrive, you can read this great interview with Mary about motherhood and the creative process.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does it matter enough?

Pic: Lucy Feagins.  Photo by Sean Fennessy
In response to the comments on my previous post, I just want to say a couple of things - things I wanted to say in my talk at the Big Hearted Business Conference but didn't find time/space for.

Firstly, that whole idea that if you want it enough - that if you are a "pure" or "true" enough artist - you will make it happen... Personally, I've never been completely sold on this.

In The Divided Heart, Sally Rippin mentions author Chester Eagle's statement that “If it matters, it'll get done. If it doesn't get done, it didn't matter enough.” I have since thought about this notion a lot!

For much of history, becoming an artist hasn't been an option for the vast majority of women. And so, if in order to become an artist a woman felt forced to abandon her children, or to avoid have any in the first place, it's not really fair measure of their desire to become an artist.

That may sound extreme, but even now women are overcoming the vestiges of that attitude (even if only within their own minds), and the biological instinct to put their children first. Of course I also know men who have struggled to hang on to their creative dreams once they have a family and feel the pressure to be chief breadwinner.

I feel like I've met many people over the years who could be great artists but just never managed to overcome their fears or their lack of confidence or the external barriers (real or imagined) to really give it a proper crack - and that to me is the ultimate tragedy. Because I know that it has and does matter to them.

These are the people I'm trying to speak to every time I talk about giving yourself permission to be creative!

Among the students I went to art school with, the ones who've made it have not necessarily been the most talented or the "truest" ones (though many were that too, of course, Clare Bowditch among them). They were generally the most confident, ambitious and determined ones. The ones who gave themselves permission - and who just got the work out there.

I couldn't help but notice how much Catherine Deveny's line "I'm not a perfectionist, I'm a completionist" resonated with people!

There are as many different ways to be creative as there are creative people. Not everyone has to be a capital-A artist (in the traditional mode), as the conference demonstrated so beautifully. Now, more than ever, art/craft can be done on any scale, and there are myriad ways of getting the work out there, sharing it around - and potentially a good living from it.

BHB speaker Lucy Feagins was also among those students I studied with back in the late '90s - and now she's one of the world's most successful and influential design bloggers. Not everyone has to be a practicing artist, as such. There are just as many creative careers based on a love of art made by others.

If the BHB conference reminded me of anything, it was the importance of living passionately, whatever we decide to do.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Art, motherhood and the Big Hearted Business Conference

Pic: Kylie Lewis
On the weekend I was lucky enough to be among the speakers at Clare Bowditch's Big Hearted Business Conference. What a mind-blowing experience!

When I wrote The Divided Heart almost five years ago, I could never have predicted that it would mean something to other people. As I said in my talk, I just wrote the book I needed to read.

I had no idea how to maintain my own creative life amid the competing demands from my children, partner, work, housework, parents, friends...

I still struggle with the feeling that creativity is a complete indulgence, especially when compared to the needs of my children. And I still question whether I am a good enough writer to make it worth all I have to ask of myself and my family in order to keep it up.

But as I tried to express in my talk, the most important reason to make art — the reason that trumps anything you could list in the "cons" column — is because you need to. Because it connects you to the world, because it makes you see things differently, because it makes you feel alive.

It was impossible not to notice how few men were at the conference (though bravo to the blokes, who generously participated in what was a fairly female-centric discussion). The room was packed to the brim with vibrant, animated, remarkable women, and as a result, the question of how to be an artist and a mother was a major theme.

Women are just so hungry for information about how to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible aspects of their life and identity: creativity and motherhood.

But much more than that, women need reassurance that they have a right to keep their own passions at the forefront of their lives.

So many women approached me throughout the day with tears in their eyes, concerned that their desire to be "more then just a mother" was hurting their family. The tie between women and their children is so intense, we seem hardwired for guilt!

Every speaker at the conference reminded us that what our kids need most is a mother who is living a passionate, fulfilled life.

I hope my talk on "Giving Yourself the Permission to be Creative" played some small part in helping women believe that keeping their own interests alive is the best thing they can do not just for themselves and their family, but also for the world at large.

For a lovely sense of the day, check out the extraordinary Lily Mae Martin's sketches on her blog, Berlin Domestic or Pip Lincolne (Meet Me at Mike's) wonderful photos, and join the BHB facebook page to stay in the loop on future events.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just because. So there.

My response to Salsa's comment on the previous post was getting so long I thought I may as well write it as a post.

She said that she's at the point of considering giving up the idea of continuing with writing/editing while her son is young, especially when it's for dwindling pay or no pay at all, and with its the demands on her time and the "need for obsessive-level focus".

"I can't break through and I can't manage my life with a small child and a household on top of it all. I've worked for the last seven weeks and the house has descended into shit and I'm giving my son about 50%."

I can't even begin to express how much I can relate to this feeling! And, sadly, my kids are now 8 and 11 and I still feel this way.

It can be such a no-win situation for women trying to work, especially in low-paid jobs and/or jobs that demand a lot from us. I feel constantly frustrated that whenever I try to do my own work (especially the unpaid creative work that I do on top of my day job), everything else falls apart. The house turns to shit, the kids feel neglected and I start to resent... well, everything in turn: my family for making me feel guilty about my work; and my work for taking me away from my family.

The times that I give up on my creative work completely (which happen frequently), everything else seems to run so smoothly. Which then feels like a kind of punishment - a message that says: "See! Everything could be so wonderful if only you gave up on your own silly little dreams."

Sometimes I can go along like this quite happily for a long time, convincing myself that no book I could write could be worth tipping my life back into chaos - or more chaos than it's already in, even when I'm not writing!

But there's only so long I can carry on like this before I start feeling spiritually bereft. My life is all too full, but my soul (for want of a better word) is empty. It begins to feel like a literal grieving.

Now that I'm nearing 40, this grief of sorts has taken on an extra dimension. I can see my life rolling out in front of me. I can see how easily I could spend the next 20 years (if I'm lucky enough to have that time, touch wood) continuing to relegate my own desires to the bottom of the pile until it's too late.

That's why, when people tell me that they want to give up, I tell them that giving yourself permission to give up can be vital, for a time. It can be a necessary breather. But I also think it's really important to find some way to keep the flame flickering.

Yes, mothering and nurturing others are hugely important roles. But women have every right to want more than a life of housework, supermarkets and ballet/footy runs.

Amid all the intense demands that life throws at women - I think I've felt almost continually overwhelmed from the moment my first child was born! - we have to keep sight of our own needs.

Remember that everyone around us suffers when we're feeling deeply unsatisfied. And the world suffers as a whole when women decide to give up on their dreams because it seems easier to take the path of least resistance.

You can't let go of the things that make you feel alive - even when you can only visit them for 10 or 20 minutes a day. Of course we all have to be realistic, but we also need to guard against a wholesale downgrading of our expectations for our lives.

Even when 10 minutes a day is all we can claim for ourselves, at least it's sending out a message that says: "See - Crazy Domestic Life! I know you're doing everything in your power to make me give up, but here I am! I'm not going away and I don't owe you any justifications. I've got something I want to do with this life - JUST BECAUSE. Just for me. So there."

P.S. Happy Women's Day for March 8, friends! xx

Thursday, February 28, 2013

"I feel like I'm being rubbish at both."

A few years ago, I read an interview with musician Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl, Massive Attack) where she spoke about giving music away altogether after having her three children.

Thorn and her partner, bandmate Ben Watt, had taken the kids with them on tour — and then decided that they were never doing that again!

"That tour was just weird," Thorn said. "I was putting the kids to bed at the hotel then racing off to soundcheck and I remember thinking, I don't like doing both. I feel like I'm being rubbish at both. So I took a unilateral decision to stop."

Watt agreed: "To be honest, it was never easy. When you throw kids and family into it something has to give. You can't keep all that going at the same time. You'd go mad."

For several years, Thorn was a full-time parent, not even jotting down lyrics in her notebook. But she did keep a journal about her life, which she described as "just a list of events of marginal interest" that would never see the light of day.

Well, I hope some of those thoughts have crept onto the pages of her new memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, because sometimes those so-called "marginal interest" notes are exactly the kind of things others want and need to hear! And knowing Thorn's lyrics, I suspect they're far from boring.

If you're reading this blog, then the interview with Tracey Thorn on Radio National's Books and Arts Daily yesterday is essential listening.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Clare Bowditch is making it POZIBLE

I know that Clare Bowditch, singer-songwriter extraordinaire, needs no introduction from me.

If you've read The Divided Heart and watched her career blossom over the years, you will know just what a stellar job she's done of combining family life with the demands of high-pressure work in the music and TV industries. 

And if you've read interviews with Clare or seen her perform live, you'll also know what an unusally warm, honest and big-hearted soul she is. A woman with bucketloads to give!

So lucky for us, this is just what Clare is planning to do next: use her experience of forging a successful creative life to help others do the same. And to get things going, she's set up a Pozible Campaign for her Big-Hearted Business.

She's got loads of goodies for supporters. But I'll let Clare tell you about that: 

Over the years, some of you have come to my shows, drunk a little too much, and trapped me in corners with questions like:

- Can you come over to my house for Devonshire tea and Pimms Cups? (Yes!)
- Can I come over to your studio and record with you and Marty? (Yes!)
- Can you make a surprise video proposing to my partner for me? (Yes!)
- Have you got any rare super-fine merch for sale? (Yes!)
- Can you help me work out how to make my living as an artist? (Yes!)
- My job is freaking boring. Can you come over and make it fun? (Oh YES!)

Today, the answer is a very sincere YES, to all of the above. To cash in, all you gotta do is get your buttski over to our new Big-Hearted Business POZIBLE CAMPAIGN. Please share the link far and wide!

In advance, thanks for supporting this: it means a lot, you'll see why.

If you want a little insight into what Clare's Big-Hearted Business will be all about, watch her inspiring TED talk below:

'Falling in love with your muse' Clare Bowditch at TEDxLittleLonsdaleStWomen, 1 December 2012 from Emily Hehir on Vimeo.