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.

4 comments:

Damon said...

Fantastic, Rachel. Great to see your fine book recognised.

And, yes, I do feel immense gratitude for kind reviewers. In part, it's the native thankfulness of the author.

But it's also the gratitude of the reviewer - you know yourself how easy it is to be petty or cavalier with someone else's precious work. For many, it takes a certain goodwill and generosity to be kind to another writer.

Having said this, I've only had a few reviews, so my opinions are worth little in this.

Anyway, congratulations, and best wishes. We want Divided Heart on Oprah's list, damnit.

Sally said...

Good to see you're getting some great reviews, Rach. It's a beautiful book and everyone I have given it or recommended it to has loved it.

Yes, it doesn't matter how much you tell yourself that a bad a review is really more of a reflection on the reviewer than the work itself, a good review still makes you want to weep with gratitude.

How hard it is to create something from absolutely nothing, how easy it is to knock it down again by someone who may never have created a thing.

shannon said...

I'm so glad your book is getting such good publicity- I've added my little bit on my blog-there are already comments from some who want to buy it!

ausxser said...

Thanks so much for dropping by my blog.

I am now up to four copies of your book...one for me and because I didn't want to lend it...three copies for friends. Everyone I have mentioned it to has said they want to buy it...so kudos to you.

I've read it over and over, and as I've mentioned on my blog found myself in tears on the train and had to put it away.

I'm not a 'real' artist (yet), I'm a fledgeling songwwriter, who needs more hours in the day or more days in the week and just one or two more supportive people around me.

Thank you for your work and thanks also to your subjects who shared with you so honestly.