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.

25 comments:

genevieve said...

It's such a big area - worth another book, Rachel!
I am very proud of my brother and sister-in-law, trumpeters with three young children who jobshare a teaching position at a secondary school and recently did a three month tour including a school show in remote areas, up the Centre and down the west coast.

What made their tour even more remarkable is that my nephew has autism and a hearing impairment. Things like that just blow me away! my sister-in-law in particular is an incredible woman. I want them to get an article written about it sometime, but I don't know if they will.

(Also wonder if Sonya H's remark was tongue in cheek, too - perhaps she was trying to deflect curious journos away from the existence of personal writings. Just imagine how interesting her diaries would be!)

Rachel Power said...

Yes, of course--I was going to say that Sonya's comment may have been made partly in jest, though she probably does get paid well for anything she writes nowadays. And, yes, there are so many writers out there whose journals I would love to read!

Your brother and his partner sound incredible. But what a wonderful as well as impressive life. Yes, I think adding special needs into the mix takes it all to another level again. Anna Maria Dell'Oso talks about this in The Divided Heart, as she has a son with autism.

You should suggest a 'Two Of Us' piece for the Good Weekend--would be fascinating.

genevieve said...

Ooh I am sorry I have not read Anna Maria's chapter yet. I feel bad - I have an older son with autism too!! I've let down the A-team!!!
thanks for the suggestion, too. And I was thinking again about Sonya, as she has been writing for such a long time now, since she was 16 I guess, perhaps it's a wry kind of commentary - she's had that public scrutiny all her adult life, really, so may not have as much control (if that's the right word, heh) over whether she writes for nothing or not. Which probably does mean she has more in common with ole TC than other ordinary mortals.
This really is a terrific blog, Rachel.

Susan Johnson said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Rachel. Really, the underpinning of the whole novel is that question: how exactly does one fit art into life? How much is art worth?

I think this has long been a theme of mine, running like a thread through everything.

Anna Maria Dell'Oso is a very fine writer, and I thought her interview in your book particularly rich. Why your book is so valuable is that it gives voice to this struggle.

And might I add that I've just done a blurb for Wendy James's new collection of stories WHY SHE LOVES HIM. The stories are not exclusively on this theme but I would say they are about, in part, how we fit ourselves in, how those unexpressed parts of ourselves manifest themselves. Wonderful!

Susan Johnson said...

Er, can I just add that I am not entirely sure of the ettiquette involved in responding to these things. It seems a tad undignified for me to be posting a comment at all, really. (I mean I don't see Helen Garner or Kate Grenville all over the internet...but maybe that is a generational thing??? I don't really know...)

I only posted because you've left comments on my blog, and it seems rude not to leave some on yours! Thanks again...over to you, Wendy!

Rachel Power said...

Ha ha! I know--I do it all the time, post comments on blogs that have mentioned my book, feel a little squeamish about it, and end up apologising for my apparent narcissism, blah, blah, blah. For me, it is mainly out of gratitude that I feel such an urge to respond--and I think that can only be a good thing. It is such a lovely way to be engaged with readers in a very accessible way, so I say good on you, Susan, for staying connected like that. It means a lot to the rest of us!
Also, yes, I was going to say that this--how to sustain and justify art--is a strong theme running through all of your books, as there are sections of The Broken Book that resonated so strongly with me too as a parent. In fact I feel you are one of very few writers really exploring this theme, Wendy and Anna excepted, and I find it so refreshing.

JUDI TAVILL said...

Well, I'm not going to feel silly, I will just jump right in.
I'm not a writer, I am a ceramic artist/potter and I mentioned your book on my blog when I first found it through Shannon Garson's blog. I ordered it from Australia and when I finally opened it... it was so strongly spoke to me that I really looked forward to every moment with it...(and then I mentioned it again and others have gone on to buy it!)

When I looked into Susan Johnson's books after reading about them on your blog, I tracked them down through Amazon and Amazon UK... and now I anxiously await their arrival...
It is so helpful to read these thoughts and ideas.
It is like having a friend with me during those passages who really understands what it is all about.

I look forward to every post and and nugget of thought or opinion...not to sound TOO stalker-ish, but just to let you know, your work touches people out there and it is VERY important.

Damon said...

Yes, good post, Rachel.

I've just emailed you a short piece I've written on this for Mebourne's Child.

Let me know what you think.

Rachel Power said...

Damon, how do you do it--churn out so much damn good stuff?! That's a serious question.

Judi, it is so lovely of you to be so honest. I really appreciate it. And that you've recommend my book to friends. That really means something. You will love Susan's books! She is one of Australia's treasures--and only just starting to get the recognition she deserves.

Can I also ask you a serious question? Do you think there's a market for TDH in the US? Was it a barrier to your enjoyment that you didn't know most of the artists in it?

wen said...

Wonderful post, Rachel, and thank you so much for the kind words about my book. This is a huge topic, and like life at home, so many threads to untangle and try to keep clear.

We've recently, after almost 20 years of working out one way to negotiate the marriage/work/art/children rapids, been forced to rethink how we manage everything. Not quite the "ok, I'm off to become a genius film-maker" scenario, but not too far distant. And I have to say that it's been bloody difficult. It was interesting when, inevitably, the time came when I really had to think long & hard about me doing full-time work (but what? I'm completely without training, have worked in unskilled jobs for years to support my writing habit). I was equally churned up about the prospect of giving up writing AND the possibility of having to cede my childcare responsibilities to my husband. While I hate housework passionately (and have the skills to prove it!), when threatened with losing my role as main care-giver, I actually found I couldn't bear the thought of it, any more than I could bear the thought of being forced to put writing on the back-burner. Anyway, we've finally come to a workable interim arrangement, both earning a small income, and with enough time & energy to parent reasonably & follow our separate passions without too much angst or resentment.

wen said...

Susan, thank you for the kind words, too. And no, it's definitely NOT undignified - I think perhaps it is a generational thing. I'm starting to feel the urge to start blogging again - it alleviates some of the isolation, I think, and gives you the opportunity to engage in real conversations about the things that are most important. And that can only be a good thing, surely?

wen said...

um, wen is my old blogging name. Had forgotten & don't know quite how to change it...

Wendy James

JUDI TAVILL said...

Rachel,
I think your book definitely has as much of a market in the US as in Oz... Some of us actually know who some of the artists are and now I have learned who the rest are.... I would try and at least make it more easily accessible over here... I am happy to tell everyone I know to buy and read it!!!
I absolutely would ship to Oz(as per your comment on my blog) but of course the shipping cost is not great!

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rachel Power said...

Thanks Wendy. Yes, as you say, most women don't want to completely hand over that mothering role to someone else, though to be able to share it or at least feel recognised and supported in it is the all important factor. I was talking about this today with a friend and realised that maybe what we're seeing is that many mothers have a choice nowadays. And when that choice exists, they will more often than not choose to stay at home while their kids are small. Certainly this is very true of my general community. But when her partner doesn't want to be stuck in that full-time provider role there needs to be more flexible ways of arranging things--and unfortunately neither the workforce or the economy/cost of living readily support this nowadays. But, yes, room to pursue creative passions is vital to avoiding resentment! Sounds like you've come to a great place with all of that.

And thanks, Judi. All help with getting the word out greatly appreciated!

gretchenmist/belkemp said...

massive topic. i love your blog :)
i think it's one of those topics that deserves much more air-time! and more support from society {that whole thing of money value of arts/music that isn't always mainstream}.
for me {and most others} the making money part is the crux of what could be balance – i'd love it if i could make the equivalent of my husband's day's work doing what i love so he could work part time and find time for his outlets! and then some regular whole family time and some couple time . . . am dreaming!

blooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wen said...

Actually, I may have overstated the balance just a little - in reality I spend an awful lot of time taking deep breaths, & trying hard not to panic....

little red hen said...

I had to laugh at wen last comment, taking deep breaths and trying not to panic! I can relate to that. I'm a single mother of two and have been since my babies were 3 and 18months. They are now 17 and almost 16! Boy the time passes so quickly. In that time I have had to be both mum and dad, good cop and bad cop,domesic worker and the bread winner. (although I don't have to worry about the needs or ego of a husband,I'm looking for a bright side here) For some years I chose to work part time- 4 days a week this meant that it was a bit tight financialy but I had one day to be a mummy and go into the kids school and see their assemblies and time to do something creative for myself. As they entered high school I needed to move to a better suburb to enable them to go to the best highschool I could manage, that meant a rise in mortgage payments and I started full time work, and I have discovered that teenage children are as demanding in their needs as todlers. So the last couple of years have been difficult to find time for my needs. One way to eek out a little time for me is I've employed a cleaning lady. She works for 2 hours a week and then if I make a mess or if a mess is made while I am not taking care of the domestic duties in favour of doing my art then at least I know it is clean under the clutter! And they do say that it is not good for the childrens immune system for their environment to be too clean. My children are quite robust!
Recently I've been thinking that my babies will be my babies no more they will be adults and I will not be a mother or a wife. It will be just me- scary thought! after so many years.

Rachel Power said...

These are such lovely responses. The other day (one of those 43 degree days!) I was dealing with a complete meltdown from my son at a shopping centre just as I ran in to a work associate--always embarrassing. I thought "I do love my children but, jeez, this is one of those times I don't much like being a mother!" Then we walked on and he took my hand and I almost burst into tears at the feel of his little six-year-old hand in mine and the knowledge that he will probably not want to hold my hand for much longer. A deep breath. A step back. And a chance to be reminded how significant these little people are to creating meaning in our lives. People find all sorts of ways to grow and learn, but I think I would be half the woman I am now without my children. Nothing else has forced me up against my own limits and weaknesses to such a degree, and if that's not fuel for art I don't know what is!

Rachel Power said...

P.S. I have never hired a cleaner (much as I would love one) only because I think I would feel too sorry for them trying to find a surface to clean underneath all the clutter in our house. Though maybe it would force me to chuck some stuff out! We have one of those old, dusty houses with no cupboards.
P.P.S. I take my hat off to all single parents everywhere. I don't know how you do it--and that's not just a platitude. I really don't know how. Relationships are time-consuming beasts, it's true, but they also provide a bit of a buffer, and I do try to recognise that that's a lucky thing to have.

mindy s said...

I am loving reading these posts.

Sometimes it seems like just the act of navigating my way through the drama and tension of the work/looking after children/pursuing art conundrum, produces its own unique type of exhaustion.

To me it feels like my ownership of our domestic world is a kind of accident. A kind of jump now, look later type of accident. I think often that if I had actually given it serious consideration, I would probably have decided on something similar to the situation we have now- but the fact that I fell into it, rather than actually making the choice sometimes worries me.

Especially on the shopping center melt down days.

I loved reading that Wendy and family have been trying to figure this stuff out for about 20 years and are still changing the rules. My partner and I have only clocked up four years of negotiation and discussion- but even so, I had started to suspect that this art, money, family, life conversation was not going to be a short one. But it is wildly reassuring to know that there are lots of us out there who are having it.

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