Saturday, December 20, 2008

My love-hate relationship with Christmas

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I can get quite caught up in the fantasy of it all (which strangely enough seems to involve a vague vision of snow and candelight and open fires, which for an Australian really is a fantasy) and at the same time look around me and feel sick about the consumer frenzy Christmas has become--shops with signs saying "five days left to shop!" in the window, malls with competing Christmas ditties from each shop mingling into one hellish cocophany that seems to induce zombie-like behaviour... I can't tell you how many times this week I've been standing in queues surrounded by mothers with trolleys piled high with plastic crap you know is headed for landfill before you can say "Easter". One rolled her eyes at me, saying: "I only came in to buy a couple of things" before turning to the teller to ask what the damage is. Today, another told me she had five kids who keep changing their minds about what they're into, so she just keeps the receipts and returns the goods when the novelty wears off!
I can also feel strangely alone at Christmas. Not in any great, existential sense, so much as as in that: "I thought we were a team but why is it only me who seems to be running herself ragged trying to think up/buy the perfect gift for every distant relative (including yours); wrap/send said gifts; work out which friend I can dump the kids with because kinder/school close their doors two days before work does; crawl around the attic looking for that dusty bag of Chrissy decorations; try to fit in a leg wax in case I might make it to the beach one of these days?!" Yes, I'm starting to think Christmas is a feminist issue!
And then this morning we went for a coffee at our local, me heading out first with the kids, my partner to catch up. As I optimistically tried to pen some final cards, the kids tipped sugar on the table, raided the drinks fridge and assailed the waitress with their extensive Christmas wish list as she glanced desperately at the impending rush of customers making their way through the door. Twenty minutes in I rang my partner, muttering through gritted teeth: "Where are you?! You said you were coming straight away! Freya's stroppy, I've got stupid amounts of shopping to do and your coffee's getting cold!" before hanging up on him. When he arrived and told me he had just been waiting for my present to be delivered: "I was trying to be a bit surreptitious about it." I sat there, trying to pull my head in and yet stubbornly holding on to my anger, just like one of my kids might do. Later I came home to a fabulous new bike (early because we're going away tomorrow). Dear me, how humbling--and how exhilarating! I went for a ride around the block and felt so much better.
Now, presents sent and food sorted, I feel like I can get back to what Christmas can, at its best, be--a chance to slow down (eventually) and to be reminded that you are surrounded by people that you adore and who love you back, and who are all doing their best. (Though I am seriously pushing for a Kris Kringle option next year, and vowing to get better at not taking it all on!)
New Year's resolutions anyone? I wonder, after giving up vices and vowing to exercise more, what percentage of resolutions relate to getting more literary? Personally, I am pledging to get up at 5.30am every morning to write in 2009. Well, I've locked myself in now I've told you all. Might see you in the morning, come January 1...
Till then, hope it's a good one and that someone spoils you rotten (in a good way!).

Monday, December 15, 2008

A way too long post (sorry) about maternal ambivalence

In the talk I did at my local writers’ festival recently, I said something like: “I feel like it’s a sad and somewhat controversial thing to admit that I feel it would be a lot easier for me, as a mother, to have no ambitions.” One of my fellow speakers, artist Sarah Tomasetti, later admitted that she was expecting me to say what would have been much more controversial statement: that my life would be easier if I hadn’t had children.

Well, I think it goes without saying that a life without children would be an easier one. Except that, as someone who always wanted kids, I would have become obsessed with wanting them and had to go through a long process of coming to terms with my childlessness. That said, I have more sympathy now with those who choose not to have children than I ever did before I had my own—not because I have regrets, but because now I actually understand the sacrifices that are made.

The desire to have children is a peculiar force—a biological trick or animal urge perhaps, if you want to see it that way, but therein lies its legitimate power. Considering that getting pregnant is for most Western women a choice nowadays, if that biological compulsion was not there, I cannot imagine what other arguments you might pose to yourself in making the case for becoming a parent. It is not one that can be made on any logical grounds, on the basis of some cost-benefit analysis. Like art, the urge to create children is mysterious and unbidden, and the rewards unmeasurable.

Particularly among the artistic community, there are still many for whom their work takes the place of children, or at least who feel kids would be too great a spanner in the artistic works. (The whole time I have been writing this, with my computer on my lap, I have also been playing shops with my three-year-old daughter, ‘scanning’ items with the phone and taking her ‘money’, with her occasionally grabbing my face between her hands and saying: “You’re not looking at me!” The only alternative is letting her cut up my partner’s music magazines, which wouldn't be worth my life.)

Of course children are, among other things, a constraining force in an artist’s, or in anyone’s, life. There are those who would say this is just the reality, and there are those who would say this is a limited way of seeing things—a great failure of imagination—and, in a sense, both are true. Or the truth lies somewhere in between. And doesn’t this just some up the maternal experience? For many, if not most of us, to be a mother is to be mired in a state of contradiction.

Which gets to the theme of this post: maternal ambivalence. The other day I was thinking what a marvel is that such a word exists in the English language that so perfectly sums up the experience of mothering—and one I still associate with poet Adrienne Rich’s description of mothering as the the "murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness". I was pondering this while listening to a BBC Women’s Hour program about Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I haven’t yet read), groundbreaking for many reasons, but partly because of its honest depiction of mothering. One of the commentators on the show was Lionel Shriver, whose book We Need to Talk About Kevin (another on my stupidly long list of ‘must-reads’) made her the unintended spokeswoman for maternal ambivalence.

I wrote quite a long section in The Divided Heart about whether an artist’s imaginative powers might be one of the very things that stops them from having children—it later got cut. But Shriver was one of my main case-in-points. “What has continued to frighten me off children for all these years?” she has asked, rhetorically. Among other things: “The relegation of one’s own ambitions so far to the backburner that they fall off the stove. A precipitous social demotion that I inferred from the chuckle of those smarmy adults who discounted my renunciations at eight: You say you want to be a writer but you’re a girl, and all you really want to be is a mommy.”

She had long ago decided that her mother got the raw deal in her family, and went on to readily embrace her hostility (her word) toward motherhood. “…when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, ‘Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little ... selfish?’ I bellowed into the receiver, ‘Absolutely!’” As she admits elsewhere: “They [kids] would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.”

In an attempt to resolve her repulsion for motherhood (her word again), she wrote her bestselling Kevin, which describes an antagonistic relationship between a mother and son, who at fifteen goes on a horrific killing spree at his school. “The massacre is and isn’t the mother’s fault,” she says, i.e. that's up to the reader to decide.

You can check out two of her articles for The Guardian here and here.

In part, her lack of maternal desire was a reaction against the “unwritten gag rule” that expected her mother to bury her real feelings and instead present a rosy picture. A remarkable number of readers, Shriver says, expressed their gratitude that “someone in modern literature has put motherhood’s hitherto off-limits emotions into print”. As she puts it, she wanted to get away from novels’ routine portrayal of children as adorable moppets who come out with nuggets of wisdom at the dinner table. Also, she rails against the idea of childhood innocence; the belief that kids’ behaviour is out of their control and purely influenced by environmental factors.

“While we may have taken the lid off sex, it is still out of bounds to say that you do not like your own kids, that the sacrifices they have demanded are unbearable, or that, perish the thought, you wish you had never had them.”

Shriver is a powerful and talented writer, and I do not have a moral objection to her views per se. But it does seem to me that they only paint half the picture—something that makes sense, I suppose, Shriver having chosen to remain child-free and basing much of her beliefs on her mother’s experience (which wasn’t a good one) and her memories of herself as a child.

Without wanting to take away from the validity of what Shriver does have to say—she is a writer of great imaginative powers and her words clearly speak to people—can you actually be the voice of maternal ambivalence when you haven’t experienced maternity?

To me, ambivalence implies not only that adverse reaction but, in motherhood’s case, the wild swing between—or even simultaneous sense of—overwhelming frustration and surging joy and adoration. I don’t doubt that there are those out there who genuinely regret having children—and for those whose children go on to commit terrible crimes, this must be a particularly fraught and painful question. But to suggest that some children are just born bad, and that some mothers indeed dislike their own offspring, while perhaps occasionally true, overall seems a little simplistic.

Shriver bases this notion partly on her recollection of intentionally giving her mother a hard time. I’m no expert on childhood, and as a parent I am painfully aware of my deficiencies—just as I am aware that children are not always innocent. Kids can behave badly, it’s true (as can adults), and they are often wilful. The fact that discipline may often be an appropriate response, doesn’t automatically make the child’s actions merely "bad". In developing an identity separate to their parents, a child will test boundaries and limits. That’s the nature of growth.

For those who do not have regular contact with them, kids can be a bit intimidating. But to say that you don’t like kids seems to me a denial of life. You may as well be saying that you don’t like people; that you don’t like yourself.

Shriver looked at the question of maternal ambivalence through a fictional account of a worst case scenario. The Divided Heart was also an attempt at getting to the ‘truth’ (if there can be such a thing) of the maternal experience—its pitfalls and its pleasures—and I hope provided similar solace for readers. (And in saying that I do not mean to be putting me or my book in Lionel Shriver’s league, or to suggest they are directly comparable in intention.)

In presenting a frank account of motherhood, in all its complexity of conflicting emotions, women will always attract criticism and contempt. (I have copped my fair share of this, and have had to remind myself of British author Rachel Cusk’s assertion that she didn’t write her troubled and exhilaratingly candid memoir, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, for “all those Alice-band-wearing mumsies out there”.) In general, an environment now exists where mothers have greater permission than ever to express their feelings of despair as well as gratification.

Occasionally someone at my partner’s work will ask him whether or not it’s worth it: having children. He tells them: “It’s bloody hard work but you’ll laugh more than you’ve ever laughed in your life.” And that much is true.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stephanie Meyer's fantasy novel (and what happened to Ann in Novel About My Wife?)

Acclaimed novelist Susan Johnson, who has a great blog of her own, wrote a truly gripping memoir, A Better Woman, about writing, motherhood, illness and the dilemmas of choosing a creative life. I recall being reduced to tears of gratitude frequently while reading it. Susan really was in the vanguard of this discussion and, though I didn’t discover her book till I was halfway through writing The Divided Heart, it became a huge inspiration for my book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the art and parenting theme.

In her (characteristically priceless) comment on my previous post, Susan mentioned Stephanie Meyer, author of the colossally successful Twilight series of vampire books (now film), who apparently wrote the first book amid the bedlam of mothering two toddlers and a baby.

Of course I felt compelled to follow this up, and found these fascinating words on Stephanie Meyer’s site. There Meyer says she knows exactly what date she started writing Twilight, which was inspired by a particularly vivid dream, because it was also the first day of swimming lessons for her kids.

“Up to this point, I had not written anything besides a few chapters (of other stories) that I never got very far on, and nothing at all since the birth of my first son, six years earlier,” she writes. “Though I had a million things to do (i.e. making breakfast for hungry children, dressing and changing the diapers of said children, finding the swimsuits that no one ever puts away in the right place, etc.), I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream.”

She went on to write that first book in a matter of months. Hers is a compelling example of way the adrenaline of obsession can get you through. She mentions being in love with the lead male character and caring for the main female character like a daughter. (Stephanie Meyer has three sons.) I found this notion intriguing--the way a character might be like a sort of crush, with that associated flush of energy.

In The Divided Heart, Nikki Gemmell talks about writing becoming her space for fantasy when day-to-life is all about sore nipples and wiping bottoms. I think there’s a lot to be said for this—the need for escape coming to the fore when our life is at its most routine and prescribed. For Nikki, the sensuality of mothering and the new relationship with her body also played a part, creating its own form of liberation.

If only all our dreams could wind up making us millions—might help in avoiding the madhouse, whatdya reckon, Susan?

P.S. If anyone else out there has read Emily Perkins’ brilliant psychological thriller Novel About My Wife, do you want to send me your theories on what happened to Ann?! The only online mention of this I have found is on Kerry Clare’s blog, Pickle Me This—a great site with an interview with Perkins, in which she also talks about writing and motherhood (but purposely doesn't answer the 'what happened' question). Mind you, the further away I get from finishing Perkins’ novel, the more I realise that it doesn’t matter (knowing what happened), but it’s fun to theorise…

Friday, December 5, 2008

Who Does She Think She Is?

I was lucky enough to be sent a preview screener for the US doco I mentioned in my previous post, Who Does She Think She Is?, and I can tell you I pretty much sobbed my whole way through it. I found it incredibly moving—saddening, inspiring, galvanising all at once.

All of the women featured in this film are particularly impressive in their strength and determination to keep their art at the forefront of their life, despite the personal risks and in some cases the devastating fallout, particularly for their relationships.

It brought to mind writer Brenda Walker’s comment in The Divided Heart that in trying to be artist, mother, worker and wife, something had to give—and it wasn’t going to be her child, her writing or her job (which she needed to pay the mortgage)...

In the documentary, some husbands were generous supporters of their partner’s work. Others wanted a wife, in the traditional sense, and were threatened by their partner’s creative success, or the way it took her away from the family. As one of those featured suggests, as a woman art takes you to places that are not safe.

I was particularly taken with the work of sculptor Janis Wunderlich. On the surface, her life is one of domestic normality—a Mormon with five children and a husband—yet she manages to have between 10 and 15 shows a year. Her phenomenal sculptures show women beset by mischievous creatures with rabbit ears clambering across her body, or sometimes birthing one child as others hang from her arms and shoulders. She puts her stress and conflict into her work, she says, so that she can stay sane in her day-to-day life. Her work is done in such a frenzy (placed in galleries before it gets broken around the house!) there isn’t time to look back and assess her work before moving onto the next thing.

She is a great example of the way motherhood allows women to avoid the trappings and vagaries of the art market—or at least the ‘art scene'. Here are women making art on the kitchen table while the kids nap or draw at the table beside them. Beyond the need to make a living, these women remind us of what the artistic imperative is really about—an unstoppable force that must be heeded or, as one said, “I go crazy”.

That said, they also continue to suffer for this, with statistics showing that women still don’t command equivalent prices to their male counterparts and represent a tiny percentage of solo shows in America’s major galleries.

Perhaps the most powerful story here is that of Máye Torres, who decided she and her three kids could live on US$24,000 a year if she lived as self-sufficiently as possible. Her struggle to be both mother and artist has meant guilt, divorce and a struggle to be taken seriously. But her incredibly articulate and caring children are a great testament to her; their recognition of her needs as an artist and their pride, admiration and respect for her almost brought me undone.

I read a scathing review of this film in Time Out New York recently, which accused it of encapsulating “everything that gives feminism a bad name, from whining about patriarchal society to celebrating the goddess within”. Isn’t it fascinating the way some women react so vehemently against this theme, offended that artists-mothers might have the audacity to make a special case of their situation? Anyway, rather than repeat myself, you can check out my response here.

As I said in my Time Out rave, clearly we as a culture still have a long way to go in understanding what can often be subtle, almost indefinable barriers for contemporary women artists—their own fear that their creative compulsions make them ‘bad’ mothers being one of the most powerful and complex. And as this film shows, artist-mothers’ stories are a great way in to some of the big questions we all face about how we live and what we choose to value in life.

Will keep you posted on local screenings...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Art and motherhood: where it's at

There are some pretty interesting things going on around the world on the art and motherhood front. Despite struggling for over a year to convince a publisher that there was indeed a market for my book (thank you again Red Dog Books for your faith!), I suddenly feel part of a mini-zeitgeist! For whatever reason, this subject seems to be experiencing a kind of resurgence around the world. I never cease to be amazed by the phenomeonon of sychronicity.

There is certainly a potent context with the whole "Motherwars" debate of recent years and the emergence of motherhood/childcare as Western feminism's final frontier--I do talk about this in The Divided Heart. But art, as a vocation that demands so much of someone and for which the rewards can be so unmeasurable (much like mothering), is carving out it's own special genre within this broader agenda.

Some of you might already have heard about the new doco now doing the festival circuit to great acclaim in the US: Who Does She Think She Is? by filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll, who produced the extraordinary Born Into Brothels, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary a few years ago. Funnily enough, Pamela told me that at one time she wanted to title the film "A divided heart: On art and motherhood" but was told it was too "literary"!

The film looks at the lives of "five fierce women who refuse to choose". It explores the situation for artist-mothers as a way in to "some of the most problematic intersections of our time: mothering and creativity, partnering and independence, economics and art". It also reminds us that, despite all we have gained, we still live in a world where the average punter on the street struggles to name a handful of women artists. When this film makes it to Australia, it'll be a super-exciting event (on my calendar at least). Will keep you posted...

What also makes this so exciting is that a film version of The Divided Heart is also in the pipeline. I was approached a while back by producer Kylie Bryant, who (among other things) made the incredibly moving short film Breathe, and has just shot a doco on the Lentil as Anything mob--the restaurant chain with the "pay what they can afford or feel the food deserves" ethos. The success of the US film has proven that there is an audience for such a topic; the key will be making a film that complements "Who Does She Think She Is?" in the Australian context.

There is nothing more affirming than having people approach you after talks or via letter or email to tell you what your book has meant to them--except perhaps having someone tell you that not only has it been meaningful, but they want to option the film rights! It's a bit of a fantasy, isn't it? (Even if in my case we're not talking 4-figures, let alone 5 or 6--such is the life of the small-niche author.) Any ideas of what/who you would like to see on screen--all those things a printed book can't convey--please speak up.

I was also going to have a little rave about conferences on the art-motherhood subject; an American anthology I've been asked to contribute to; a new Australian magazine being launched soon with articles from me and from Anne Manne on the motherhood theme... but I think I've said enough for one night... more soon.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Some random thoughts on the nature of genius

It’s been a while (sorry) and I find myself sitting down to write full of a jumble of random thoughts.

Firstly, yesterday I heard a fascinating interview on Radio National (yes, I am one of those annoying RN junkies who starts sentences with these words on an all-too-regular basis) with Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks about his new documentary about composer Philip Glass.

The interviewer, Jason Di Rosso, mentioned the tension within Glass’s marriage about his workaholism. Which raises the question, Di Rosso said, of “the nature of obsessive personalities, the ethics of living a life dedicated to the muse”. He used the notion of a ‘selfish gene’ to describe the artist who is driven “and sometimes that singular vision can be to the detriment of those around him”.

According to Hicks, when going into his latest marriage and having children, Glass was frank with his wife about where his dominant energies would lie. “So people make a choice about what they want to be involved with. What he does is what he does. He doesn’t really think about it as work. He works all the time … It’s just what he does.”

Using Bach, who had 17 surviving children, as an example, Hicks said: “Mrs Bach’s story would be a very interesting one I’m sure, because there was a man obsessed for sure.”

At our talk last weekend at the Northern Notes Writers Festival, where about 30 women and one brave bloke had a fascinating and very comprehensive discussion on the art and motherhood theme (thanks for the chat, those who were there), artist Sarah Tomasetti said she'd always experienced a level playing field, where male and female artists had the same opportunities—until she had children, that is. For so many contemporary women, having a baby is the point when feminism starts to make sense.

Inequality is not always about overt discrimination (though that continues, unfortunately). As a male artist like Philip Glass, that choice “about what he wants to be involved with” doesn’t rule out having children, though his predominant focus may be elsewhere. No matter how far we’ve come, could this ever be true for a woman?
It is an ultimate taboo for a woman to neglect or abandon a child for the sake of her vocation (and historically very few women make this choice, despite the notorious examples), yet the numerous male examples are largely ignored as nothing out of the ordinary.

There was an ABC doco recently about an artist featuring interviews with his children (can someone jog my memory re: the artist’s name?!). Anyway, I didn’t see it (we don’t have a telly), but I was chatting to a (female) art magazine editor a few days later who scoffed at his kids’ complaints about being ignored by their distracted father, saying they should have been grateful just to be in the midst of such greatness. Hmmm, what a question…

I was also approached after a talk by a mother of five who was the daughter of a famous painter and an artist herself. She had decided to give up her art until her kids had grown up, she told me, as she didn’t want to be the kind of parent her father was—with a mind always elsewhere.

So if a woman artist chooses to be involved with both her work and her children, does this dictate the kind of artist she can be? Almost certainly. But does this exclude her from the realm of genius—of “truly original” creation—as Hicks describes Glass’s work? In other words, does genius require the kind of single-minded obsessiveness that a loving mother cannot afford, at least while her children are small? Or are these male artists just having their cake and eating it too—because they can, because they have a Mrs Bach in the wings? (And good on Scott Hicks for mentioning how fascinating her story would be!)

P.S. If you want to read a great book on this theme, check out Wendy James's The Steele Diaries, which I will review properly in a future post...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A cuppa tea and a chat...

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood

Why do women still struggle to reconcile their artistic and maternal selves?

Please join me, with singer-songwriter Emma Tonkin, actor-musician Alice Garner and artist Sarah Tomasetti in a discussion about keeping the work alive amid the overwhelming demands of motherhood.

Stick around and say hello afterwards if you can make it!

3.30–5.00pm, Sunday 9 November
Festival Hub
1st Floor, Northcote Town Hall
189 High Street Northcote

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reconciling the Creative Mind and the Maternal Heart

Yesterday, Radio National’s Book Show aired a particularly warm and insightful take on The Divided Heart by feminist historian Clare Wright (downloadable here).

She said:
As a mother, writer and feminist, I pored through The Divided Heart with the zeal of a seeker—a seeker of truths, a lost soul, a fellow traveller. It’s the blind emotion contained in the book that runs so defiantly, so refreshingly, against the current grain of arguments and, dare I say it, motherhood statements about work–life balance, working families and diversity of choice in the marketplace. Rachel Power has achieved something precious and unique…

In seeking to resolve the irresolvable and confounding contradictions of motherhood, Rachel Power has asked some pretty darned impertinent questions. By doing so, she’s started a public conversation that will surpass the discrete kitchen table confidential and inspire artful solutions to a timeless predicament.

I was pretty humbled by this, to say the least, as Clare is someone I greatly admire—you might know her from the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor or for her fantastic book Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003). Apart from her heartfelt personal response, she made a couple of important points that have not been made elsewhere.

I agree with her argument that The Divided Heart is a snapshot of class as much as gender realities (something Rachel Cunnean also touched on in her write-up). As Clare notes, money can make all the difference in enabling a parent to justify time away from children (and paying for childcare) to pursue a vocation that usually attracts an unreliable income at best—even for many with high profiles in their field.

First up, Clare mentioned American feminist and mother of six Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lovely statement about being “anchored here, surrounded by small craft, which I am struggling to tug up life’s stream”. How much has really changed for women’s internal experience of combining mothering and a vocation over the centuries? It seems guilt and ambivalence remain almost universal characteristics in the woman artist’s experience of reconciling their twin passions.

I have been criticised by one reviewer for not being analytical, tough, rigorous—or indeed positive—enough in tackling the subject of art and motherhood. I can understand that this might be what some readers are looking for. But I wasn’t interested in entering other women’s houses with my investigative or scholarly hat on, summing up their choices and making judgements or creating theories; nor did I really have the distance from the subject to do so, still so mired in the very experience that I was writing about.

Nor did I want to pitch a utopian vision of how things should or could be. Instead, I was seeking the truth of women artists' experiences—and I think it’s that raw honesty that most readers have responded to, often with gratitude for the solace it has provided. Motherhood is, above all, an intense experience, whatever the context—and I think this has fascinating implications for an artist and her work.

Clare said she has found books on contemporary motherhood generally fall into two categories: “how-to manuals, aimed at self-improvement, or issues-based monographs, pitched in the national interest. The Divided Heart defies this trend—it contains not a whiff of polemic nor an ounce of advice—and unlike most motherhood books, it’s written from the frontline.”

She described the artists’ testimonies in the book as “honest, tender, intelligent, reflective”. When read together, she said, they “provide a fascinating, almost voyeuristic, window into the inner working of both the creative mind and the maternal heart, and the indivisible relationship between the two”.

The other criticism I’ve copped (in the current issue of Arena Magazine) is that in discussing motherhood in relation to an artist’s identity I risk binding her to the fact of her motherhood only. I’d be interested in what others think of this argument. Certainly some of the women in The Divided Heart are struggling to navigate a path between celebrating their womanhood (and motherhood) and yet not be defined by this in the public mind. But whose fault is this--individual women or society's limiting gaze? I find it pretty crude and even dangerous to suggest that we should avoid talking about the fullness of our experiences as women lest we undermine our broader cause. It seems akin to suggesting that we can’t question aspects of feminism without undercutting feminism as a whole. Should we limit ourselves to neutral territory, rather than talking about what differentiates us, in order to create an illusion of equality?

At the end of the day, The Divided Heart isn’t only about ambivalence—it is also about how the very intimate and profound experience of mothering impacts on an artist’s work and identity—a subject I find endlessly fascinating, and not at all limiting when dealt with seriously and not superficially. And it’s always important to have these debates…

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not only rock 'n' roll--Goran Bregovic at MIAF

I saw the most extraordinary gig as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival last week. In fact, it was so extraordinary I went back and saw it again—firstly at the Arts Centre and then a somewhat wilder version at Becks Bar. Anyone else who was there will already know who I’m talking about. It was Serbian composer and musician Goran Bregovic—surely one of Festival Director Kristy Edmunds’ greatest coups (and she’s had a few!). I have truly never been to anything like it. Even in the usually tame Hamer Hall, the atmosphere was electric and the audience was going nuts—dancing in the aisles and yelling for more… It is a cliché, I know, but his is the kind of music that plants a seed of pure joy.

What I previously knew of Bregovic’s music was through his soundtracks for films like Black Cat White Cat, Time of the Gypsies, Underground and Queen Margot. (My friend Pia was told by the leader of her Bulgarian choir that she must go and see this man at the Festival—he is the real deal.) He came with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals—a masterful combination of two superb Bulgarian women singers, percussionist and singer Alen Ademovic (also divine in all sorts of ways I won't go into here), a Serbian male choir and a gypsy string orchestra, with Bregovic’s own 70s rock sensibility. Not great footage but you can check them out here.

Bregovic became a teen idol in his home country with his first rock band, White Button. He says: "In those times, rock had a capital role in our lives. It was the only way we could make our voice heard, and publicly express our discontent without risking jail (or just about)...". A philosophy and sociology student, he was apparently set to become a teacher of Marxist thought had the gigantic success of his first record not taken him on this far more heady path. Now he is mixing up traditional Yugoslavian folk with electric grooves to create something truly exhilarating.

At Becks Bar, the Balkan Community was out in force (were there any Eastern European Melburnians at home that night?!), dancing on the tables in a kind of fevered celebration of everything that music stirs up for a culture that has suffered so much. It was like being at some rowdy, hot-blooded, exotic party where everything means so much more than could ever be said--or that any outsider could imagine. I have never before experienced anything like it. Mind-blowing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carpe Diem

I have been a little distracted from this blog of late--and that is because I have been trying to fit in a bit of reading around a somewhat hectic schedule. Most recently I have completed Melbourne Uni philosopher Damon Young's Distraction: A Guide to Being Free. I have always felt that living in the relative luxury of the West, freedom has a habit of becoming its own burden. Any life has its limitations, but with most of our basic needs taken care of, we are at liberty to make choices about what we do with the rest of our time--and how easy it is to squander that time on meaningless distractions (which, in my experience, can all too easily become addictions)! There are so many convenient ways of avoiding the central question of Being.

On the all too rare occasions that my partner and I go to a movie nowadays, we seem inevitably to come up against the same dilemma: do we go the Euro art flick or the latest action blockbuster (we're both a tad partial to both). Babysitter in place, a couple of hours to ourselves, the question becomes ridiculously loaded. All too often we tell ourselves: "Ah, we're exhausted, we need a bit of fun, a bit of light relief, let's go the mindless crap." Very occasionally this was the right choice; but more often than not we travel home full of guilt that we squandered our precious time on something so utterly meaningless, even debased, when we might have seen something that actually left us with something--that genuinely moved us or gave us something intriguing to think about. There are certain films that I can say genuinely changed my life--and they were not American schlock (though for some they might be--and this might be a mindful choice).

In his witty, playful and down-to-earth book, Damon encourages readers to live consciously--to question what actually adds meaning to our lives and what merely dissipates our energies. I found there to be so many interesting parallels with The Divided Heart in this book (though in this case those featured are all men). As a parent, life can be so dominated by multi-tasking that our minds can develop a habit of being constantly fractured, in a million different places at once. Art requires a coralling of the self, and if I learned anything from the artists in The Divided Heart it was the importance of carving out that space, however small, where you resist the crowding out of the mind by that revolving 'to do' list and let imagination reign. To give yourself permission to focus on this one thing that you need to do--more than you need to put that next load of washing on.

Damon convincingly argues that it is all too easy to let technological rationality--the "logic of pure availability"--dictate the rhythm of our days, making us blind to our own drives and desires. But it is not a Romantic rejection of technology, or a life of impulsive hedonism that Damon is advocating. Rather he promotes what Seneca called "a politics of character". A life spent lurching towards a better version of ourselves, one that aims to match our values, is the key to freedom and a life lived generously and with attention to what really matters.

I first became aware of Damon's writings after reading his funny and insightful article, Driven by Distraction in The Age. It offers a wonderful take on the contribution children can make to our creative lives, in part because of the discipline and decisiveness a lack of time enforces but also because they are a constant reminder of what's truly valuable in life. In many ways, I think Distraction could be read as an interesting companion piece to The Divided Heart (if Damon doesn't mind me saying so--don't mean to give myself airs!!). He went on to write a very warm review of The Divided Heart in The Big Issue and has, in this era of instant feedback, gone and written a bit of a spiel on nepotism on his blog--check it out. He signed my copy of Distraction: "In writerly, parently fellowships"--and ain't that a great thing. Something we could all do with more of!

Distraction surveys the lives of various thinkers and artists, each providing food for thought on ways of approaching a life lived well. This is no pithy self-help book, but an inspiring guide to seizing the day. Seneca's rhetorical statement that life is the gift of the gods, but "living well is the gift of philosophy" is a great summation of what this book offers--a great gift from a writer who makes complex philosophical ideas relevant to our everyday lives. I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Joanna Murray-Smith's 'Ninety'

I saw the MTC production of Joanna Murray-Smith's play Ninety last night. I don't know if it's touring to other states, but if it is I highly recommend you hire a babysitter.

The play has left quite an impression on me. I can't find a way to respond to it with any objective analysis, as my reaction to Joanna's work is always to be confronted with all it brings up in me about my own life. It is a work that raises so many questions about the masks and layers we operate with, the way we choose to live, the people we hide in, those we are truly real with, the layers we do or don't expose, how ugly we allow ourselves to be, what binds us and what sets us free.

Plot-wise, the title of the play refers to the number of minutes William grants to ex-wife Isobel to convince him they should still be together. At the outset, you really can't imagine how these two people are going to find their way back to each other. For two characters who are in many ways quite unlikeable to ultimately move us so much requires quite an arc--something Joanna manages with her usual deftness. I have rarely been in audience so riveted--and with so many men weeping!

This season has sold out I believe (not surprisingly), but look out for future productions, or the paperback edition I think will be available shortly.

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.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The profound insight of children

At night I read in my kids room (using just the light from the hallway--my poor eyes) as they go to sleep. At the moment I am reading the very sad biography of Assia Wevill (A Lover of Unreason), the woman Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath for. In it there is a photograph of Plath, with her gappy teeth and wary smile. My 3-year-old, Freya, wanted to know what I was looking at, so I let her get out of bed. She stood beside me, gazed at the picture for a moment and then said: "She looks funny." I asked her: "Do you think she looks happy or sad?" "Sad," she answered. Then my 6-year-old son, Griffin, wanted to see. He jumped out of bed and came across the room, looked down at the photograph, and said definitively: "Not sad. Jealous." And got back into bed.
I am still reeling!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Those self-indulgent artists

(a bit of a follow on from the previous post re: "Is it all just a whinge?"...)
After my discussion with Elly Varrenti on Radio National last week, an artist rang in to say "how self-indulgent" to be talking about the situation for artist-mothers, as if we are different to other working mothers. She mentioned that she was in her studio, her son at school, having given up paid teaching work to paint full time.

Just a quick reponse to this, which is something I am asked all the time. Are artists different to other working mothers? Well, no... and yes. And, of course, it depends--on the art form you work in, on how successful or established you are, on whether you are supported in being an artist by those around you... There are so many variables.

It is a vexed question, and one I have struggled with. So the best way I can answer it, I think, is to speak personally.

In many ways, I think the issues for working mothers are universal and well-known. I don't see why it is deemed more indulgent for artists to talk about the struggles (or indeed the positives) of working and mothering than for other women--and indeed there is a lot of talk out there about the guilt, the overwork, the exhaustion and dilemmas felt by all working mothers, artists included (and I acknowledge that many professions have creative elements).

Historically, the "artistic life" has been romanticised, and so it is all too easy to suggest that artists think they're "special". In contrast, one of the things I think The Divided Heart shows is just how normal and mundane the act of making art can be. And there are many who do, as Joanna Murray-Smith said on the radio, just bang a few sentences out with the laptop propped on the kitchen bench surrounded by 13-yr-old footy players eating chocolate biscuits. Joanna, who makes a good income from her work (and deservedly so), is mostly able to treat her work as a 9-to-3 job, much like the Radio National caller, by the sounds of it.

For me, and so many of the artists I know (including many with high profiles in their field), art is still stuffed in around the edges of bread-and-butter work. I guess I feel I know whether or not being an artist is different to being any other kind of worker because I am both. By day a journalist; by night a writer (or something like that!). Unfortunately I can't treat my art like a job because it doesn't pay--and so it all too easily feels an indulgence; something that is of little benefit to anyone but me--except that it's a necessary outlet and vital to avoiding martyrdom! I struggle to justify paying for time to write when it doesn't bring in an income, and so find myself largely writing in the wee small hours after everything else has been attended to.

But apart from those practical issues (the inspiration vs perspiration ratio holds true in art as in anything), art is also a mysterious thing. I feel that writing asks very different things of me than does my day job, whether it be journalism or any of the other kinds of work I have done over the years. Most jobs have clear parameters--fairly set hours, tasks than can be scheduled, guaranteed benefits. Work, on the whole, is a socially sanctioned activity, while art is still seen by many as egotistical self-indulgence.

For me, creativity is a fragile thread, easily broken. No one is asking me to write. It must come from me, and it is a profoundly personal act--in that way, very different to completing a task at work. I was talking to my partner, Alistair, recently about this issue and he said: "Art is like asking a question and being available to receive the answer." I think that's a lovely way of putting it--ideas visit you at strange hours of the day and night and if you are not in a state to receive them (as I find is so often the case as the mother of small children), they can be lost to you forever.

This last paragraph has been written with my daughter tugging on my arm, telling me she's in need of some baked beans on toast. So might just leave those thoughts hanging and maybe anyone who reads this has other ideas on this question...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is it all just a whinge?

Artist Sophie Milne and I have been having a little inter-blog discussion about whether talking about the art and motherhood issue can all too easily amount to having a good ol' whine (yes, that's a whine, not a wine, which would be a far better outcome!). It's something I've thought about a lot in writing this book, because I am aware there'll be plenty of readers (or non-readers) out there who will view this book as a collection of middle-class-women-with-white-goods complaining about their lot in life, when everyone has obstacles and limitations in the way of the things they want to do, and if you want to make art then you'll make art, whatever the context.

I agree with Sophie's comment that if you get a bunch of mothers together, a bit of shared complaining is almost inevitable. And also agree with her suggestion that to a degree this is cathartic; after that it is just unhelpful and only digs us in further.

Certainly, if you read the book, there are those women who are of the opinion that motherhood is no different to a plethora of other barriers that confront people in pursuing a life of art. (I remind myself of these statements daily.) And I didn't set out to say that mothering is necessarily harder than other experiences--but it is particular. The book is an exploration of this angle on being an artist--just one that happens to mean a lot for me and that I feel has significance for the history and nature of art, as well as for individual women.

I admire those women who see things clearly and feel no ambivalence. However, my own experience and those of so many women I speak to (among them the many who have kindly got in touch as a result of reading my book) does seem to be an often painful sense of guilt and 'tearingness', as one put it. I feel almost constantly pulled in opposite directions, and still fear that in struggling to be fully present to either my art or my kids that I end up doing a half-arsed job of everything.

Having said that, though I admit my book does come at the art and motherhood issue as a kind of dilemma, almost all of the women talk about the benefits of mothering to their creative life. I hope readers make it to the conclusion of the book, where I talk about the potency and urgency that comes with mothering, which has proven a real boon to so many of the artists interviewed.

Friday, September 5, 2008

More publicity

Just a reminder--playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, artist Sarah Tomasetti and I will be chatting with Elly Varrenti on Radio National's Life Matters program at 9am on Tuesday 9 September.

Also, another review--a generous write-up from philosopher Damon Young (check out his latest book Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free), who's done a great job of contextualising the book in the September edition of The Big Issue.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A message for anyone who comes across this blog

I have set up this blog because a few readers of my book, The Divided Heart, have suggested that they'd like a way to link up with other readers and share their responses to the book, or just chat about their experience of being both artist and parent.

There are lots of great blogs out there written by creative mothers making links with other women, so another one might not really be needed. But it also does give me a chance to thank all the people (women and men) who have approached me over the past month and talked to me about what the book has meant to them. I didn't know, when I wrote this book, whether it would strike a chord out there, and it is extremely humbling and gratifying to feel that it is actually speaking to lots of readers who are also trying to work out how to keep their creative needs and desires at the forefront of their lives amid the huge (and also very worthwhile) demands of parenting.

So big thanks to all those readers who have approached me to thank me for writing the book, or to tell me about their lives. I hear so many fascinating stories--from those who have chosen to put off making art till their kids grow up; to those who have chosen not to have children for the sake of their careers; to those who are managing to make their whole lives, kids 'n' all, one big creative act.

I was on a Melbourne Writers Festival panel last weekend with my dear friend Clare Bowditch, the exquisite poet Lisa Gorton, and Catherine Deveny, who's a scream. She was really tough about this issue: "Put the writing (or other practice) first" was Catherine's message. And don't micro-manage your bloke--just point to your copy of 'Baby Love', chuck the phonebook at him, and let him work it out for himself. If there's a man (or another woman) on the scene, then you're a team. Don't make yourself the sole expert on what your baby needs.

In writing The Divided Heart, I have learned that mothers have to have extra gumption to say: "This is me; this is what I do", even if it means asking a lot of those around them--and at times feeling that they have to fight for their right to keep making art (often largely against their own temptation to admit defeat). But the ones who are managing to keep creating are the ones who are willing to give themselves permission, even if it means at times feeling overwhelming guilty about time away from their kids, or less money for their family.

There are also great benefits for the artist in becoming a parent; it gives you a big boot up the arse because you have so little time. Nothing better for helping you do away with the genius complex! No more faffing about, waiting for the muse to descend somewhere around the fifth latte--you just make use of every moment you've got, no matter how small.

The message from most of the artists in my book is: If you are conditioned to put the needs of others first, as so many women still are, then circumvent this conditioning and find a way to put your art at the forefront of your life. Carve out time for your practice (even one hour a night or early in the morning) and don't let anything get in the way of that sacred hour. It's too important! Give yourself permission to be an artist and others will just assume that's how it is. And your kids will get to grow up in a house where ideas and creativity thrive, and making and sharing is more important than consuming.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Art & motherhood at MWF

For a discussion on the challenges of being an artist amid the clamour and clutter of family life, join Clare Bowditch, Catherine Deveny, Lisa Gorton and me, at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday at 4pm. For tickets, visit the MWF site here.

Check out Julie Szego's review of my book, The Divided Heart, published in The Age last weekend.

Or Jane Sullivan's column, which includes some devastatingly poignant words from American author Dani Shapiro about how frivolous writing can feel in the light of this very serious and important job of raising children.

And if you haven't had enough of me and/or the subject by then(!?!), playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, artist Sarah Tomasetti and I will be chatting with Elly Varrenti on Radio National's Life Matters program at 9am on Tuesday 9 September.