I have spent the last three mornings working on my novel. It has been amazing! I have written a tricky scene that I've been avoiding and added a fair bit to my word count. Most of all though, I just feel so much more connected to my work, with a stronger sense of the whole novel and the direction it is taking. I was a little lost when I left all three of my children at school on Thursday morning, and wandered off on my own. I walked for a while and let this new emotion sink in. I'm a bit nervous and very excited. This is just a tiny glimpse of the future, but it's the beginning of something new for me...
Towards the end of the holiday, we went to have morning tea with a friend, who happened to mention that she'd just given her 14 year-old daughter a copy of J.D. Salinger's TheCatcher in the Rye. This is one of the few books that I have read for pleasure (rather than study) more than once. I know someone who has read Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin six or more times, and another person who rereads The Lord of the Rings Trilogy every year. My daughter is currently obsessively rereading Harry Potter, dipping in and out of the books, making connections, and folding the corner of almost every page because she likes its contents. But I'm a greedy reader and an out-of-control book buyer, so I've never been much of a re-reader, unless of course, I've needed to write an essay on a particular book. Anyway, this snippet of conversation with my friend and her daughter made me think about the books I read as a teenager and the ones that were really important to me. Those that stand out also happen to be books that I've read two or even three times. Here they are:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
It has the most amazing voice that draws you in from the very moment you start reading, and it displays so brilliantly that awakening to the double-standards and general ridiculousness of the world, which you experience as you move from childhood to adulthood. While I really liked this book, it led me to read For Esme with Love and Squalor and Franny and Zooey, which I loved even more.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably
want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like,
and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all
that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into
it, if you want to know the truth.”
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This book blew me away. I read it for the first time on Christmas day, when I was about 17. My grandma had just died and we were at her house and I was miserable. Plath's novel articulated so well the anxiety I was experiencing about my future and the pressure to make decisions. I will never forget this powerful image:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the
green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat
purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a
husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet
and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee,
the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South
America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a
pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and
another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above
these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself
sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I
couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted
each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest,
and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go
black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
I was obsessed with fashion magazines as a teenager and I had a very unhealthy sense of self-worth related to my body image. My mum gave me this book and it was a revelation. It changed the way I viewed the world. No kidding.
“The beauty myth of the present is more insidious than any mystique of
femininity yet: A century ago, Nora slammed the door of the doll's
house; a generation ago, women turned their backs on the consumer heaven
of the isolated multiapplianced home; but where women are trapped
today, there is no door to slam. The contemporary ravages of the beauty
backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us
psychologically. If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that
has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or
lobbyists or placards that women will need first; it is a new way to
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
What can I say? I am a hopeless romantic and I love all the frustrated passion and the elemental imagery. I think reading this novel sparked my obsession with old houses and tragic love affairs and the connection to landscape and belonging. All these things feature in the novel I'm currently writing. For a teenager, feeling everything in such a heightened state, this dramatic tale transcended the petty squabbles and concerns of my day-to-day reality, and spoke of more universal themes.
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will
change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for
Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little
visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He's always,
always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a
pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
I also read a lot of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Jilly Cooper (oh yes!) - to be honest, I just read anything I could get my hands on - but these are the books that left far more than a fleeting impression. I wonder what I would make of them, if I read them now, for the very first time...
Something happened to me in the few weeks between my 35th birthday and my youngest son turning three; something I doubted would ever happen again. I started seeing pregnant women and feeling envious of their beautiful bumps. Tears welled up in my eyes when I happened upon images of newborns and their mothers, enjoying those sensuous, emotionally intense early days. Then in the space of a week, two people asked me if I was pregnant (I love that Dangerfield dress, but it clearly does not love me...) and a friend pointed out that she was my age when she had her first child. I had thought my baby-growing days were well and truly over, and suddenly there was this tiny spark of an idea that maybe I could actually have another...
The urge to have a baby is consuming; it is a seriously powerful force. Why else would women endure years and years of fertility treatment? Why do people risk so much to have a baby? And in my case, why would a woman with three children and no time to do the thing she loves, even consider another? But, as my husband, sagely pointed out, baby-making isn't rational. There are far greater forces at work.
I've talked my way through it, forcing myself to recall all the different stages of those first couple of years - the aspects I love and the difficulties of juggling the needs of multiple children and their varying, age-dependent needs. It's tough and I have felt woefully inadequate at times. Lately, it has become a little easier, although there are still plenty of moments of total craziness. As much as I would love one more chance to experience it, and relish meeting another fascinating little character, it would put huge pressure on everyone, it would be an extremely hard slog, and it would be many more years before I could devote any substantial time to writing or working or whatever it is I intend to do next. Mostly, I have realised that, right now, I'm standing on the precipice. My youngest is about to start 3-year Kindy and embark on his school journey. By his age, both his sister and brother had a younger sibling. As a family, we are moving into fresh territory. Having another baby would be moving back into familiar terrain. It would be safe because it is known, but what lies ahead, is uncharted and therefore both exciting and a little terrifying! I don't know how things will pan out for me - what my life will become when my children are all at school - but I think it's time I moved forward.
So please, please don't ruin my day by asking me if I'm pregnant. If I change my mind, I'll let you know...
Shortly after I gave birth to my daughter, 7 years ago now, I went to buy a book that everyone kept talking about. It was called Baby Love by Robin Barker and it seemed to be the thing to have. Sure enough, it's been very useful over the years, and it was only recently that I handed on my much thumbed copy. It was, however, the other book purchased that day, which has been far more influential on my experience of motherhood. Also in the Baby section, it's black cover and unusual title intrigued me. When I read the blurb, I felt as if someone had written a book just for me and my situation. I was a little giddy with anticipation and immediately possessive of the book. I had been feeling all alone - in the way that first time mothers so often do - but here was evidence that others were experiencing the same conflicting emotions. I bought the book, took it home and devoured it. I have read it several times since, dipping in and out, rediscovering particularly relevant parts and, as my experiences have evolved, shifting my focus onto other aspects of the book. The book is The Divided Heart by Rachel Powers, and I think it would be fair to say that it has a cult following among creative mums.
Back when I first discovered it, I was barely 28 and living in Darwin, far away from my friends and family. A year before, I had been living in central London and working for a big publishing company. I felt isolated and vulnerable in a way I had never previously done. To be honest, I think I'd imagined having a baby would mean plenty of time to write and read. I'd pictured myself, floating about the house, cooking and making things and reading and writing, and occasionally picking up the baby for a cuddle. I was pretty clueless about babies and the reality of motherhood - I have always been hugely idealistic. I loved being a mum - it was and remains, the most amazing thing that I have ever done - but there was this other part of me, which I had been neglecting, and I knew that it was a very bad idea to do so. When I was growing up, my mum would sometimes say to me: "you're not doing anything creative and it worries me". I always thought this was quite funny, but now I realise that she could see something about me that I could not: that creativity was very important to my well-being and to my sense of identity.
Rachel's book gave me hope - it made me feel connected to other women who were trying to be artists and mothers, and it also gave me some practical ideas and clues as to how this was possible. Most of all it offered me an insight into how a creative life and a family life might look. I have given my copy to so many friends with the words: "you must read this, seriously." Copies are scarce and it has been out of print for a while, but this month a second edition is being published, under the slightly altered name of Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart. It features conversations with some of Australia's most
prominent writers, artists and musicians about how they combine the twin
passions of art and motherhood. If you are a creative parent or a creative person that one day plans to be a parent, or just someone who is interested in how other people live, I urge you to read it!