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May 5, 2015

Motherhood and Creativity: In Conversation with Rachel Power

motherhood and creativityEverything is a circle. I first learned about Rachel Power’s work through serendipity and (what else?) blogging and talking about books. In 2008, the Australian writer  and artist left a comment on my blog about the ambiguous ending to Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife, and I discovered her blog and her book, The Divided Heart

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child and so still very much on the periphery of “the motherhood conversations” of which I’d be privy to in the months to come. And so The Divided Heart was my first hint of these, where I first read about maternal ambivalence, the struggle (emotional and practical) for mothers to assert their creative selves, and the myriad ways women find to make it work. It was a hugely important book for me. I read it before I read Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work

And because everything is a circle, The Divided Heart is now back in print as Motherhood and Creativity: The Divided Heart, and where Power left a comment on an interview I’d done seven years ago, I’m now interviewing her—about the book, how it’s changed in its new edition, the ways in which the motherhood conversation has changed since 2008, and how motherhood can connect us to our creative selves and to the world.  

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Kerry: The Divided Heart was one of my foundational texts on motherhood and mothering—I read it while I was pregnant in 2008. Which seems like a lifetime ago now, but I am so pleased that it has found new life as Creativity and Motherhood. The book played a huge role in my own experience of my heart actually not being so divided when it came to motherhood and creativity—you showed examples of how women combine the two, even when the balance is tricky. These women showed me what was possible. So I really like the new title—but how did the title change come about?

Rachel Power: Thank you for those generous comments about the book. It’s very flattering that someone as well-read as you would consider my book any kind of “foundational text”! I know your book has become the same for so many women out there.

dividedheartWith this new edition, called Motherhood & Creativity, the publishers had some radical changes in mind for the title, which I have to admit I largely resisted. I actually pushed pretty hard to keep “The Divided Heart” in there (it became the subtitle), because I still believe it represents the central drama of the experience for many if not most creative people with children: the desire to be in two places at once; the fear that being properly dedicated to one role inevitably risks neglecting the other. For me, those words introduce the initial question the book is trying to address. But as you say, that doesn’t mean it is full of women who are bogged down by those feelings; rather, it’s full of examples of artists who’ve found ways to forge ahead despite, and sometimes because of, those dilemmas.

As for using the word “creativity” instead of “art” (the original subtitle was “Art and Motherhood”), this felt like a necessary recognition that creativity is an important part of many people’s lives, expressed in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they all identify as “capital-A” artists. That’s why I really wanted craft-maker and blogger Pip Lincolne in this new edition: she has such a strong creative drive—and such a creative approach to life!—but I don’t think she would identify as an artist, as such. I knew that many readers would relate to that.

Kerry: It’s a very different book for me now—not just in title. I’m much more experienced in both motherhood and being creative than I was in 2008, and I relate to different parts of the conversations. How has the book changed for you? Was revisiting it a welcome experience?

Rachel: Like you, of course, I’m much further along in my parenting (my kids are 13 and 10 years old now!), but the issues remain very current to me, so I found it easy to slip back into the mothering and art conversation for the new edition. The demands are different, but just as intense, I find. With my son starting high school this year, I feel like I’m going back to school myself—my weekends have been almost completely hijacked by helping him with his homework!

But one of the main realizations for me, as someone who works full time, is that holding down a day job has been a much greater barrier to creativity than mothering. In the first edition, writer Anna Maria Dell’Oso said that when she was at home with small children she felt much closer to “the centre of her integrity” than when she was at the office, and I totally relate to that now. Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.

“Finding time for art is a big challenge when your kids are small, but the upside is that in some fundamental way, we are already in a very creative space as parents, even though it’s hard to recognize that at the time.”

Kerry: What about the book’s actual changes? What else is different in this new edition?

Rachel: The new edition contains around half of the interviews from the former book and the same number again of new interviews. Much like the first time around, I approached women I admire, and was lucky enough to interview one of Australia’s best-loved actors Claudia Karvan; visual artists Del Kathryn Barton and Lily Mae Martin; writers Cate Kennedy, Tara June Winch and Lisa Gorton; musicians Holly Throsby and Deline Briscoe; and craft maker and blogger Pip Lincolne.

The other coup this time around was adding a preface from musician Clare Bowditch, who as an old friend and neighbour of mine, not only witnessed the genesis of this book, but also shared in the early years of child-rearing with me. So apart from my own family, there is really no-one closer to this book than Clare, and her preface is affirming and moving and humbling all at once. I’m very grateful for it.

My introduction and conclusions in the first issue are heavily truncated into one opening chapter in the new book. I had done a lot of research before writing the first edition and basically presented my poor editor with a 140,000-word thesis! This was cut back heavily, obviously, but the new publishers felt that it was still a bit too academic in style. So the new intro is a bit less wordy and hopefully more accessible as a result.

Kerry: How did the new edition come to be? What were the signs that the demand for it was out there?

Rachel: The Divided Heart went out of print a while ago, and it was really upsetting me that people couldn’t get their hands on a copy. I was still getting lots of letters and emails from potential readers asking where they could find books, but I only had one copy myself! So it was very exciting to find a new publisher in Affirm Press. Initially, it was just going to be a shortened version of the original. But as we went forward, editor Aviva Tuffield and I decided that it would be good to create a different book, to bring it up to date, and so there was new value for those who already had the original edition.

Kerry: Are you finding the reception different this time around? My sense is that we’re living in a slightly different climate now in regards to talking about motherhood—there is more space for nuance. Though this might be because I’m now in that climate instead of looking on. What do you think?

Rachel: That’s an interesting observation! I think there is definitely more space for nuance in the feminist debate generally, and that we have largely moved on from the dispiriting “mummy-wars” that were dominating the conversation around the time I first published The Divided Heart. Motherhood has definitely taken centre-stage in a way it hadn’t when I had my first child, and so there seems to be less division between the different parts of people’s lives nowadays—and between those who have kids and those who don’t—which can only be a good shift for society, I think. That said, most of the criticisms I’m receiving this time around are the same as last time: chiefly, that this is a bunch of middle-class women indulging their hobbies and complaining about their kids (which is such a tedious misrepresentation of the actual stories it contains).

From the outset, part of what interested me in the subject of artist-mothers was that I saw the unique contribution it could make to the feminist debate, precisely because it is a nuanced issue—both in terms of work/economics and of family/housework. Writer Alice Robinson summed it up beautifully in her recent piece for Overland journal, when she said that “as a stay-at-home parent by day, a writer by night, I am doing what untold numbers of people in each camp, and all those in both, are doing: two challenging but largely unpaid jobs. … each undervalued in the remunerative sense, but fundamental in the cultural.”

“To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations.”

To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. To also be an artist, it seems to me, is to be dealing with the extreme end of those negotiations, because of the self-driven nature of art and the lack of guaranteed compensation. At a personal level, asserting your need to create; to carve out the time and space that art demands; to feel confident in the validity of what you have to say–requires a special kind of drive and determination for anyone. Doubly so for mothers, whose own interests and desires are expected to be sublimated to the needs of others.

So, in my mind, endeavouring to be both artist and mother raises some of the biggest questions about how we choose to live and view the world: self versus society, partnering versus independence, feminism versus masculine, sacrifice versus self-interest, creativity versus economics… In this way, I think the experience of artist-mothers can speak to the feminist debate at a particularly subtle and sensitive level.

on-immunityKerry: Motherhood is so incredibly interesting, the ideas around it far-reaching and important. I’m thinking about the book On Immunity by Eula Biss, a vast and important sociological text, and in her acknowledgements, she thanks the mothers in her community who made her realize “how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are…”

 I didn’t really understand this when I first read your book, when I first became a mother—the ramifications of the ideas you’re talking about, we’re all talking about. (I certainly had no idea that motherhood would be so interesting that I’d end up editing an anthology about it too years later….)

Another interesting thing is that it’s ever in flux. What are the questions and ideas around motherhood that are preoccupying you these days?

Rachel: As you say, mothers are raising the next generation, so their actions and decisions are far-reaching and important indeed! Mothers have a unique stake in the future, and that’s why they are spearheading so many campaigns and movements around the world. In Motherhood & Creativity, writer Tara June Winch, who herself set up onethousand.org (a charity to promote female empowerment), says, “I’ll argue that most NGOs, globally are run by mothers in one way or another.”

m-word-coverMotherhood is a galvanising force—and one of the best things about writing The Divided Heart was that it connected me to an incredible community of mothers, who think very deeply about the way they parent but also about the world that they have brought their children into. Fathers are there too, of course. But among the families I know, while fathers are very much involved, it’s largely mothers who are still doing much of the logistical work as well as the theoretical thinking behind the parenting—and most of the worrying, sadly!

Personally I have always found mothering hugely confronting; the role presses me to be a stronger, braver, more industrious person than I feel capable of being most days. And we are raising kids in unusually complex times. I’m very conscious of wanting to raise children who feel empowered in a culture that is: 1) largely driven by a consumer-capitalist ethos; and 2) facing potential catastrophe as a result. The big question for me is: how do we raise kids who are critical and creative thinkers, who will make ethical decisions, and who will treat the environment, themselves and other people with respect, when right now all they want is a PlayStation 4 for Christmas?!

I think creativity can play a big role in all of this. I love Pip Lincolne’s comment in the book: “There’s a forgiving, nurturing quality about handmade that should be applied to life. Not everything is perfect, but it was made with good intentions and there were so many little, meaningful decisions along the way. I think that mindful approach is such a good thing and an ace ethos for a family.”

Could there be a better approach to bringing up kids? I reckon Pip has it pretty sorted!

April 28, 2015

The M Word: It’s funny!

BC-Logo_SquareThe M Word is a heavy book, but there are certain moments of levity throughout that continue to delight me. Heather Birrell and “get off my tits;” Diana Fitzgerald Bryden chasing a runaway dog into the Don Valley, an infant tied to her chest; when Kerry Ryan gets test results back that say she’s as fertile as a 70-year-old woman—because her results have been mixed up with those of a 70-year-old woman; Priscila Uppal hiding in the kitchen at baby showers; Carrie Snyder’s childhood family packed into a VW for a tour through Europe; Julie Booker kicking garbage cans; Maria Meindl’s amazing firstborn, the grotesque doll christened “Junior”.

And so it doesn’t feel that incongruous to me that The M Word has been included on Brain Child Magazine‘s Top 10 Humour Books about Parenting, alongside Erma Bombeck, Anne Lamott, and the Honest Toddler. In particular, Hilary Levey Friedman cites Ariel Gordon’s “Primipara” as the essay that made her laugh out loud and stayed with her afterwards—especially the part where Gordon notes that if she’d had twins, she would have eaten one or sent it back.

Even better: Ariel’s poem, “Primapara” (which appears in the essay of the same name) is from her collection, Stowaways, which was winner of the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry / Prix Lansdowne de Poesie at the Manitoba Book Awards last week!

April 9, 2015

Motherhood Milestones

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The M Word was published nearly a year ago, and Mother’s Day is just about a month away. To mark both these milestones, I’ve made a list of Canadian non-fiction books that have been expanding the conversation about motherhood along with The M Word.

February 25, 2015

The M Word reviewed in Literary Mama

lmlogo-500The M Word was reviewed by Monica Frantz in the latest issue of Literary Mama:

The M Word was an encouragement to me as I celebrated the first anniversary of becoming a mother. I was catching my breath after falling in love and falling pregnant in the span of six months, moving to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., from Manhattan, and surviving one year as a stay-at-home mom with an Ivy League master’s degree. My baby girl was one year old, and my world had shrunk and expanded many times over since that Sunday morning 20 months prior when I saw two lines on the pregnancy test and my boyfriend went out for bagels and decaf coffee to celebrate.

I was beaming at her first birthday party—proud of my girl and myself and thankful for everything our family had—but I also knew that I had lost a lot when I became a mother and that I had gained a new set of fears and anxieties. Reading The M Word gave me—sleep-deprived and desperate for adult conversation—the prompting and inspiration to do some reflecting on what motherhood meant to me. The text was engaging and, in some ways, challenging to my own tendency to seek safety among like-minded mothers.

As I finished reading it, a close friend found out that she was pregnant for the first time. As we celebrated her pregnancy, I hesitated to pass the collection along to her. Superstitious and hoping to protect her, I worried about giving her essays on loss and trauma and regret. But women deserve to hear a conversation about motherhood that is as beautiful and scary and messy and complex as motherhood itself. When her experience of motherhood strays from the accepted stereotype, if it hasn’t already, she’ll know that she is not alone.”

Read the entire article here.

February 17, 2015

The M Word in Understorey Magazine

cropped-understorey_750pxI was so pleased to have the chance to talk about The M Word in Understorey Magazine, the wonderful magazine from Nova Scotia about mothering. Editor-in-Chief Katherine J. Barrett asked me so great questions about the book and how it came to be and the impact it’s had, as well as the tricky balance of being a mother and an artist. I’m really glad to have the chance to further spread the work about the book, which Barrett calls “unique and riveting.” You can read the interview here.

And I also recommend you reading Barrett’s editorial from the Fall 2014 issue, “Time to Grow Up, Mommy Lit.” An excellent call to arms.

February 8, 2015

More of The M Word in the world

babiesI’m very pleased that Michele Landsberg’s essay from The M Word on grandmothering is excerpted on the February issue of Readers’ Digest, on sale now. The illustrations are lovely. And you can read it here online:

”No, I can only think that love is its own reward. To own the privilege of having these young creatures in my life, to accompany them as they make staggering daily discoveries, to have an excuse to share the childish happiness of Halloween or autumn leaf piles or a sandy beach. Each of them doubles and triples the amount of life in my life.”

December 29, 2014

End the year with The M Word

themwordI am beginning to return to these parts after a wonderful week offline, and am turning up now with some nice news about The M Word, which I was excited to see facing out on the shelf today when I visited Bloor West Village Book City for the very first time. In the sociology section, no less.

I was also pleased to see it included on a list of books published by the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies’ instructors during 2014. It’s good company to be keeping.

Teri Vlassopoulos included The M Word on her 2014 books round-up. She writes, “the beauty of The M Word is that it’s about all different facets, from choosing to be a mother or choosing not to, having children or not having them, the difficulties and joys of being a mother or not being one.”

And the book is in fantastic company (with David Sedaris’ mother, and Jenny Offill’s book) on a list of things that made the wonderful Liz Windhorst Harmer panic less as a parent in 2014. Harmer writes, “Clare gets that it is more important for parents to hear stories than be given advice.”

I was happy to read that Rebecca Cuneo Keenan calls the book “a best book bet on motherhood” at her blog, Playground Confidential. She writes, “The M Word holds motherhood up and then turns it this way and that, exploring it from all different angles. The act of becoming a mother is one of the most identity-shaking experiences for most women. It is rivaled only by the decision to not become a mother. And Clare sets it all out for us here, giving voice to motherhood (or the lack thereof) in many of its myriad forms.”

And The M Word is in the very best company on a list of Books of the Year at the Canadian Notes & Queries blog, selected by Carmine Starnino. I was also asked to contribute to this list—which made it surprising to see my own book there—and naturally, I picked Ellen in Pieces. I’m so looking forward to rereading it for my book club in January.

December 1, 2014

My Favourite Things About The M Word in the world

the-m-word-coverA year ago, contemplating the year-to-come, the main event was going to be the launch of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, the book of which I was editor and contributor. I was excited, terrified, and disbelieving, and the whole experience turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s been eight months now, and to mark The M Word‘s time in the world, I’ve made a list of all my favourite things about the book’s reception by a rather generous universe.

1) It was a best-seller. In Winnipeg, which is the best place to be best-sold, the book sharing a list with Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, among others.

2) When reviewer Deborah Ostrovsky placed the book inside a “strong Canadian tradition of public discourse on motherhood, from the late journalist June Callwood’s interviews with unwed teenaged mothers to Marni Jackson’s memoirs, and anthologies like Double Lives and Between Interruptions.”

3) That the book inspired women to tell stories they’d never told before.

4) That my essay about abortion and motherhood came out in the same year as One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories, Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and Kaleigh Trace’s story in Hot, Wet and Shaking. Women are more empowered to speak out about the reality of their lives than we’ve ever been. It’s good company.

5) Rachel Harry’s review in The National Post, that left me sobbing at my kitchen table on a sunny April afternoon. I hadn’t had such a visceral reaction to anything else, except the birth of my children. Seriously.

iris6) All the other writers, reviewers and/or bloggers who wrote about it too. I’m so grateful for your consideration and thoughtful responses. For the attention by radio and newspaper journalists too.

7) The time my friend came across the book sitting on a table in her mother-in-law’s house. And the time someone else saw somebody reading it on the subway.

8) The baby head cookies.

8.1) Bunting!

9) The amazing indie bookstores that hosted our events—Ben McNally’s in Toronto (and oh, that launch was a dream come true), A Novel Idea in Kingston, Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Shelf Life Books in Calgary, Russell Books in Victoria, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, and Parent Books in Toronto. Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge too! These stores are essential for authors who want to get their books into readers’ hands. I’m grateful also to Chapters Indigo, who did a great job having copies of the book prominently displayed. (Goose Lane’s sales reps too deserve a lot of the credit for this too. One benefit of working with an excellent publisher.)

10) And finally, my tenth favourite thing about The M Word in the universe is that it would make a find Christmas gift for somebody in your life—anybody who ever had a mother, is a mother, runs away shrieking at the thought of mothers (or their children, at least). Each of these people will find a bit of their own experience in some of these stories, and will be amused, heartened and/or challenged by some of the others. I’m proud of this book, and so grateful for generosity of all those people who were a part of it—which probably means you!

October 24, 2014

The M Word reviewed in Herizons

herizons-fall-2014“[Motherhood is] like living in an amusement park—on the edge of a minefield.” –Deborah Ostrovsky

In the Fall 2014 issue of Herizons, Deborah Ostrovsky offers a thoughtful and generous review of The M Word, as well as the single best description of motherhood I have ever encountered. In her review, she connects The M Word to “a strong Canadian tradition of public discourse on motherhood”, including legendary work by June Callwood and Marni Jackson, and the monumental motherhood anthologies, Double Lives and Between Interruptions.

She writes, “You won’t keep this book; you’ll pass it on to friends whose current vocation is to changing diapers, or to friends who want a child, or those who don’t. The M Word is vast in scope, featuring beautiful conversations I can finally share.”

(Update Oct. 27: Another nice review has appeared, this time in The Coastal Spectator, the reviewer calling the book’s ideas “diverse and challenging.” You can read it here.)

September 28, 2014

New Books by The M Word Authors

m-word-coverIn many ways, it seems impossible to believe that the wondrous reception of The M Word last spring could have ever happened. I still can’t fathom the generosity of both the readers and the writers involved with this project, and I’m so proud of the book itself and the further conversations it has generated since it was published. But a particularly cool experience for me has been seeing elements of the essays at play in their writers’ latest works. If you enjoyed The M Word, I urge you to check out these new books by four writers from the anthology.

status-updateStatus Update, by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang:

The “book of secrets” referred to in Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s essay, “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” was actually this book, Tsiang’s latest book of poetry, which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award in the spring. It’s a collection of poetry inspired by Facebook status updates, which is only the beginning of what is interesting about this funny, beautiful book and I loved so much when I read it in June.

 

 

between-gods

Between Gods, by Alison Pick:

I’ve not read Between Gods yet—I am hoping to stop by the launch this week and pick up a copy there. But the book has been receiving goods reviews and was a bestseller the week it was released. And I know that Pick’s essay from The M Word, “Robin”, appears in a reworked form in the memoir. I am looking forward to find out how it fits into a larger context.

 

 

girl-runnerGirl Runner, by Carrie Snyder:

The connections between Snyder’s essay in The M Word, “How to Fall”, and her new novel, Girl Runner, are more oblique, but when I read the book, I couldn’t help but notice Aganetha Smart’s insistence on never falling (which is pretty much gravitationally impossible) in the novel. Girl Runner has been receiving great reviews, and will be published in countries all over the world in 2015.

 

 

stowawaysStowaways, by Ariel Gordon:

Gordon’s essay in The M Word, “Primapara”, contains a poem called “Primapara”, which appears also in her new collection, Stowaways. This would be the poem with the immortal line, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.” The entire collection is just as mordant and intriguing, the familiar rendered from a whole new point of view.

 

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