23 January 2009

Who Does She Think She Is?

The link to the movie site Who Does She Think She Is? has been floating around the interwebs for some time now. I first came across it in the fall, discovering the link at my friend Kate's blog Sweet|Salty. It was the weekend and Kevin had taken the boys on an outing so that I could finish a grant proposal. I had completed a section and decided to reward myself by checking some friends' blogs. I usually don't click on sidebar links, but this one spoke to me for some reason. About halfway through the trailer to this documentary on mothers and creativity, I burst into tears. It struck a chord, deep and tender.

I quickly returned to my grant (which, by the way, I did receive--yay for me!), but I would regularly return to the site to watch the trailer. I'm not sure why. To be inspired? As a reminder? To give thanks? To put things in perspective? I really don't know. But I returned to it today, and knew that I'd like to share it with you.

I hope I get to watch this movie. I've put my name on the list for a home screening. If that opportunity does happen, I'll invite you over. You bring the root beer and I'll make the popcorn. Deal?

18 January 2009

Interview: Shawna Lemay

Your back of the book bio:

Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry: All the God-Sized Fruit(McGill-Queen’s University Press), Against Paradise (McClelland & Stewart), Still (self-published), Blue Feast (NeWest Press), and the forthcoming The Red Velvet Forest (The Muses’ Company). She has also published a collection of essays about living with still life, Calm Things (Palimpsest Press). She has a B.A. in Honors English and and M.A. in English from the University of Alberta. All the God-Sized Fruit won both the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephannson Award. She two blogs: Capacious Hold-All and Calm Things. She lives in Edmonton with Robert Lemay, a visual artist, and their daughter Chloe.

Your playground bio:

There are a couple different levels. At first, I usually reveal that I’m the mom of Chloe, 10 years old, that she’s an only child. And that Chloe has a dog, a big black lab named Ace.

If the conversation proceeds it usually goes like this:

Do you work? Well, I write. Interesting, what do you write? Mostly poetry. Oh. Silence. But I’ve recently published a book of essays about what it’s like to live with still life – my husband is an artist. It must be easier to sell a book of essays than poetry? No, well, ummm, sadly, not really. But are you writing a novel next? I’m writing a book of experimental prose right now. And you can sell that? Probably not. Blank stare. Perplexed look. Bright smile. You must really love what you do, it’s all a labour of love for you. Indeed.

Do you identify yourself as first a writer and then a mother, the other way around, or something else? Why do you think this is?

I fly back and forth between mother and writer, never quite settling down on either branch. Within each I wait for the other self. Helene Cixous talks about the double birth, how mothers are also born out of the birth of a child. I was working with an editor on my first book when Chloe arrived a week early. My departure into writing, calling myself writer, the deep calling when I knew there was no turning back, arrived alongside this birthing, alongside waiting, early, unexpected, and somehow also late, also perfectly on time. Cixous says, “The first gesture that linked us was to have cut the umbilical cord. Each one for herself: you can go, I’ll wait for you. I’m not waiting for you: you can come. I’m not (like) you. You’re not like me, I don’t mistake you for me. I don’t think I know you. Leave, my love, you who’s just left (me).” I was expecting a blonde haired babe, fair skinned. She arrived, a black shock of hair, red skin, dark. I recognized that I didn’t recognize her, that I loved not knowing her, that she was not like me, that she would always be leaving me, that I would always wait for her, that we were separate and that I could never separate myself from her. From Cixous again, “Faithfully from the first minute I haven’t ceased not understanding you with amazement.” I want this, too, in my writing, this faithfulness to what I don’t understand with amazement.

Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?

Always a writer, yes. Though I had no idea how one could do this and be a mother as well. That was a constant question for me, until I came across the essay by Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own” in Everyday Use. I long ago loaned the book out to someone who maybe also loaned it out, so I haven’t read it since. Rebecca Walker, Alice Walker’s daughter, wrote a book called Baby Love that talks, in part, about being that only child, and I sometimes wonder how my daughter will see her childhood when she’s an adult. Will she know how beautiful the world is, will she feel that her childhood was art, a dream, was it profound and lovely, did it have a deep within, a wild and tangled magnificent and mysterious depth?

I don’t think I ever bought into any motherhood fantasy – in fact, I imagined it would be all-consuming, that it would be incredibly difficult and complicated, that I could lose myself in it, find myself. But just as I couldn’t really imagine exactly how complicated it would be, neither did I quite understand the pleasures, the joys, the realm of motherlove.

What are your measurements of success as a mother? As a writer? Have these evolved and, if so, can you talk about in what way and why do you think this is?

I’ve realized slowly that perhaps it’s best to have this goal, to be kinder, to be a better person, to “go forward with curiosity.” (Pema Chodron). Rilke says, “Parents should never want to teach us life; for they teach us their life.” I don’t want her to be me. I want to guide her toward her own life. Since becoming a mother I have learned that the relationship constantly evolves, that I constantly evolve as a mother, as a person, that my not-understanding grows. This is my method – to go forward with curiosity, to live, and to write from this place, honestly, failingly, erringly, attentively. There is a line from Annie Dillard’s book For The Time Being that has stuck with me since reading it: “At all times use whatever means expedient to preserve the power of concentration, as if you were taking care of a baby.” This also is a way to write, to live.

What a constant evolution this is! To balance it all, to concentrate, to be kind, to be curious, and also to take heart, banishing fear and frustration and pettiness. I become better at one thing, only to let something else slip away. I worry less about success all the time though, and try to concentrate on going forward with curiosity, and to guide her to do the same.

What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?

This too has been a steady evolution, though it still involves fitting my writing into Chloe’s schedule. Because my partner is also an artist, he has always understood that he had a role to play in this as well. Before she went to school he would take her out visiting various grandparents once a week so I could be alone in the house for an extended period. And even now we trade nights – so that I’m in my office twice a week in the evenings for a couple of hours and he’s in his studio twice a week. This is our plan, though very often things don’t go according to plan. We are constantly jigging and fiddling and coddling and massaging the schedule. If Rob has a deadline he’ll work more in the evening and sometimes I’ll take extra time. Sometimes we’re just too tired to work at night, exhaustion overtakes us and we relinquish our unseized selves to the faithful extravagance of dreams.

Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What you write? If so, in what ways?

Profoundly in so many ways, but most apparently in the subject matter. Blue Feast contains many poems about motherhood, and then the book that flowed directly out of that one, Red Velvet Forest (forthcoming) is in many ways about looking at childhood, those child dreams we harbour, that we live for a while and that surge up in us throughout our life. Rilke, again, “To have a childhood means to live a thousand lives before the one.” In RVF I concentrated on the phrase taken from Amichai – whoever remembers childhood best, wins. In becoming a mother, I found that I was drawn back into those thousand childhood lives in all sorts of different ways, that I knew my own mother differently, that I knew myself as a child differently, and I had the thought that in remembering my own childhood I could better not-understand my own child, embrace her amazement, engagement with the world, all its joys and sorrows.

When we talked about this a bit in person, you had mentioned that you are moving away from writing poetry now that you have more time to write because your daughter is older. Could you talk about that a little?

For a very long time, I've had it in my mind to write a poetic novella about an art forger, though I'm no longer sure exactly what this means - 'poetic novella.' I've attempted it and abandoned it several times over the years. I've found the proper cadence at last, and somehow, the way in. Or so I think. Perhaps this attempt will also be abandoned. Part of the reason I'm able to work on this now (with whatever degree of success) is that I have the time to sit at my computer for hours on end. I also write in notebooks, but far more time is spent staring at the screen, pounding on the keyboard. When I wrote poetry most of the work was done in notebooks. I only sat at the computer for the last drafts. I'd write in a notebook and then scrawl on the paper for a week or more, adding, scratching out before ever heading to the computer. I'd walk in and out of the room, between those interruptions, I'd take my notebook to the kitchen. I could carry the poem around in my head, travel with it, take it in the car, to the grocery store. So this is part of it. But maybe another reason I'm able to see my way into a longer piece now is that I have more experience, have read more, and have become fearless at intervals, unselfconscious, strangely confident - at least when it comes to writing this particular odd and quirky piece.

How aware is your child of your writing?

She’s very aware. I know she’s pleased that I occupy myself in this way, but she’s not otherwise interested. Asked whether she would like to come to my recent book launch she said, I hope you won’t be offended, but I think I’d find it boring. And you know, I wasn’t at all offended. She’s also glad that I’m sequestered in my office a couple of nights a week so that she can construct strange sculptures out of cardboard, toothpicks, plasticene or sometimes sticky notes with her dad.

There's nothing better than a sleeping kid (and her dog). This is when I've always gotten a lot of writing done - when she's asleep!

Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…." She never had children. Is a room to yourself enough for a writing-mama? What do you need?

It’s still the money and the room, isn’t it? And knowing that those I love are content and well when I’ve barricaded myself in here. I’ve also found it useful to have someone that will stand guard over my solitude. Once more, from Rilke: “I consider the following to be the highest task in the relation between two people: for one to stand guard over the other’s solitude.”

If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-child self?

I wouldn’t say a thing. Maybe I’d give a wink and a nod.

What do you think your pre-child self would tell you?

I think I still have conversations with her some days. We’re on good terms.

In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?

I used to feel both guilt and envy to various degrees, but seldom now. I’ve worked hard not to feel envy, in particular. It’s much easier to not feel envy though when your kid is ten. There’s no longer that constant comparison that seems inevitable with little ones. I can’t say that I don’t succumb to mother guilt from time to time, or writer-envy, but when I do, I get out No Time to Lose by Pema Chodron, and she sorts it all out for me.

The early years of motherhood have been described by various writers as a haze or as an incredibly creative time. How would you describe it? Are you still in it? When did you leave?

I think it was both a haze and an incredibly creative time. I am now on the outside edges of the haze. It’s funny really how there’s so much you can’t remember. Looking back it seems my emotions were incredibly heightened, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have thought they were all that intense at the time. I am always leaving, still in it, haze-intimate, haze-forgetful, it abandons me, I call it back, I dream haze and banish it, leave into awake. I take care of the haze as if it were a baby, lavish my concentration on it, hide it in my desk drawer.

Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?

Both are true.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munroe writing while her children played at her feet, the writer who resented and neglected her children because she was so consumed with her art, or someone like Sylvia Plath who ended up with her head in the oven. Which writing-mothers do you admire and why?

I needed very desperately to know that there were mother writers and mother artists. I collected names, made lists. I needed to know that it had been done, how it had been done, who had managed, however imperfectly, amid the interruptions, and also, who had not managed so well and why. Equally important were those women who chose not to become mothers.

Some of the list, ongoing: Margaret Atwood,Kristjana Gunnars, Margaret Laurence, Helene Cixious, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker, Eavan Boland, Kathe Kollwitz, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Smart, Linda Spalding, Alice Munro, Carol Shields.

What I was looking for was the possibility. After that it’s a matter of setting out on your own path. Each child is so different, the experience of motherhood so diverse, there are so many unique configurations. Maybe this is what I needed to know too. That my experience was not going to precisely mirror anyone else’s, that it would be an experiment of sorts - an experiment of give and take, trial and error. That I would have to constantly balance things, work that balance out on my own, concentrate, embrace, enter the path into the fragrant and bejewelled forest of motherhood alone, not-alone.

11 January 2009

How She Did It: Carol Shields

When I asked Carol Shields how she managed to write her early books with five young children at home, she said that she wrote for one hour a day, between eleven and noon. She remarked on the necessity of clearing that little patch in the midst of 'domestic order/disorder' so that work can be done. She wrote, 'I suppose this is why I love the tidy intricacy of desk drawers, little sections for stamps and paper clips and envelopes and my thesaurus and dictionary handy on their stand. It makes it feel like real work, legitimately taken on.' There is a measure of classic Shields' irony here. No need to defend the 'real' work of raising children, but tidy paper clips are the necessary defence against doubting the legitimacy of writing. Legitimacy is acheived when one writes the truth.
This is from Kim Echlin's remarkable Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (more on this book later). I've been interested in the writing life of Carol Shields not because I'm a huge fan of hers (I've only read Unless and The Stone Diaries), but because she seems to have lived a happy, successful life: five children, many books, some awards. No whispers of alcoholism, adultery, or any other abuses; no dirty secrets that have biographers desperate to reveal. A boringly content life. This appeals to me.

She had been
quoted to have said, "I don't think I would have been a writer if I hadn't been a mother." We know that she was 37 when her first collection of poetry Others was published and 41 when her first novel Small Ceremonies was published. In today's youth-obsessed culture, she would have seemed almost old to be publishing her first books at those ages. I'm sure she didn't feel old at all. I know I don't and I'm closing in on those numbers myself. The other difference between Shields' generation and my own is many of my peers aren't starting families until their mid-to-late-thirties, perhaps a topic best to be explored another time.

What I would like to know is how old Shields' children were when she began her one-hour-a-day ritual. Were they even all born yet? Or had she passed the infant and toddler stages of her family? Personally, as a mother of two boys under three and as a mother who does not feel like she's done having children, this information feels vital to me. I know it shouldn't as everyone's life has its own trajectory, but I still need to know. If any of you do, please pass it on.

4 January 2009

Interview: Deborah Williams

Writing and Mothering and Crossing the Bay of Fundy

Your back of the book bio:

Deb is one of the creator/stars of the international smash hit comedies Mom's the Word and Mom’s the Word 2: Unhinged. She is a media personality and comedian seen and heard regularly on national radio, TV and rantingparent.com. She also enjoys creating theatre for young audiences and has written two hit kids shows for Axis Theatre, Broccoli and Butterflies and Driftwood: a Retelling of the Adventures of Pinocchio. She is a graduate of the acclaimed Studio 58 acting program in Vancouver, and has worked on stages across the country for the past 25 years. Read her blog at redheadthreat.blogmaestro.com.

Your playground bio:

Deborah is a Half Baked Wife, Feeble Friend, Wanting Citizen and Mediocre Mother of two fabulous people. Jeremiah is a 17 year old ornithologist, and Georgia is a 16 year old survival specialist looking for a future in the military.

Do you identify yourself as first a writer and then a mother, the other way around, or something else? Why do you think this is?

Until recently I have thought of myself as a mother first. Now that my children are nearing adulthood and needing me to be out of their lives more, I feel like a writer first. Mostly. I am in a transition period between one and the other so I carry guilt about either order. I have been lucky enough to have made a living writing about parenting and family life so it has all been research, fodder and fairly fluid. I have to admit I'm nervous and excited to move beyond those subjects; from my tiny box, and get back to the whole wide world of possibilities.

Did you always want to be a writer? A mother? How does the reality differ from the fantasy?

When we decided to have a baby I was under the impression that this new being would fit into my "fascinating, glamorous, artistic, lifestyle". It was a shocker to fall so far, so fast. The first years were torture. We lived in the only house we could afford, in a prison-like suburb. It was a while before I found mental stimulation in a couple of like minded folk. Then I started to create the community I wanted for my kids. That took lots of creative energy. And I kept writing about how shitty I felt, which became my comedy. Who knew everyone was feeling like crap. A long way from fantasy-parenting. I never knew I wanted to be a writer. I fell into it because I was a performer and found it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. I wanted to hold more of the reins and not be the last one in on a project. Writing became much more elusive when I became a parent. Way down the list of what NEEDED to be done in the day, even if I WANTED it.

What are your measurements of success as a mother? As a writer? Have these evolved and, if so, can you talk about in what way and why do you think this is?

Writing and mothering are both, long drawn out, cyclical, highly creative pass times with tiny, widely spaced rewards. Rewards are sporadic and the feeling of success has more to do with what I had for breakfast than the work I have put into either one. I am feeling successful as a mother at the moment because both my kids are focused on challenging futures; skills and careers I have no knowledge in. I guess I've stood out of their way long enough to allow them to hear their own thoughts. Surprising.

I am feeling successful at a writer on a small scale for the time being because I'm doing the craft: not getting paid, just putting the time in and saying what needs to be said.

Indeed my idea of success has changed from the beginning of both those careers. I am getting less critical of it all and enjoying the small stuff. Maybe it's just cop out. When I think of what has happed with Mom’s the Word and Unhinged in the past 16 years, I would say that they have been successful, but I also would have thought I would feel different about having this success. I thought I would feel satisfied. Finished. But there is an ongoing discomfort that drives me. I hope it will drive into this next part of my life which really will be "mine" again. To be a good mom you need to let go and I think that must be true as an artist, too.

What's your writing schedule like? What was its journey to get to where it is now?

I tend to write in the morning. It’s when my brain is excited about the day. I know that if I didn't get up and make lunches and breakfasts I would have even more time but I only have a couple more years of that, so I convince myself that I enjoy it. When the house gets quiet, I get writing. We have a very social household so I have a sign for the front door "writer at work". Most people are respectful of that. The people who aren't, get written about. I use to write very sporadically and only to a deadline, which is the only reason Mom's the Word and Unhinged got written. I spent large periods of time feeling guilty about not writing. Not getting enough done in my day. This is funny to think about because what I accomplished; I like all North American pathological super-moms, was ├╝ber-human; I didn't value any of it. Home schooling, community organization, home-made meals, home-made clothing and household items, heading out to the theatre to do 8 shows a week. None of it counted. Feels ludicrous now. I would tell any of my friends and colleagues to chill out if I saw them doing the same. Enjoy those babies, toddlers, tweens etc.

I didn't realize you home schooled. How did you make the decision to home school? How long did that last? How did you manage to balance the home schooling with your own creative needs? How active was your husband in it?

I started homeschooling when the kids were preschool age because I had friends around who were doing it and it seemed logical and ordinary. When kindergarten came around I felt outside pressure so I put my eldest in for a couple of months and left him there until a 5 year old threatened to kill him during story time. I witnessed this event and felt like it was a clear sign that I was meant to take my boy home and keep him there. We moved from that community a couple years later and lived near "the best school" so I put them both in for the year and cried most of the time. Probably says more about me as an neurotic mother than the school system but I took them home again. By then there were more systems in place. They did some math, writing, and lots of music, art and science was always in abundance. Just followed them around. It was probably the most easily creative time in my life so far. How to engage these little creatures and connect them with the subjects they are begging to learn about. Its about listening and watching. Just like writing, performing, and I suspect many other art forms, too. My husband was a supporter in that he made a living while we were home schooling. I also was doing a show 6 days a week and many of those evenings involved odd child care arrangements because he works many theatre hours too. Kids became very adaptable and saw going on the road with Mom as a normal part of our family life.

Home schooling lasted until my kids decided to go to school on their own. My son was asked into an intensive dance program where they did all their academics in half a day, and my daughter interviewed a number of principals until she found a school she felt was closest to a British boarding school, with lots of structure. They both adapted within a couple of months, know how to jump through the hoops and get what they want from school and are both planning on lengthy post secondary careers. I miss them at home and still suggest in August every year that they are welcome to stay for the year. I beg them to skip class and play crib. No way.

Has becoming a mother changed how you write? What you write? If so, in what ways?

I have always been a political comedian. Domestic politics. So when I started a family I started to write about being a parent, a middle aged woman, a wife, a friend and other pedestrian political subjects. That is what I do. The minutia of an ordinary life. As my family life ages, and my children’s lives are off limits, I have branched out again. I sure see the world differently from this angle though. I still feel fiercely dedicated to making people feel better about ordinary life. So people don’t feel so alone in the ordinary cubicles of domestic hell.

How aware are your children of your writing?

Unfortunately my children are now very aware of my writing and how it impacts on them. Jeremiah’s favourite response to teen’s parental complaints is “At least your mother isn’t on The Comedy Network in a tube top!” I don’t yet know how much it will have impacted their lives, though I suspect I will start to hear more about it in their twenties. They know that the house, the car and their classes are all direct results of “Mom’s Job” and they are old enough to appreciate tangible results.

Virginia Woolf famously wrote, "…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…." She never had children. Is a room to yourself enough for a writing-mama? What do you need?

Yes! I don’t know how to get to that writers altered state without silence and over the years there has been so very little of it. If I hadn’t chosen to home school and volunteer like such a maniac, there would have been more time, but having no children would have been really helpful, too. On the other hand, I became another person when I became a mother, less self-centred, more compassionate. I believe parenting has made me a better creator and observer. Just need the time to get it all down. That’s what the rest of my life will be about.

If you could go back, what would you tell your pre-children self?

I love this question. “Lighten up. Get your head out of your navel. Don’t worry. Its not about you.” The things I tell my kids.

What do you think your pre-children self would tell you?

When was the last time you bought a new bra? Do you have any dignity? Where is your taste? You are really let yourself go. Sounds like my daughter in the morning.

In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?

Loads of all. How did Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood do it? I would do everything over again except it too painful so I’ll just start fresh from here.

What's one thing you would do differently?

I would do lots of thing differently. I would think less about my career and wallow more in the pedestrian parts of life. I would hug more, yell less. I would ask for help earlier and more often. I would appreciate my husband more. I would worry less about what people think and listen to my guts. But I guess that's all about growing up and I will be a much better grandmother than mother. I love being with my kids and so far they seem to like being with us. One loves to write and one abhors it. Both are really creative in their own ways and although they don't plan to make their living in the arts their creative brains seem to help them in their science based interests.

The early years of motherhood have been described by various writers as a haze or as an incredibly creative time. How would you describe it? Are you still in it? When did you leave?

Those early years were not great. 17 years of post natal depression, which will turn into a post offspring leaving depression and so on. The early years were creative in that raw weary early grieving-like way. Just the truth and nothing but. Nothing extra. I love having time to edit and fiddle now. Take time with words and thoughts. Follow ideas to a conclusion from time to time.

Birthing a book is like birthing a baby. Way off or right on?

Yes. Painful and Creative. Transcendent and ordinary. Just another baby, jut another work of art. But its MY BABY and MY WORK OF ART.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munroe writing while her children played at her feet, the writer who resented and neglected her children because she was so consumed with her art, or someone like Sylvia Plath who ended up with her head in the oven. Which writing-mothers do you admire and why?

I admire lots of them a bit of Sylvia because she had the guts to say “enough”, although I often feel that my children are the only things that are keeping me on this earth and how could I wreck things for them. So selfish. I’d become the most important part of their life and a mother should not be that. I also find Enid Blyton fascinating. She apparently wrote 800 books and she hardly knew her children. I have flashes of wanting to know how that feels. Just flashes, though.

1 January 2009

And So It Begins

2008 was a fabulous year for me both professionally and personally with highlights including my book being shortlisted and the birth of my second son. As great as that year was, I'm really looking forward to the new year. I already have some things to look forward to such as the publication of my new chapbook, the Edmonton Poetry Festival (I'm on the board this year and am excited about who we're lining up), attending Banff's Writing Studio, and the motherhood and writing project I've decided to do on this blog. And those just some of the things I know about! I'm excited to see what else the year dishes up.

What are you looking forward to this year?

Speaking of the motherhood and writing project, I've decided to post the interviews on every second Sunday, with the first up this coming Sunday (4th). Up first is playwright, performer and all-round funny woman, Deb Williams. Then we get to read about the creative lives of poet/essayist Shawna Lemay, kidslit writer/journalist Carolyn McTighe and screenwriter Deborah Peraya. I think it's going to be a great series.

All the best to you and yours for the new year. May it be filled with much joy and many blessings.