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.


Anonymous said...

hi marita

i really really enjoyed the interview with Deb. SO wonderful to get a different perspective on mothering and creativity.

xx Juno.

m said...

Thank you, Juno! I found it comforting to read her thoughts now that her babes are teens.