15 March 2009

Interview: Shannon McFerran

Your back of the book bio:

Since graduating from the MFA program at UBC, Shannon McFerran completed a teaching certificate and worked as a secondary school teacher with an English specialty. In 2005 she merged writing and teaching backgrounds into a career writing and editing curriculum material for K-12 and post-secondary.

Shannon has also written and thrown out many novel drafts. Although her thesis novel was shortlisted for a prize, she has since realized her talents as a non-fiction writer. Shannon is a member of a research project studying girls’ diaries, and is currently writing a book called Writing Ourselves Into Being: The Girls’ Diary Project.

Your playground bio:

I’m mom to Anna “Mighty” Mitchell, Age 4.5. I usually explain our unique setup—Tim and I both work from home full time. Anna’s the only one who leaves the house every day, so she complains she doesn’t have as much time in her pajamas as her parents. We joke about getting her a mini briefcase.

Anna goes to a daycare 300 metres from our house. I can see the building from my office, which is in a corner of our bedroom. Sometimes I walk over to the window and look down the hill to where she’s spending her day, and I find that motivating. Get done! Anna awaits!

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?

When Anna was a baby, I was all mom. I wrote little to none for several months. When she was a toddler, I still thought of myself primarily a mother, since the writer part was such a small percentage of my day.

Now that Anna is a little older, I have been writing for work and writing for myself, and so the writer role is beginning to grow again. I think I’d have a hard time ever placing writer before mother, even when Anna’s grown and gone. The roles swell and take up more space depending on what’s in front of you, but it doesn’t mean you are more one than the other.

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

I wanted to be a cartoonist, actually; Charles Schultz was my hero. When I was in elementary school, I drew more than I wrote. Then, in the sixth grade I wanted to be a mom, and have four children. I had names picked out for all of them.

In Grade Eight I switched schools and found that everything we were doing was a repeat of earlier grades in my old school. I started reading fat bestsellers, hiding the novels under a textbook or sitting in them in my lap under the desk. I’d go through one every other day. A steady diet of that got me hooked on story, if not great writing—and I picked up a pen and tried my hand at it that year. That was the first year I wrote a novel, and I’ve been hooked on internal worlds and getting them on the page ever since. The desire to mother waxed and waned until I met my husband.

I thought I would be successful earlier in life. In my fantasy, I would have been a successful author before becoming a mother, and then balanced those two things in a perfectly stress-free existence. But at a certain point, my desire to mother outstripped my desire to write.

When Tim and I were deciding whether we wanted to become parents, the big question for us was whether we could parent and continue writing. I think I was really positive we could make it happen, and Tim was more of a realist. I knew I wouldn’t write with a newborn, but I figured having a child would focus me more, and make all the time I had precious. Friends who were moms told me they never used their time so wisely until they had their children—that their children taught them to be focused.

The reality was that I didn’t get a solid night’s sleep for fifteen months, and I wasn’t prepared for the exhaustion. I wasn’t racing for the keyboard when my baby went down for a nap, wanting to use every available moment. Instead, I’d finally get her to sleep and then let my own head hit the pillow.

You mentioned that you used to want to have four children (albeit when you were a child yourself--I had wanted to be a fireman at one point, but nobody holds that against me). Did the choice to be a writer have anything to do with the choice to have a smaller family size?

Yeah, wanting four children originally was out of the desire to create characters, I think. Then I grew up and realized that having children is not creating characters, it’s allowing people who are going to create themselves to come into life—totally different! So once I grew up into that knowledge, I no longer wanted a large family.

Writing definitely was a part of the choice to have a single child, though it wasn’t the whole reason. Tim and I both write outside of our day jobs, and we knew that with the increased responsibility of more children would come less time to pursue that creative expression. When I try to explain this aspect of our choice I get the feeling I’m trading in Anna’s needs (or people’s perception of her needs) for our own. But I’m an only child myself, and I have friends who are honourary siblings to me. And I know people who don’t have any relationship with their siblings. Giving her a sibling would be no guarantee of giving her a close family member—but it would guarantee that we’d stop writing to meet that second child’s needs.

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?

When I look at my life as a mother and writer, I wouldn't call it content, or successful. I am content with motherhood (but not always with my mothering). I am still on an upward path in terms of writing, learning my craft, and feeling comfortable or competent in what I'm doing.

I left writer-school eleven years ago. Now I haven’t been writing that whole time. I’ve been working a lot, I taught, I stayed home with Anna for two years—but since that time, I’ve had one story published, and the diary project articles. I really thought it would be different.

If I define success by making a living income off of writing work, I can say I have achieved that. Hey, the provincial government even paid me to write poems and short stories. (They pay about as well as a literary magazine.) But that’s not the success I dream about. Sure, I am enthusiastic about the courses I write, and I enjoy the work. But believe me, this ain't my first love. I still, and will always, want to be writing the reflective prose that makes the reader stop and think--whether that's fiction or non-fiction.

My measurement of success as a writer was always publication, and it still is, but it’s no longer the only one. Not quitting is a kind of success. Getting an idea and actually writing it down, not just thinking “oh, that’s nice, if I had time I’d write that.” To write it down even if I don’t get the chance or drive to flesh out that idea—that’s a success in itself. If I’m still writing when I’m 80, and my process is engaging my mind and bringing me joy, then I will consider that a success. Of course I won’t be totally satisfied until I’ve passed the test of publication, and can write a seamless story that affects an audience, that makes them want to keep reading.

My measurement of success as a mother will be if Anna is happy, well adjusted, and safe. If I have given her opportunities, and the best life I possibly can, as well as setting an example for her of how to live life as a happy and fulfilled adult.

A new measure of success evolved for both these roles when I became a mother. Anna must never blame herself for her parents’ not pursuing what gives them joy. If I don’t pursue my dream, that’s the example I give Anna. So continuing to write is the most important measure of success.

"A new measure of success evolved for both these roles when I became a mother. Anna must never blame herself for her parents’ not pursuing what gives them joy. If I don’t pursue my dream, that’s the example I give Anna. So continuing to write is the most important measure of success." I find this incredibly inspiring and a fresh way of looking at the duality of writing and motherhood. When and how did you make this realization?

That’s a tough one. I guess the seeds of that came when I was a kid and felt bad that my parents didn’t pursue their own dreams. You grow up and figure out that’s their choice, and that a child can never be responsible—but I think something of that stays with you.

The other part of making that realization was a kind of two step process. First, when Anna arrived, I wanted instantly for everything to be easy and right for her—the way you do when you have a child. That meant that as soon as I saw her I wanted her to live her dreams. And step two—I knew children learn more through modeling than we like to think. Hence, I’ve got to model what I want for her. She was about a year and a half when that struck me—so finally sleeping through, which meant I could have coherent thoughts again.

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

It changes depending on deadlines, but I usually work a Monday to Friday week, 9 to 4. I work some evenings after Anna goes to bed, and sometimes a little on the weekends. Even before I had Anna I knew I wanted to work out some kind of career that let me work from home until she was much older, and I left a position with a lot of security to do that. It wasn’t until I worked full time from home, with daycare, that I went back to work on creative writing projects. I didn’t have the mental energy when I was working and parenting a young child. Now I use time between projects, time when work is slow, to work on my own writing. Sometimes I have a blissful five hours to write. Sometimes I have ten minutes. Of course the five hours is more useful, but I’m not going to look down my nose at the small bits of time anymore.

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

Having Anna changed my relationship to myself in such radical ways, and that, in turn, changed how I write. I used to start out with a very set idea about how I wanted a project to look and then bang away at it until I got it close, and never be satisfied. (I’m a Taurus by the Western zodiac, and an ox by the Eastern—so two sets of horns makes for a certain amount of determination.) But now, I trust evolving shapes. It’s making for some far more interesting writing.

How aware is your child of your writing?

Anna’s more familiar with my past role as the storytime lady at the library, which, when you’re four, has a lot more appeal. I think she’s just sad I don’t work at the library anymore. We still bring new books home about twice a week, but I guess it’s not as good as the daily delivery.

Letters and words and telling stories are incredibly important to her, though, and it kind of scares us. Tim and I want her to become a computer scientist.

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?

I suspect Virginia would have needed a nanny, if she had ever become a mother. For me, a room I’ve got it, or a quiet space of some sort. I’m not one of those moms who can focus in the midst of playing and shouting and kid energy going on around me, so I guess some form of childcare is what I need, too. But I suspect if I didn’t have that I would have found a way.

In your last interview, Ariel Gordon said she needed a wife, and that made me laugh, because Tim and I are always walking around saying we need a wife. Of course you’re right Marita that being a wife isn’t all about the laundry and meals. Tim and I have a rather equal division of labour around the house—and we equally neglect the householding duties. Part of what I need to be a writing-mama is the ability to turn a blind eye to the mess. How else can you work in your home space?

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

Nothing. If I’d told her something about how it will all work out in the end, she might have relaxed and not worked as hard as she did, or taken the leaps she did to make the life I have now. I wouldn’t want to mess with that.

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

She probably would have told me not to quit for the period when I did, but pre-child Shannon wouldn’t have understood.

When Anna was just a year old, I showed a full novel to an agent, who suggested I make a few changes and try her again. That was as close as I ever came to reaching my goal, but it happened just as Anna got mobile, and five months before she started sleeping through the night. I was incredibly exhausted. I’d written five drafts of that novel, and I couldn’t do another. I was sick of it. At the time, I took it as a sign to stop, which it wasn’t—it was a sign that I was close and should work just a little harder.

Your story of the agent really struck a chord with me. When I was in Vancouver last April for Steve's launch, I ran into a classmate from my UBC days who had recently become the Acquiring Editor for a local press. He told me to send him my novel (my MFA thesis). At that point my youngest was two months old and my eldest had just turned two. I knew I wanted to work on it a little bit more before sending it to him. And of course, I never did. I just haven't had the time to even read it again. And of course I have a lot of guilt. How do we let go of the guilt? Or do you think we ever really can?

Oh no! Aaah! I hate hearing about this, because I can feel it completely. For me it wasn’t so much about guilt as it was about regret. I don’t like guilt. I think you can always get rid of it if you look into it far enough. Give it a try—

First, pick it apart. Ask where that guilt is being directed. So the question for you is, are you guilty because the classmate made a nice offer and he hasn’t seen anything from you yet? Don’t worry, the invitation won’t be rescinded at a later date if you haven’t responded in what you think is a “timely” manner. Are you guilty because you’re not making use of your talents as a fiction writer, letting a work go to waste? Don’t—everything you do and learn through mothering right now will surprisingly inform you and make you write better (as all our experiences do) next time you sit down with your draft.

Or are you guilty because in some moments you might blame your boys for your ability to get to that project? That’s the sticky one—the reality is you have only so many hours in a day, and you are spending them doing the important work of parenting two small children. And sleeping. And eating. And if you’re lucky—getting to do the things that maintain a marriage and getting a chance to sweep the floors, too. So yes, your choice to spend this time mothering is the reason you’re not working on your novel. But it’s your choice. You made it for very good reasons. If you can honour that, as well as know this is a temporary imbalance of your life roles, you can feel good about not writing that novel right now. It’s just a season, and the time will return when you can read it over again, and pick up where you left off, if you choose.

And if you have any other residual guilt that sounds like “Gee, I should be able to do this and...” then you must stop and go read What Mothers Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing by Naomi Stadlen.

You have already touched on this, but I'm going to ask you this one anyway. In terms of this topic (motherhood and writing), do you have any regrets? Guilt? Envy?

I do regret quitting creative writing when Anna was a year old. I don’t think I could have made a different decision at the time, but I guess I regret the timing.

Sometimes I regret not making more of an effort to write before I had Anna, but I think my particular path required that I become a mom and go through that aspect of human development to mature enough to write. Even if I’d wanted to reach my goals earlier, I know there are several good reasons I didn’t.

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?

It’s been an incredibly creative time for developing a new relationship to myself and other people, which of course affects what I write. The early years also pressured me into creating the sort of life that has room for creative projects. But there was a certain amount of haze, for sure.

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

You birth a book and then emotionally divorce yourself from it to pick it apart and edit it. You birth a baby and then begin making emotional connections. The two are pretty different, but birthing a baby certainly taught me some things I now apply to writing a book.

I used to tell Anna, when she was in utero, that if she wanted to start coming into the world around 6 am—that’s when we usually got up anyway—and then be out by tea time, by 4:30, that would be great. I would rub my belly and tell her my plan.
The day she was born I woke up with my first contractions at 6. I birthed at home, on a brilliant day at the end of September. Anna flipped into the correct position for delivery at some point in the early afternoon, and she was born at 4:33. That kind of belief and trust that something will go well, the ability not to be scared by the effort or the intensity that goes into the process, just trusting I would get there—that’s something I’m trying to hold onto with birthing this book. But man, I can make a baby in way less time than a book. Maybe writing a book is more like parenting a child into adulthood.

I wanted to do this project because I found so few satisfying examples of the writing-mother. It was either the mythology of Alice Munro 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?

Not many leap to mind—not because those women aren’t out there, but because when you hear about a writer’s career, she tells you the career story separate from her home story, just like when you ask anyone about her work life. The thing about writing is that, for most mothers, the activity happens at home—so the two worlds aren’t separate from each other the way they are when she leaves home to work.

I heard that Barbara Kingsolver, whose work I love, wrote her first novel entirely at night during her first pregnancy, which makes me as a little incredulous—if it’s true, I’m completely envious. Oh, to have the sort of energy that lets sleeplessness become a productive state!

And look at that—even that is more about envying superhuman skill and less about admiring a writer mother who worked out a real balance.

Actually, I think I’m most at peace when I look to my friends who know that there isn’t a perfect balance—that even when you’re grounded, there’s always a swaying in the wind—and admire their practicality. Because really, once you’re beyond the physical needs of a baby and young child, it’s all just work and parenting. And all mothers and fathers are struggling with that, no matter what they do.

I’ve just read something, though, that’s made me change how I look at the mother-writer roles, and see them undivided from each other. Last night I read Susan Olding’s brave and unique essay called “Mama’s Voices” in her collection Pathologies. It’s about the three different people within herself: her independent self, with her own voice; her self as mother; her self as a writer—all of those things getting established at the same time, everything she does in one role affecting the outcome of her efforts in another. Every writer mama should read this one.
nursin' & workin'


Anonymous said...

Awesome- Shannon you are so cool... and i wish you wrote more fiction for me to read ;)
Tikki xoxo

Anonymous said...

Wonderful read Shannon.

Brought back many memories of our discussions pre-Anna. I'm very proud of the way you mother and how you've balanced the demands and needs of both your family and your career. I wish I was closer...


Anonymous said...

A wonderful interview, all around! Thank you, Marita, for highlighting such a lovely writer, mother, and friend ;)

Shannon, there is no doubt in my mind that you will achieve great success both as a mother and as a writer! You are already well on your way... ;)

Glenda & co. xox