12 April 2009

Interview: Gillian Wigmore

Your back of the book bio:

Gillian Wigmore grew up in Vanderhoof, BC, graduated from the University of Victoria in 1999, and currently lives in Prince George. Her first book of poems, soft geography, published by Caitlin Press, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Prize and won the ReLit Award in 2008. Her chapbook, home when it moves you, was published by Creekstone Press in 2005.

Your playground bio:

Elly and Emmett's mum. Travis's wife. That lady in the barn coat. Isn't she some sort of writer? Nah, she couldn't be--she's not even wearing makeup.

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?

It depends to whom I'm talking. In the playground, it's usually, 'whose mum are you?' not 'what do you do', so I'm saved those awkward moments after someone learns you're a writer when they're trying to figure out what that means and how to respond. Reminding myself privately that I'm a writer helps convince me that I have a future that won't always include cleaning up peas off the floor, but I'm proud as hell of being a mother. Those peas on the floor are humbling but necessary--somehow they'll make me a better writer, I'm sure.

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

I didn't consciously think about either. I've always written and I think being a mother always figured in my imagined future when I was a child. I also didn't think about what it would mean to do either--that there would be moments I'd struggle to write, either because of time or inspiration--or that mothering wouldn't be all hugs and family vacations. Money figures in there, too--I didn't imagine kids cost to raise or provide for and I didn't think about how I'd come to depend on being paid for readings and classroom visits. The reality is hard to reconcile. I feel these are two really hard jobs that are sorely underappreciated and totally underpaid!

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?

Success as a mother varies from instant to instant. If I've snapped at someone because I've been asked the same bloody question for the six hundredth time I regret it horribly and feel like I've never been a good mother--it's like I can't remember any time I've provided well for them or convinced them the world is good and they are perfect. When they say something delightful to someone that proves their creativity and intelligence I get that weird pride that feels like I've done something right, but I think the fact that they have never suffered from neglect or malnutrition is pretty good. That they feel entitled to live and have great ideas about the world is great, too. They are such interesting and funny people, my success may be in direct proportion to the delight I feel getting to be their Mum.

Oh, and writing? Right. Writing. I find success if I manage to finish a poem and find it less than wanting, especially if I manage to write a couple poems a month. I can't measure my success on whether I get a grant or not, or whether I publish in a magazine or not, I have to depend on my own sense of accomplishment--success in writing for me is really more internal than dependent on any Canadian writing establishment, but maybe that's because I'm still working to get off the ground in my career. Ask me next week when I feel like the Best Writer Ever. Oh, and did I mention I only ever feel like a writer when I get to write? And that that's rare?

What you said about your sense of accomplishment being based more on internal than external forces reminded me of Shannon McFerran's similar thoughts, and I wonder if this is more common amongst mothers and why that would be. What do you think?

I don't know. I hope it's not just true for us. I write primarily for myself - my own amusement, my own satisfaction. I try to write the best work I can, and though I have a specific audience in my head, it's not the Canada Council and it's not any critic. I have the possibly very idealistic view that everyone should be writing to write well, not to win prizes. That sounds silly, but I would rather be remembered for sound craft than for good reviews.

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

It's getting easier to write because I don't have infants anymore. My level of despair when they were babies was directly in proportion to how little time I got to pursue writing. Now that they are school-aged (one in grade two, one in kindergarten) I find myself with whole mornings to write! I never would have hoped for even this much when they were small because it was too depressing. I'm very serious about writing when they sleep in the evening and not answering the phone on my writing mornings--I have to be, otherwise that time disappears. I feel like time to write has always been hard-won, but I'm hopeful! If I've managed to carve out this much more time since then, how much more is in store for me?

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

I write with more determination and more direction, now. Everyone feels they have all the time in the world when they are young, and having kids makes me realize that time is precious and I have to savour it. I spend a lot of time thinking about writing so that when the opportunity arises, I'm ready. As to what I write, I find I have more brain space for longer projects, now. I'm able to work on fiction, whereas when they were small, a poem, and not a long poem, was all I could work toward.

Do you feel like you are moving away from poetry, or you're simply enjoying exercising the fiction muscles which had been impossible to use during those early years and that you'll return to poetry?

I hope poetry is not moving away from me! I'm really enjoying writing fiction these days, but poetry continues to fascinate and inspire me. I'm reading poems more than I'm writing them lately, and I tell myself that's good for me. Having brain space for fiction is unbelievable--I didn't think this day would ever come!

How aware are your children of your writing?

My daughter thinks of writing in the same vein as teaching or firefighting or being a cashier - that it's normal and that people do it. My son wishes I wrote comic books. Or that I was a superhero. That would be really cool.

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?

My conviction that I have to do this. My computer. My husband's support when I go away to read or write. Books. Other writers. Pats on the back, occasionally. Coffee out with other mother/writers once or twice a month to prove I'm not alone in this.

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

Take your time. It will be alright. Your time will come. Have a nap. Would you like a cup of tea? Beer? Can I take that for you? Here's a pillow. Hey, do you want a day off? Let me take the kids. Go away for the weekend!

Really, though, I'd tell myself that time spent thinking about writing is useful, too, and that I shouldn't beat myself up because someday the time to write will be available to even me.

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

'What is that you're wearing?!' And also: 'No child of mine would be so...'(dirty/rude/anxious/offensive/silly/obnoxious/crazy/wild/loud)' ... fill in the blank--my pre-children self was very opinionated. I am not so opinionated anymore (meaning I have tasted humble pie).

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

I get overwhelmed by it. I wonder why I have to spend so much time brooding about motherhood and writing when I could just be writing. There is so much writing about motherhood right now that I'm almost sick of the topic, but at the same time I'm reaching around to find women in similar situations. I read Margaret Laurence's autobiography and found great comfort in an extremely pragmatic, hard-working woman talking about balancing the two (I didn't dwell on the alcohol or divorce, as I think one does what one can to get through the day...). I wish we didn't judge each other. I wish I had no envy. It bothers the hell out of me that most fathers probably don't brood about the tension between parenting and writing like mothers do, but perhaps I make an assumption there.

If you mean, do I feel guilty about writing? No. I try very hard to have a family in which everyone gets to pursue their passions, including me. Does it hurt to go away on a book tour for a week or two and leave everyone behind? Yes, but I think it's good for all of us.

I am so glad you brought up the Margaret Laurence biography! As you know, in a letter you had suggested I read it as you found it inspirational. I did read it and was horrified. I thought she came across as a neglectful, selfish woman/mother/wife. Now, with the hindsight a year can give, I think my horror was largely fuelled by the hormones of having a newborn--I read the book breastfeeding a three week old baby--and the panic that I'll never have the opportunity to write again. That said, I am very uneasy with the stereotype she embodies of the artist so driven she must put aside all else for her art. That the creation of art trumps family and health (see: alcoholism; promiscuity). In my sleep-deprived haze I felt offended by the notion that because I did not have the same level of drive (there was no possible way that I would be getting up at 5am to write, for example) that I didn't want success enough and therefore was not as deserving of it and consequently would always be a hobbyist.

I also find that stereotype to be more of a male one--there are so many male artists' personal mythologies in this vein. Which in turn leads to what you said about male writers in general not fretting about this the way we mothers do. Hmm...there was supposed to be a question in here somewhere for you. How's this: should we be searching for different models of being artist/writers for mothers, or should we be more willing to accept women in the models already forged by men (I'm thinking of Laurence here, and my horror of her but annoyance if it were a man)? What would an ideal model look like?

I think we should take role models where we can get them. So often women (and society) are quick to judge one another for choices made. I would rather gain insight from the lives of others piecemeal--as I need it and as it's available to me. I feel badly for Margaret Laurence because I do think it's harder for women--we're not allowed to be totally selfish about our goals because then we're bad mothers, not putting the children first. Margaret probably didn't view herself as a stereotype (obviously, Jill); she was most likely doing the best she could to write as well as she could, possibly to the detriment of others and herself, but she is no different than many other writers, just viewed differently because she is a woman. It's not fair. It's hard, and sometimes I can't bear to read another book of essays about women writing just because it's hard for everyone. I love to read writer's memoirs, men's and women's both. I just read Matt Cohen's memoir Typing and found it equally as inspiring as Laurence's, but in a different way.

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 feel like I'm out of the trenches. When I was getting up three and four times a night and working and trying to keep house and to get a little exercise and to write and nurture the children's growing minds, etc, etc, etc, I felt like I had my head down and if I let up for even a second it would all fall apart. Now there are moments of calm. This afternoon, for instance, all four of us sat in the living room for almost an hour in silence, each reading his or her own book. I felt like all the craziness of babyland was worth it. I think living with such creative creatures demands that I meet their inventiveness and spur them on, so yes, this is a creative time. It's also a hazy time. I hope I remember it.

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

I don't know, but I know I want to birth more books and that I NEVER want to be in labour again.

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?

I admire the writer-mothers you've show-cased with these questions. My friends who are going through all this craziness and wonder with me inspire me to keep at it. I think we all run the risk of being depicted by others or posterity as some 'type' of mother (poor Sylvia, poor Margaret. I'm so grateful for my community of mother-writers, on-line and in the flesh, but I do like to think of a woman off by herself in the wilderness with her family, writing poems in her head while they all hang out laundry. When I feel sorry for myself I think of her and I'm so proud of her. I wish her well. I wish us all well and I wish us time to write.

This wilderness-dwelling writing mama with the helpful family--is she someone you know, or is she who you'd like to be?

She's someone I imagine, but she's got strengths of women I know - elements of Carla Funk's determination, Debbie Keahey's devotion to both art and family, Laisha Rosnau's commitment to her friends, your community building and scone-making skills, my mother's 'just try me' attitude... so many women enrich my life and my imagination. I'm really lucky. When I was pregnant with Elly in 2001 I heard Sharon Thesen read in Prince George and she was lovely and funny, smart as anything and such a great poet. I loved the reading, but what pushed me to see beyond my impending motherhood back to myself was hearing her talk about washing diapers--she was reading poetry and writing poetry in the throes of rearing a child and I thought 'oh, she did it and she's wonderful. I can do it, too!' I'm lucky to have heard her at that moment in my life and that she was so candid about mothering and writing. It made a really big difference to me and I'm grateful.


Ariel Gordon said...

Thanks for this, Gilly (and Marita)...

Libby said...

Inspiring, funny, beautiful.

Shannon McFerran said...

Fabulous. Some thought-provoking reflections here on the personal mythologies of writer mothers versus male writers and what they do or don't fret about... and our perceptions of them.

Anonymous said...

I have never posted on a blog but I am moved to today. I had the extreme pleasure of calling Jill my friend and as I sit here reading this interview I am overcome with emotion. Jill is an amazing writer and an ever more amazing mother. Jill- well done. You are an inspiration.

Jenn T from PG