Date Archives May 2012

Writing Mothers: Debra Adelaide

Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying
Debra Adelaide, author, The Household Guide to Dying

When I first read The Household Guide to Dying it felt as if the writer, Debra Adelaide, had somehow stepped inside my head for a while and borrowed my voice. Even though at the time I had no daughters, and I certainly wasn’t dying of cancer, the words felt like they were mine: effortless, flowing, perfectly formed, and delivered with precision timing (at certain key points).

There was nothing sentimental about Delia Bennet’s experience of confronting death. It was head on. Even funny. (I got the same tragi-comic feeling reading Sarah Watt’s exquisite contributions to Worse Things Happen at Sea, the memoir she wrote with husband William McInnes, when she was approaching her final days with courage and quiet humour.) Delia plans for the important things. Like how to teach her girls to make the perfect cup of tea. Like whether she is going to fit in her coffin and whether she should practise before the final day comes. Read More

Writing Mothers: Karen Andrews

Karen Andrews blogs at Miscellaneous Mum
Karen Andrews blogs at Miscellaneous Mum

The blog Miscellaneous Mum, created by Karen Andrews, is one of my favourites. It manages to encompass the detailed trials and tribulations of daily life with a family, great reviews of books (including Stasiland by Anna Funder, interviewed here) and news of her life as a writer.

She even started the ‘1001 Books to Read Before You Die’ challenge.

(The weird thing is, I started this in a blog, too, many moons ago — before I saw hers. I got about five books in. It was so long ago I can’t even find my own blog using Google. Ah well). She’s doing better.

She also somehow manages to hold down a desk job (a great one!) as program manager of the Emerging Writers’ Festival that begins in a couple of weeks in Melbourne.

Her blog’s subheading — ‘Trying to find the objective correlative, everyday’ — has kept me thinking for months. It seems exactly the right phrase to describe her type of writing. While many mother-bloggers keep their posts raw and emotional (which I enjoy too), Andrews’ style has an austerity and sophistication that suspends and transfixes you.

In the upcoming edition of Newswrite (June–July), Mandy Sayer writes about this term, the objective correlative, in relation to Hemingway and Chekhov:

Chekhov, also a playwright, was a master at using objective external details, coupled with understatement and irony, to convey complex emotional states. This rendering of the internal through the external, the subjective through the objective, is a technique T.S. Eliot later described as the ‘objective correlative’.

 The method involves writing imagery and actions that are so precise, so resonant, that the narrator doesn’t need to state how a certain character feels: the emotions are already there, embedded in the landscape, the light, the weather, the scents, the sounds, and the silences.

To do this, everyday? I spoke to Karen about the challenges of blogging and balancing the writing with family life.

When did you start blogging? Was it before or after you had children?

KA: I started blogging in August 2006, when my second (and youngest) child was five months’ old.

What set you going on sharing your thoughts with the world?

KA: I primarily just wanted to get my own writerly ‘voice’ back, as well as my own ‘personal’ one. I had been experiencing severe post-partum anxiety attacks and was just trying to sort myself out mentally and emotionally. Perhaps an odd choice of forum, given the public nature of blogging, but I also wanted to seek out others who’d been through the same, or even help others in their journey.

How do you find time to blog around bringing up children? Do you plan it carefully? Or does it happen in bursts of creativity when you get the time?

Karen Andrews has also written a children's book, Surprise!
Karen Andrews has also written a children’s book, Surprise!

KA: It happens both ways. When the kids were younger, I admit it was more in bursts, while they played near me or during nap times. These days it’s more strategic and regimented as I’ve got other commitments (such as work and my offline writing) to attend to as well. I’ve never worked very well at night — either with writing or blogging — so I really have to manage my time during the day as best as I can. I concede this probably makes me a slower writer, but I’m saner too!

Do you think about your writing style much? Your voice? How do you stand out from the crowd?

KA: I have been wondering more and more about my writing style in recent times. In my work (program manager at the Emerging Writers’ Festival) I come across different writers and forms all the time, and I do occasionally think, ‘Where do I fit in among the ‘scene’? I still feel young, too, in a career and chronological sense (I’m 33). There’s a tension within me that I’ve always fought: that being the need to rush and the mentality to absorb and learn from others.

In terms of standing out from the crowd, I think I have etched out for myself a sort of blogging reputation that coincides with an indie-publishing-slash-entrepreneurial-bent that is nice if — at times — undeserved! I do earn money from blogging, more than writing. That is nice, I admit, but I do remain mindful of my deep set loves and values about writing and keeping a sort of…purity of intent.

At what point did you decide to blog about your children? Has there been a topic where you’ve thought, ‘no I can’t go there’? Where do you draw the line on the public/private?

KA: I’ve blogged about kids since the beginning; my first post was about my daughter. It was a blog about them — although I knew it couldn’t be forever — and I’ve been slowly turning it into a blog that’s more about me, and they’re more of a reflection in that sense (although I’d never for a moment presume to say that what has happened in the past is an explicit recount but, rather, more of a subjective interpretation rendered in as nice/expressive way as I can, like other creative nonfiction does).

There are lines I’ve drawn, but that has been at the request of my husband. The kids will do the same all in good time too. I respect that. Other truths can wait for my fiction.

Who is your favourite mother-blogger? What kind of blog writing gets you excited?

KA: I have lots of favourite bloggers who are mothers who happen to blog about parenting: I think Penni Russon (eglantine’s cake) is wonderful, and I am proud to call her a friend of mine. We’ve talked about blogging a lot together. Another friend who is an excellent writer is Tiffany Tregenza (My Three Ring Circus). These are in Australia. In America, possibly my favourite is Amy Storch (Amalah).

How has your blog influenced your other writing, your novels, your nonfiction, your poetry?

KA: It’s made me more open to the value of flash/shorter fiction for starters! It’s made me realise much quicker the greater potential an idea might lend itself to having, ie whether it would be better to make a blog post out of something or turn it into a poem. For example, a day I had at the park years ago could’ve been easy to turn into a post along the lines of ‘We Had A Crap Day At The Park – Let Me Whine About It To You’. But I knew there was more to it than that. So I turned it into a poem — and it went on to win a literary award.

This interview is part of the ‘Writing Mothers’ series. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read my interviews with Anna Funder, Fiona McGregor and Bianca Wordley (Big Words blog).

Who’s your favourite blogger on parenting? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Writing Mothers: Fiona McGregor

Author Fiona McGregor
Author Fiona McGregor. Photo: Sarah-Jane Norman.

When I started writing my first novel (for a research masters in creative writing at the University of Sydney) I wrote from a daughter’s and a mother’s perspective. I was not a mother. But I had my own to fall back on. And many others to observe. I remember asking Sue Woolfe (my supervisor) whether I needed to be a mother to fully realise such a character? No, we agreed. It may help. But a character is a character is a character. There’s much debate about whether a white writer can write a character with an Aboriginal perspective; whether a male writer can fully inhabit the body/mind of a woman; even whether a writer can capture a sense of place if they’ve never set foot there.

I understand where these concerns come from but I’m all for experimenting. Where else, but in fiction, can we start to re-imagine, re-invent lives, explore the limits of who we are. I think it comes down to compassion for characters, the ability to drill into the psychology of another person (at any moment in time and place).

During the slow process of writing the novel, I became pregnant and had a baby. Then another one. I started recording the day to day changes. And I realised that my mother character, while not way off the mark, just didn’t have those detailed observations, didn’t fully engage with her daughter, didn’t live her life from within. I went back and started to rewrite.

The ‘Writing Mothers’ series (see also Anna Funder and Bianca Wordley) is not only about women juggling writing with motherhood. The topic can also been seen from another angle: how to write mother characters. I approached Fiona McGregor, the author of Indelible Ink (which won the Age Book of the Year award in 2011) — that features the unforgettable Marie King, a 59-year-old divorcée from Sydney’s affluent north shore who sets herself up for reinvention (and to confront her children).

Fiona, how do you go about writing a ‘mother’ character? Is it different from how you approach other characters?

FM: I don’t think it’s different in principle — a combination of imagination and empathy. I guess I attuned myself to mother-specific concerns — that is where the 24-hour job comes into play — noticing things on TV and in the paper that addressed mothers in a way that would normally not come within my frame of reference. In the same way, I was much more attuned to my sisters’ and girlfriends’ motherly preoccupations. I might do the same if my main character were an accordion player — seek that out in the world around me in whatever form.

Fiona McGregor, Indelible Ink
Fiona McGregor, Indelible Ink

I don’t and didn’t want to see mothers as just mothers — that is part of the struggle of the mother in my book, to assert an individual self, so I would have been looking at the women in my life in the same terms. I obviously thought a great deal of my own mother, but not too much, as her life and values were pretty different and I didn’t want them to overinfluence my book, my character of Marie.

Do you research — talk to and observe other mothers — or is it about intuition?

FM: Yes, I did ask my mother friends and family stuff, and pricked up my ears at mother conversations …

Also, I’ve been lucky to have experienced through the women I know and through both my blood and my queer family a really wide range of mothers. That helps.

Intuition — yes — the turning point for me, after struggling for literally years to get inside of Marie and finding it hard, was thinking about how similar I was as opposed to how different. That is one of the most important places for the fiction writer, to keep your feet on the common ground, a fellow human thing.

Also, in terms of being attuned, my reading steered towards stories of mothers, families, the middle-class.

How much influence has your relationship with your own mother affected the way you portray mothers in your fiction?

FM: I was juggling using and learning from my mother and our relationship, and also needing to refuse it because if it had overinfluenced me it would have strangled the book and the character; it wasn’t appropriate. My mother was 20 years older than Marie, and had eight kids and worked, and was a practicing Catholic. She was educated, quite erudite and comopolitan. All these things set her worlds apart. And she was incidentally intransigent in her hatred of tattoos.

I’ve realised you’ve asked about my relationship … Well, I think what we had in common with Blanche and Marie was something very prevalent to that generation — the struggle that mothers, post-war educated mothers, have where they fulfil the traditional role and get a chance at a public independent life and sometimes make a total success of that, but much more often feel a bit torn and frustrated. Their daughters grow up with much more freedom, largely due to their mother’s efforts, and when the mothers see this they are proud and gratified but also resentful, jealous, confused. They probably feel not acknowledged enough. Sacrificial lambs … A bittersweet love/hate thing. I have observed younger mothers being much closer to their daughters, much less friction in terms of gender issues, and older mothers favouring their sons. That was the case in my family and the case in the novel.

Do you think it would be easier/different/harder if you were a mother — or do you think it’s like anything in fiction, possible to be conjured?

FM: Don’t know. I have been gratified to have scores of women of that age and so on tell me I’ve ‘got it’. That’s made me happy, to have connected with them, which is also I think a case of respecting them. One thing — if I were a mother, I could not have written a book like this which sucked so much of my time, my headspace, that kept me poor too. That is the irony.

Have you read Indelible Ink or any other books by Fiona McGregor? What did you think of Marie?

Do you have a favourite mother character in fiction? I’d love to hear them…


Writing Mothers: Bianca Wordley

Bianca Wordley, Big Words blog
Bianca Wordley, Big Words blog

Seven weeks to go until we move and I haven’t started packing yet. The boxes are sitting there, all flat, teasing me. When I told mum about this blog she said, ‘so you’re blogging about packing rather than actually packing’. Seven weeks may sound like a long time but when you’ve got two children under four, you can’t just throw it all in like you used to. I just added it up and I have moved house at least 18 times in my life. That’s a lot of packing. I’m terrible putting boxes together, taping with masking tape. I’d be hopeless in dispatch. I have poor inter-taping skills. I’m in denial. And I keep getting distracted by books. The removalists sent a marketing type to give a quote today and she looked shocked by the number on my shelves. I really don’t have that many (you should have seen when I was at uni). As I weigh each heavy tome in my hands I start to rationalise: surely, I can get that on kindle.

So, as I’m going to be covered in dust and grasshoppers (that’s what I just found in the shed) for the next few months, I thought I’d continue on a series of interviews with writers about motherhood and writing. Bianca Wordley is an Adelaide-based writer who has been hugely successful with her blog, Big Words, and she also writes regularly for The Hoopla (a site that’s emerging as a wonderfully topical daily critique of all things cultural). In a recent post, The Annoying Kid, she takes a look at parents who are there — but absent. We’ve all encountered these situations. A child who bites others on a jumping castle. Or keeps going up the slide the wrong way, endangering others at the playground. The parent remains hands-off, or lingers in the background, so much so that you feel you should discipline the child yourself. But then what? It turns into The Slap. She also writes entertainingly on the whole concept of the mummy-blogger (and the companies that market to them).

I spoke to Bianca about fitting in blogging around the care of three small children…

When did you start blogging? Was it before or after you had children?

BW: I started blogging seriously after the birth of my third child, so about one and a half years ago.

What set you going on sharing your thoughts with the world?

BW: I am a trained journalist and while I still write freelance articles for a number of different clients I was craving a more creative outlet. At the time I was also living in the Adelaide Hills and felt quite isolated with three kids under five. Blogging connected me to a whole world of other like-minded women.

How do you find time to blog around bringing up children? Do you plan it carefully? Or does it happen in bursts of creativity when you get the time?

BW: I write when I get a burst of creativity. Sometimes I write at night or in the morning when the kids are asleep, but mostly I write when they are running around the place. Their constant distractions are at times difficult, but mostly they can be easily distracted with kids’ television and food.

Do you think about your writing style much? Your voice? How do you stand out from the crowd?

BW: One of the main reasons I started blogging was to break out of the newspaper style I was trained in and find my own creative voice. I use my blog as a sounding board and experiment to discover what style or styles suit me. I am in a constant state of learning, but slowly getting there.

Questioning domestic bliss at Big Words blog
Questioning domestic bliss at Big Words blog

At what point did you decide to blog about your children? Has there been a topic where you’ve thought, ‘no I can’t go there’? Where do you draw the line on the public/private?

BW: I am getting more aware of my kids’ privacy the older they get. My eldest child has just started school and I am still unsure how many mothers I will let know about my blog. I try to blog about my story, not about my children’s personal issues, but as our lives are so entwined that is a tricky subject I am constantly reassessing.

Who is your favourite mother-blogger? What kind of blog writing gets you excited?

BW: I have a number of favourite bloggers — Under the Yardarm, Edenland, Woogsworld, BabyMac are just a few. I like honest and raw bloggers, but I also love bloggers who give me an escape from the drudgery, who make me laugh and not feel so alone in the boredom which often envelopes your life as a mother. I search for brave, inspiring and upbeat writers.

Do you do any other writing? How has your blog influenced your other writing, your novels, your nonfiction, your poetry?

BW: I write for a number of clients in both the corporate and blogging world. I am a regular columnist for websites including The Hoopla, justb and Kleenex Mums. Blogging has opened up many paid writing opportunities. At present, I am also writing my first novel — little-by-little I write it. One day soon, I’ll find the time to focus more on my novel as that is the direction I am heading and most passionate about — telling stories.

The ‘Writing Mothers’ series has also featured Anna Funder. Next week I’ll talk to novelist and performance artist Fiona McGregor about how she goes about creating mother characters in her award-winning novels.

Do you write a blog about parenting? Who is your favourite mother-blogger? I’d love to hear from you…