Monday, August 2, 2010

'The Write Tools' #24 - Penni Russon

Welcome to another edition of ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.

Today's guest is young-adult and children's novelist, Penni Russon. Penni is the author of seven novels, her most recent being Dear Swoosie, co-written with Kate Constable. Penni blogs at Eglantine's Cake.

Becoming a Writer with a Contract (as opposed to someone who seemed to be wasting an awful lot of time scribbling and playing endless pretend) happened a few weeks after I became a Mother with a Baby.

By the time my first novel Undine was published, my baby, Frederique, was about eighteen months old. I was a full time work at home mum and I had spent probably less than five hours away from her since she’d been born.

I remember very distinctly after the book came out that when I was out walking with her in the pram I would want to grab strangers by their shirtsleeves and say ‘I wrote a book!’ If I went out without Frederique, however, to the shops, or once to a very fancy lunch with my publisher, I would want to grab strangers and say ‘I’ve got a baby.’ In fact I felt like a fraud when I went out without her, as though I was pretending to be someone I’m not.

When Damon asked me to contribute to this project, I thought about the desk lovingly constructed by my husband and his father (who died soon after) in our walk-in-robe, with its window overlooking a giant tree that is amazing when the late afternoon light illuminates it. However the walk-in-robe is being transformed into a baby nursery as baby number three spins itself silently into being in the well of my flesh. For the baby we are actually going so far as to remove the clothes – I wrote with coats and dresses hanging back politely, or rudely pressing into my back, or reading over my shoulder. It depended on the garment.

I thought about my five year old iBook with its faulty battery, permanently set up at the end of the kitchen table in our very small 2 bedroom house, the iBook bought when I was pregnant with my second daughter and living in another small two-bedroom house (we have lived in five houses since I became a mother/writer and all of them have been small, with a single living space).

I thought about all the scraps of paper out there in the world with what I like to call my scratchlings on it (I have never kept a cohesive journal, it is the act of writing not the writing itself that seems to be important in my process). Often these scratchlings occur in the park, or whilst breastfeeding, or as I prepare dinner, or when I shut myself away from the children.

I thought about my blog, Eglantine’s Cake, which is where the writer and mother coincide, in a reflective record of the everyday, of domesticity.

And I thought about Google Docs, which I used last year to write the collaborative novel Dear Swoosie with my friend Kate Constable, a novel about mothers and daughters, because the demands on each of us as mothers of daughters were so great that neither of us could conceive of writing a whole book on our own.

The common thread in all those thoughts are my children. In the end it is hard to separate my writerly self from my motherly self, and the common thread is always them, my daughters. So I am going to write about my children as tools.

Oh yes, I know how that sounds. Of course they are agents, autonomous beings (the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself, as Kahlil Gibran would say), and not objects for me to pick up and leave off as it suits me. The word 'tool' implies agency and control on my part, and these are not those sorts of tools. They are tools which thrust themselves upon me when I don’t know they are needed, like magic hammers leaping into my hands to fix the walls of my house before I know they are broken.

Everything I needed to unlearn about writing I learned from my children.

1. PLOT: Reality is malleable.
2. PLOT: But sometimes magic is overrated.
3. VOICE: Spelling is also over-rated. Sometimes you need to write it wrong to get it right. Sometimes grammar needs to fall apart to show that the world is falling apart.
4. VOICE: Listen. Especially when they think you can’t hear them.
5. THEMES: Remember your dreams.
6. FIND COMFORT IN YOUR ART: When sad, confusing things happen and the world stops making sense, write poetry.
7. Learn to cope with disappointment and rejection.
8. Remember the eternal questions. (This conversation forms the basis of my work in progress, Only Ever Always.)
9. Use what comes to hand. Improvise.


Elisabeth said...

What a fascinating post. Thanks Penni and Damon for including it here. Your list of ideas on writing are invaluable, Penni.

I cannot write about my own daughters anymore. I wish I could. They, their lives and thoughts are endlessly fascinating - to me at least - but there came a time when they refused to let me write about their antics. In adolescence I think and now I must respect their wishes.

To me childhood, even infancy is the seedbed for creativity. How wonderful that you can find such resonances there for your writing.

Penni said...

Elisabeth, I am very conscious of the fact that one day I might have to seal and archive my blog, that their stories don't belong to me.

I ask permission now of the older one (Fred's seven) for me to share something she has written or a conversation we've had on my blog. She likes that I blog about her now, but I know one day, for at least one of them, that will change.

(And then I will have to complexly disguise and deeply embed their stories in fiction).

Damon Young said...

E: Glad you liked it, Elisabeth. Thus far, infancy and toddlerhood has been inspiring, disciplining, evocative. But now I do ask Nikos if he minds.

P: Yes, I think I'll be the same. And did you just invent a word, 'complexly'?

Penni said...


Damon Young said...

Ha. I stand corrected, Penni. Now I have a new word.

Megan said...

Fantastic post, as always, Penni!

Rachel Power said...

What a beautiful post. I'm only sorry I'm so late to it!!
I completely relate to that feeling of being a 'fraud' in either guise (writer/mother). The funny thing is, now that my kids are at school, when I see mothers with small children on the street or in cafes, I feel that weird urge to announce: "Hey, I'm a mother too!" I kind of envy them that badge that small children automatically give you, just by their presence -- and the comradeship that exists between parents of small children. Anyway, that's a bit off the subject. I love all your ideas here, Penni. Thanks for sharing them so generously!