Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On literature and life: public writers, private lives

Island #135, pp.42-43: note the schmick design
Earlier this month, Ruth Quibell and I had a feature in The Age, on the lives of writers.

The feature was an extract from a much longer essay in Island magazine, which is now out in bookshops: 'Public writers, private lives'.

The essay is something of a labour of love for the two of us. We are not only writers, but also writers who're married -- to each other. And both of us have, over the years, combined writing, paid work and parenting.

Prompted by Island's editor, Matt Lamb, we wanted to find out how other writers negotiate income, workload, family, friends and (perhaps most crucially) identity.

To this end, we spoke to twenty writers from Australia and abroad: Tony Birch (Aus), Alison Croggon (Aus), Amy Gray (Aus), David Lebedoff (USA), Peter Timms (Aus), Helen Hayward (Aus), Clint Greagen (Aus), Jennifer Mills (Aus), Benjamin Law (Aus), Alain de Botton (UK), John Armstrong (Aus), Charlotte Wood (Aus), Robyn Annear (Aus), David Francis (USA), Rachel Power (Aus), Tom Farber (USA), Dawn Barker (Aus), Emma Darwin (UK), Maria Tumarkin (Aus), and Matt Lamb (Aus) himself. They were generous with their time and insights, and we're grateful for both. Here's a sample:
“I have that faraway glazed look that writers often have, especially on holiday.” – essayist and broadcaster Alain de Botton 
Writers, however solitary their practice, are rarely alone. They have spouses, partners, children, parents – each of whom brings generosities and obligations, anxiety and contentment. These intimacies inhabit and, in some cases, justify, the author’s imagination. At the very least, these relationships demand an outward sensitivity at odds with the aloof stereotype. 
Some of the established writers we spoke to have little difficulty switching off from the demands of family life. For Alison Croggon this habit of “focusing in the midst of chaos” is one she cultivated early on in life. “I could be oblivious,” says Croggon, of her kids’ early years, “until I heard THAT scream (or THAT ominous silence) which meant I had to go and deal with something.” For Thomas Farber, this problem has practical solutions: “industrial ear protectors to muffle sound. I never answer the phone.” 
Others are more divided about the relative value of writing and parenting. “I refuse to switch myself off from my friends,” declares historian Maria Tumarkin. “I do not leave my son in afterschool care. I put relationships before writing.” Helen Hayward has arrived at a similar resolution. For her “own mental health” she wants to take care of her family and home “in order to keep what I care about buoyant”, while also respecting her work of writing “which I fit in whenever possible”. At this point, neither family nor writing is more important than the other. 
Importantly, parenthood and writing need not be at odds. Helen Hayward, for example, writes to better understand her family, while novelists Dawn Barker and Emma Darwin say having children allowed them to write in the first place. “I don’t think I’d have written,” reflects Darwin, “if I hadn’t had children, even though that’s not what I write about at all.” Darwin says her children made her “think about things for the first time.” Dawn Barker says having children has given her the emotional space to start writing: the break she needed from her demanding career as a psychiatrist. She takes regular time away from her young children to write, and is a “much more satisfied and happier mum” with a creative vocation she is proud of. She escapes the pram in the hall by working at the local library. 
A handful of writers also believe that the profession’s flexibility leaves them more available to their children. For columnist and sole parent, Amy Gray, writing allows her to be “physically available”, including walking her daughter to and from school. A parent of young adult children, Alison Croggon similarly reflects that she and playwright husband Daniel Keene were “much more available as parents than we would have been if we had had conventional jobs... I think it made a very great difference, especially during the teenage years.” Contrary to the trope of unhappy writers’ children, Croggon’s recollection of parenting is one of fun: “We’ve always had a lot of fun together as a family because we’ve never stopped talking to each other and being interested in what each of us are doing.” Importantly, this is as much about marriage as it is about parenting.
The digital copy is for subscribers only, but Island is available in good bookshops, like Readings. Of course, you can always subscribe.

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