Friday, 5 December 2008

Motherhood and Creativity

Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright was writing a column in the Review section of the Guardian on the topic of children and creativity. Where does this myth come from that children will spell the end of creativity she asked us. Enright had started writing before marriage and children, and decided to take the risk of becoming a mother. To her relief she found that her children did not only not hinder her creativity but in fact enhance it.

I have thought about this topic a lot. I gave up my academic career to be with my children. In my case I would not have been able to combine motherhood and life in academia. Before I had the children I was not aware how protective I would feel about them, convinced that nobody but my husband or I would be able to give them enough cuddles and love. Apart from that I am a perfectionist who is not happy when I have not got the time to do things to the standard I want. To make matters worse I am a contemplative person who needs time for reflection, time on her own, time for just sitting in silence and prayer. With three young children it was difficult enough to fit these hours in even without working outside the home.

However, as the children grew older and I watched them grow and develop, becoming their own persons, I gained confidence from that. Confidence that I could grow and change too, do what I always wanted to do; write. By encouraging my children to be who they are, to follow their dreams, I was simultaneously encouraging myself to acknowledge my own gifts.

In the working class family where I grew up writing was not considered a worthwhile use of your time. It was a hobby like my mother’s painting. It wasn’t until I had children and became a mother that I had the courage to say, ‘I want to be a writer.’

It helped that I was not forced to earn money. My husband was happy to support us financially, and was able to do so. Many women struggle to fit the children into their lives when they are working, let alone the creative activities. My advice to them is: trust in life and work only as much as you need for the essentials. My children wore second hand clothes, they made do with one pair of shoes. We took holidays to my family in Austria.

I have spoken to other female writers and artists about their own experiences and found that I am not alone in thinking that motherhood is an excellent fertiliser for creativity. Many creative women agree that when they had all the time in the world, before marriage and children, they had neither the discipline nor the depth to give birth to worthwhile work. Their best time came after the children. They are not all successful in earning money with their art. I don’t believe that commercial success is an indication of worth. Your work is worthwhile if you are satisfied with it, if you know that it expresses your deepest being, your heart. Children have a way of making you aware of that heart.

The mixed Blessings of Awards and Prizes

Just over six months ago my first novel When the Mountains are scattered as Dust won the novel category of the Muslim Writers Awards 2008. It was a big event, perfectly planned, sponsered by Birmingham City Council and supported by the government. The evening provided live poetry, comedy and music and delicious food. The shortlisted writers had been invited in advance to film an interview talking about their work. I hated to see myself on a huge screen.

Let’s put this into context. I am an unpublished writer. I am still trying to find a publisher for my first novel while working on my third one. I submitted the novel for the prize because entry was free. Yes, this is one of my principles. I won’t pay for being judged. Deep down in my heart I probably go along with Béla Bartók’s wisdom “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” He died in 1945, when competitions were far less numerous than today. What would he make of today’s world? Competitions are everywhere, in every artistic field, from music to fine art to film making. No matter what I feel about competitions, the reality is that at the stage where I am I have to compete for the attention of an agent. Publishers won’t look at you without an agent these days. So how else can your manuscript receive attention, apart from being well written? Maybe mentioning that somebody else liked it enough to give it a prize will be of use? Or so I thought. It didn’t work. Agents are still rejecting it, and I have learned a very important lesson. Prizes are given on literary merit, but for agents to take you on your novel has to show commercial potential. Sometimes the two neatly merge, at other times they don’t.

So where does that leave me, writing with a voice that seems to be not mainstream or commercial enough?

In the six months since winning the prize and not getting anywhere nearer to publication I have gained a lot of inner strength. I have prayed a lot, and I have come to the conclusion that I am not writing for success. I am writing for truth, first and foremost my own. When I write I am not trying to escape from something, I am in fact facing many things I would rather keep buried. My writing is not distraction or entertainment, it is hard work for me, and of course, when it all goes well, shere bliss. In short, I shall keep on writing.

The Arts Council recently gave out a grant to publish 5,000 novels for free. My novel will be one of them. When they say publish they mean print on demand. It is no more than self-publishing without the costs this would involve. The copyright will stay with me, and my search for a mainstream publisher will continue because without it there won’t be any reviews, or any copies of the book in a bookshop. I have to do all the hard work of designing the book myself, and while I am wasting my time like that, I ask myself, ‘Why are you doing it?’ I am doing it because despite what I was saying above, there is an insisting nagging voice inside every writer that tells her that you aren't really a writer until you have found your readers.

Why "writingfortruth"?

When I asked my husband to buy me the address “writingfortruth” for my blog he tried to dissuade me. “People will think that you are a political writer, uncovering conspiracies and hidden agendas.” I thought about it. “Well,” I said to him the next day, “I still want the address. It doesn’t matter if I disappoint some people. In a way I am trying to uncover conspiracies, the conspiracies of ordinary human beings, the lies they tell themselves to cover up the truth, the one truth that nobody can deny; that our journey on this earth here will come to an end for everyone of us. Nobody likes to talk about this end. Rather they distract themselves. If I am rich, if I have children, if I am famous, if I am successful in my career, if I am educated, if I am cultured,….then what? The end will still be the same.” However, I believe that when you let go of all these ideas, when you take away all those outside layers of the human being and come to her essential truth, to what Erich Fromm calls the “human essence”, the very thing that makes you human and links you to every human being on this planet, then your journey will have no end.

In a way, this is what I am aiming at in my fiction, to point to this essence, to this truth of our humanity. Franz Kafka said once, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” I have no idea what he considered to be the frozen sea, but the sentence struck me as relevant for my writing even though I don’t like the metaphor of the axe. I understand what he means, and I respect the axe, but it’s not my way. I prefer a gentler method. I prefer my books to have the power of the rays of the sun, thawing the frozen sea inside us. To be able to achieve that is a continuous struggle for the writer. She has to get her own self out of the way first, take an axe to her own frozen sea. Every book will demand a different axe. If we want to stay with this metaphor, she has to make a hole in the ice where she can fish for truth, like the Innuit who accept that they cannot wait for the ice to melt before they can feed themselves.

Another writer, Hélène Cixous, has expressed this same demand in a different way: “A writer has no children; I have no children when I write. When I write I escape myself, I uproot myself, I am a virgin; I leave from within my own house and I don’t return. The moment I pick up my pen – magical gesture – I forget all the people I love; an hour later they are not born and I have never known them. Yet we do return. But for the duration of the journey we are killers.” If you kill your family you kill aspects of yourself that might distract you, the wife, the mother, the daughter, the sister, until there is nothing left but your essential self. The truth is hidden in this essence. The paradox is that only when you have stripped yourself of everything can you write with your own unique voice. My vision for this blog is to record the struggles of writing, the pitfalls we all face as writers, the lies we tell ourselves, and the distractions we fall prey to, when things go well as much as when they don’t.