The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Women We Love: Rachel Power

Posted by hannahcolman on May 14, 2009

Rachel Power with Griffin and Freya

Rachel Power with Griffin and Freya

Melbourne-based writer and editor Rachel Power has had her finger in an assortment of pies over the years – she’s worked as a court artist for television news, designed album covers and taught life-drawing. And she’s done plenty of writing – as a freelance journalist, a biographer (she wrote Alison Rehfisch: A Life for Art), a contributor to The Age Cheap Eats Guide, and as chief reporter for the Australian Education Union Newsletter. She’s certainly come a long way from her cadetship at The Canberra Times, where she spent a lot of time trying to draw coherent answers from teenage guitarists for her column Band Scene.

In August last year, Red Dog Books published Rachel’s second book, The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood – a collection of interviews with Australian artists including singer Clare Bowditch, expat actress Rachel Griffiths, filmmaker Sarah Watt and author Nicki Gemmell. In the book, Rachel asks these women about their choice to have children and the ramifications of motherhood for their art. Rachel’s journalistic aptitude is apparent as she teases out her subjects’ unflinchingly honest opinions on the delicate balance between art and motherhood. The Divided Heart is book ended with Rachel’s own experiences – she shares with us the strains of cosseting her creative instinct while being mother to Freya, 4 and Griffin, 7.

Here, she chats with The Dawn Chorus about the artist/mother dichotomy, the debate about the inherent inequalities between men and women, and the likelihood of her domestically-themed reincarnation.

* * *

The Dawn Chorus: How long did it take to write The Divided Heart?

Rachel Power: I think about four years.

TDC: There’s a huge amount of work in it…

RP: That was in no way four years full-time! I mean… I might have written two or three nights a week, largely between 10pm and 1am. And I had [Freya] during that time, so there would have been whole months when I wasn’t doing anything at all. And also I spent a good year trying to get it published.

TDC: At what point in the process of writing the book did you actually start looking for a publisher?

RP: I think I’d done a selection of interviews – maybe five – before I had a publisher. Because I wanted to get a good sample of interviews together, and have a clear idea of what I was doing. And I already had two arts grants to do it as well. And I got a fellowship from Varuna, the writers’ house, so I felt like there was interest in the idea. Every time I approached a woman and asked her if I could do an interview on that theme, I’d get these ‘Thank God!’ reactions… you know… ‘I’ve never had the scope for talking about this before!’ And I realised it was really meaningful to these women, it was a huge question in their lives, how they were going be both [artist and mother], and the implications of children for their career and vice versa. So it was no small theme and I think it’s got all sorts of implications for the nature of art and the nature of women’s lives and the choices that women are forced to make. So I kind of saw it as this big theme. But when I took it to publishers I think they saw it as a very little theme! You know, it was like a niche within a niche, art within motherhood. And they just couldn’t see where the market for it was. The main questions I got were, ‘Why are artists so special?’ and, ‘Aren’t all working mothers struggling with combining work and mothering?’

TDC: Were you concerned that potential publishers might see the book as just one big whinge about how hard it is for mothers to retain balance in their lives?

RP: Yep, definitely, I think they couldn’t see the scope of the theme. And they just perhaps… there was talk about whether it was just going to be a book of complaint. And I was conscious of hoping that it wouldn’t just be a book of complaint, and I don’t think it is. I mean it might look like that on first glance. Some women were worried… Some women are already worried about being identified as mothers, or even being identified specifically as women artists. You know, they want a level playing field. They don’t want to single themselves out as being different or particular because they’re female or because they’re mothers. So they’re scared of making [the fact that they are a mother] a part of their public profile. And I can completely understand that. So that was one aspect. And I think there were others who were slightly defensive about the idea of talking about mothering; they were of the kind of, you know, ‘Get on with it! Everyone’s lives are complicated, why should I pretend that I’m special?!’ And really, the book isn’t trying to suggest that artists who are mothers are special, it’s just a particular area of interest. Having children is life changing. And I think that’s got to have implications for art, and for artists.

TDC: In her review of The Divided Heart, Julie Szego suggested that you might have done better to organise the book thematically. Was this ever a consideration?

RP: Yeah, I did consider organising the book thematically. And it’s funny that that’s a criticism. The problem with doing it that way is that I felt the individual stories would get lost, and also that people will have particular interests in particular artists, and will want to read that woman’s story in its entirety. But also, I didn’t set out to do something scholarly. I’m not an academic, and I didn’t want to be the expert on art and motherhood, you know?! I didn’t want it to be a thesis. Doing it thematically might have made it more of a kind of scholarly exercise.

TDC: And that might have taken away from your role as a vessel for these women’s stories. I mean, your voice is absolutely in there but essentially you’re the medium between the artist and the reader.

RP: Yeah, I just wanted to be a conduit for other people’s stories, so that’s why I chose to do it that way.

TDC: What comes to mind when you hear the word feminism?

RP: I always have identified as a feminist, I think. But I actually don’t think it meant anything… I don’t think inequality had implications for my own life, until I had children. Having children can be a very galvanising experience in that way, because you start to realise how inherent inequalities can be. And it doesn’t actually mean they’re anybody’s fault, it’s just that women’s and men’s lives at certain points can become quite different to each other. And then you’ve got to look at what of that is structural and what is just the way it is, the way it’s always been. And then you’ve got to start asking yourself if this is the way it actually has to be. So, you know, I still feel really strongly that the workforce is skewed in a way that doesn’t really enable men to participate in rearing their children as easily as I would like. I mean, I would love for my partner and I to be working part time or to both be working four days, but his job doesn’t allow that.

TDC: In The Divided Heart you talk about your husband heading off to work without too much fuss, yet when you disappear behind a door your children practically bash it down to get to you…

RP: I think particularly when kids are very little… they’ve got almost a romantic attachment to you, it’s an obsession.

TDC: You’re their life!

RP: You’re their whole world, that’s right. So when you disappear, that’s very destabilising for them. So I think to be a distracted mother can be quite distressing for a kid. So this was one of the bases for me in writing the book – it’s very confronting to realise that there are two little people that rely on you in that way. And that every act feels like it has implications for their lives.

TDC: You talk about being a mother and an artist and the constant desire to be in two places at once. How do you find harmony in your life with that dichotomy constantly in play?

RP: I don’t! (laughs) Yeah… It’s a really tough question because I do actually… if I’m really honest, my life is more harmonious when I’m not trying to write. Which sounds sad. More harmonious externally, that is… much less harmonious internally. You know, that’s the contradiction. That’s why it’s so fraught. Because I recognise that if I haven’t been writing for a while then I start getting really irritable, and frustrated, and a bit depressed. And I start thinking, ‘Why am I so miserable?!’ and then I realise that I haven’t done any writing for a week or two. But on the other hand, I feel like I’m, not solely, but to a large extent, responsible for keeping a household running smoothly, and do find that the less time that I… the less caught up I am in my creative life, the more time I’ve got for just running the household in a functional way. It’s a kind of dysfunctional life for me in a lot of ways, trying to be an artist and a mother. Because I’m working too [writing a magazine for the Education Union as well as freelance work for various publications], so art just gets squeezed in around the edges basically, which is not ideal.

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood

TDC: In the book’s introduction, you paint a vivid picture of your life when Griffin was very young, when you realised what writing meant to you. You describe writing as an “act of independence – a mutiny against days characterised by sufficiency and selflessness.” Was writing, in the initial stage of your son’s life, almost an act of defiance? Of showing the world – I can still do this?

RP: I don’t think I needed to show the world, I think I needed to show myself. Because probably in having kids, I felt more alive than ever. I think you have to put so many of your own needs aside. To mother is – in many ways – a very plodding, functional job. And that’s partly because of the sheer workload that goes with mothering. I mean children themselves are charming, and lovely to be around. But the housework! I describe it in the book as a black hole… my relationship with housework is very… I’ve got an almost obsessively negative relationship with housework! I wish I could learn to be more Zen about it (laughs). I said to my partner the other day – “I’m so un-Zen about housework, I’m sure I’m going to be reincarnated as a toilet brush or something!” (laughs) I think that’s what confounded me, just the sheer workload, and I get really resentful about it. Because I often feel like, you know, three loads of washing… or writing… and I feel like I make that choice on a daily basis. Between housework and creativity.

TDC: You say you wished in some of your darkest moments to be free of the artistic impulse so that you could just enjoy your time with the children, without fretting about the impact of your work on your kids…Do you envy people who don’t have that impulse?

RP: Yep. I do envy them. It’s a funny thing, I think that’s an issue for all artists, whether they have children or not… there’s this great thing that one of the writers [in The Divided Heart], Tegan Bennett Daylight, said to me once, which was something like, “Today would have been such a lovely day, if only I wasn’t an artist!” Which is a funny quote, but I think it sums it up in some ways, because you almost lead a double life as an artist, in a way, because you’re walking along and you’re also watching yourself walking along. And it’s that split mind that you have all the time, because you have this need to turn your experience into something else, all the time. And I think that’s really hard when you have children, because children like you to be very, very present, in the moment, so to have half of your mind off somewhere else, they can pick up on that very easily. And they find that very annoying.

TDC: So are the happy times with your children, like what you talk about in the book’s opening, as frustrating as they are inspiring? I mean, do you just want to write about those experiences as they are happening?

RP: Well I wrote a whole book about it! (laughs) So I guess it must be… Yeah, I was thinking about that this morning. I don’t go as far as saying having children made me a writer, but I think it intensified my need to write, hugely. Because having children is the most raw, the most exposing, vulnerable experience I’ve ever had, and there’s been a great need for me… I’ve felt like I’ve needed to express myself more than ever before. Because you know, motherhood’s been transforming for me. I feel completely plugged into the world in a different way. So, I think that was the beginning of the book in a way. This contradictory feeling that at the time that I needed to write most, I had the least time to do it.

TDC: You’ve talked about how some of the artists that you interviewed for the book might be surprised to read their own words. Were you surprised about how honest they were?

RP: Yeah… every single woman I approached was willing to be completely open and completely exposed. I mean, I’m sure there were things that weren’t said. But all of them were prepared to say, ‘This is a fraught aspect of my life.’ All of them… this is the really lovely thing about women, is that on the whole, they’re very willing to share their stories for the sake of other women. Because they understand the need for solace, and the need for inspiration for all of us to get through what is an extremely vulnerable time in our lives. You know, being a mother is really scary in lots of ways. As Clare [Bowditch] has talked about, it is a little holy club, I think she calls it, a little club of holy truth… But mothers will be unflinchingly honest with each other. And I think it’s also really lovely that we have reached a stage in our times when there is permission, there is the possibility for women to be very honest about the state of their lives and the state of their minds, and it’s not the scandal that might have once been. I mean, there are still people out there who react against it, and don’t want to hear anything but the kind of rosy, sentimental view of motherhood, or you know, somehow you’re being cruel to your children.

TDC: That’s a bit dangerous though, isn’t it? The view that motherhood is all roses… because when the reality hits…

RP: That’s right… it’s enough of a shock as it is. But having said all of that, I think it’s really important that the positive side of having children [is discussed].  I think every single woman in the book talked about that too. So, it wasn’t all just, ‘God, isn’t this hard!’ (laughs), although there is a bit of that! It is also that motherhood does this wonderful thing, I think it completely forces you to do away with the genius complex, you know, I think we’re still wedded to that whole mythology around artists. And once you have children, you can’t sit around waiting for the muse to hit around your fifth latte or something! You know, you really have such little time that you get on with it, and you learn to be spontaneous and you learn to do without the luxuries of atmosphere, you just learn to work quickly, and you get this incredible sense of urgency, so it’s really potent. They’re really potent circumstances for making art, if you can harness them.

TDC: Which women artists inspire you?

RP: Helen Garner is a huge inspiration to me, because I really admire the way she slips between fiction and non-fiction. I think she’s great at turning ordinary life into story, but she’s got such a keen eye and she’s a brutal observer, and I think she’s as hard on herself as she is on those around her and I think that’s a rare thing to be. I think she’s a really courageous writer, so I really admire her. Let me think…  These questions are always so hard in the moment! I think about lots of the women in the book all the time. Their words… I repeat their words to myself all the time. They all left my with various messages and ideas and thoughts that have really struck me, and the thing about them all is, they’re all just doing it! You know, that was the really nice thing about interviewing them all; that no matter how challenging their circumstances might be, at the end of the day they’re still getting on with it. I think the ones that really manage to make it work are the ones who have given themselves permission to be artists. Where they’ve found it in themselves to say ‘this is what I am, this is what I do’ and our life is going to have to work around that. That might mean that we can never afford to buy a house, that might mean that I’m not the mother who’s going to be home baking cakes every day. But this is the mother they’ve got. And they’ve all had to come to terms with that idea of being a good enough mother. There’s a lot to be gained from just watching women just be tough, I think, about their decision to be an artist even if it’s not, you know, even if it’s not always easy, an easy life.

Oh, and [Australian painter] Stella Bowen is also a really incredible example. She wrote a book called Drawn from Life. I think every artist/mother should read it. She was making art in the early 20th century when circumstances really were against her. She was a single mother, and she was married to Ford Madox Ford, who was a very famous male writer. And the differences between the way they were able to conduct themselves is really stark. So I would highly recommend her book.

TDC: Do you have aspirations to write another book? Do you write fiction too?

RP: Yeah. I really want to write a novel… which I’ve started. I’m still open to the idea that non-fiction might actually be my natural home. But I feel like I’ve got to purge myself of this novel that’s kind of been sitting in the back of my mind for years. Work out whether I can do it. It might be a grand failure but you’ve got to try.

Rachel will speak about juggling motherhood and creativity with Georgia Blain and Tegan Bennett Daylight at the Sydney Writer’s Festival later this month at the event Making Stories: Creative Lives.


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One Response to “Women We Love: Rachel Power”

  1. totalrevenge said

    nice interview, definitely getting this for mum as belated present…!

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