If parenting and creating art have anything in common, it’s that they can both be all-consuming endeavours.
The creative process absorbs your attention, engulfs your imagination, and demands intense effort in a different, yet equally unyielding way to parenting. They are processes of making and developing, with all the mess, uncertainty, and exhilaration that entails.
The question of how creative parents negotiate the conflict between these competing aspects of their lives is something that fascinates me. How are we meant to simultaneously be all there for our children, and give everything that our creative pursuits require as well?
I honestly don’t know. I suspect it’s a process of compromise, frustration, time management, and a little bit of witchcraft.
To gain a better insight into this, I’ve asked some of my friends about how they do it, and I’m going to share their wisdom with you in an ongoing series here on the blog.
I am honoured to kick the series off with some insight from immensely talented writer, and mother of three, Penni Russon.
Penni and I met through mutual friends, and over the course of our friendship, I’ve been struck by what a uniquely insightful, intuitive woman she is. She has a way of making you feel not only heard, but understood.
Penni’s writing has been described as compelling, emotive, and magical. These are all words that I would use to describe the woman herself.
Who are you?
Penni Russon, author of novels and mother of Frederique (11), Una (8) and Avery (3).
How would you describe your craft?
I am a writer of novels mostly for children and young adults, but also short stories and poetry for smelly grown ups.
Has your creative process and practise changed since becoming a parent? If so, how?
I signed the contract for my first novel, Undine, soon after Frederique was born. So I guess I became a “proper” writer after I became a mother. Before Fred was born, I wrote late into the night, in bursts of frenzied inspiration. I have always taken my writing seriously, and taken myself seriously a a writer (though I’d never taken myself very seriously as a grown up). But after Fred was born I became a lot more disciplined. I had to structure my time quite carefully and use the time available to me productively. I’d never really had a work ethic before. I managed well when Fred and Una were small.
Then Avery was born the November before Una started school, and I’ve never quite got the hang of having three and also the pressure to move into a bigger house was quite overwhelming. I’m afraid I’m going through a phase where creativity doesn’t bring me pleasure. I’m learning mindfulness and self-compassion though, and this is helping me learn to be more curious and gentler with myself.
Do your kids inspire your work? If so, how?
Always. Probably in the most immediate and obvious way, I write from the questions they ask me, especially the ones I can’t answer. All my books are about the same thing – the porous borders between what is real and what is pretend. Self and other, self and world. I am inspired by their mistakes and by their play worlds and by the things they make me remember about my own childhood.
Do you include your kids in your creative practise? If so, how?
We read a lot together. I have a conversation with Fred about our heartbeats in the Author’s note in the back of Only Ever Always, and she got up and read it with me at the book launch. We have all participated together in the month of poetry, writing a poem a day. I’m currently writing a novel on Storybird.com and both my girls have accounts. I take them to festivals. Fred came and talked to a Writing for Children class I was teaching about being a child reader. We’ve always made books together. Fred and Una are both keen writers. I am hoping Avery will be too.
Some of Frederique’s early work.
How do you think the way you were parented influenced your career choice, and your creative interests?
There was a lot of reading in my family home. But also my parents told me stories about their parents, or their youth, about the mistakes they made, the food they ate, the way wars or political changes influenced their personal stories. My nanna lived with us when I was a teenager and she told me her stories too. My dad had a big streak of whimsy, and drew lots of funny pictures, wrote notes, would write silly responses in my private diaries about boys (like ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea, but who wants to go around with a fish but another fish?) For all of that, creativity was never seen as serious work in my house, and the fact that I grew up to be a writer was probably in spite of them rather than because of them. I often think now I was influenced by my best friend’s parents who were both professional artists and lecturers at the Art School. Mum wanted me to sit the public service exam. Dad just thought I was wonderful whatever I did, whereas Mum was quite critical and would often point out my flaws or downgrade my achievements (it took me a long time to realise she was much, much harder on herself). They are both proud of me now. My Dad had once wanted to go to art school, but he got his first girlfriend (not my mum) pregnant so married very young and ended up becoming a teacher instead. I don’t know if he has regrets about a missed opportunity, but he’s taken up painting again, in his late eighties, even though he is legally blind.
What do you do to encourage creativity in your own children?
When the girls were little we always had drawing stuff set up for when they got up. They did a lot of drawing, though Avery’s not as into it. We would make books with Fred, she would dictate and we’d write the stories down, then read them back to her at story time. We’ve never really allowed “screens” after dinner (with the exception of the occasional movie night), it’s always read or occasionally draw. But I think really for the most part, I’ve just given them space and time to make, play, dream, imagine. I listen when they talk about their inner lives and show real interest in their dreams or their days. I tell them stories about when I was a little girl, or my exes or whatever. I encourage empathy and open-mindedness. Empathy is a huge act of creation for children – it’s very hard for children to identify with others’ points of view and my kids do it well. The hardest thing for me is striking a balance between encouraging them to do something for the love of it, and getting them to take it reasonably seriously (like Una plays violin and while I hate making her practice, I also know that the only way she’ll get the rewards is if she puts in the work, even when it seems tedious and repetitive).
How do you make time for your craft? What strategies do you use to ensure that you get shit done?
I don’t do housework if I have writing to do. That’s my biggest talent – I can write no matter how much laundry there is to do. Recently I got an OZCO grant and went to Tassie for three weeks without the kids. I’m not scared or worried about leaving them for a while, and I don’t really feel guilty. (Sometimes I feel guilty about not feeling guilty.) At the moment I shut myself in the bedroom for a few hours on the weekends because I have a day job. I quit Facebook. One day I will probably quit Twitter and Instagram even if it’s only for a while.
What do you do to recharge when you’re feeling completely tapped out?
Watch Buffy and bake.
Penni’s work in progress.
All the photos used in this post were taken by her.