This week’s wisdom is from one of my favourite humans: Kate Whitfield.
She’s uniquely suited to being a writer because of her heightened awareness of the emotional, her gift for observation, and her extremely clever way of conceiving original solutions to complex problems.
These qualities also make her a wonderful mother.
Who are you?
I’m Kate, a writer and editor and the mum of Leopold (Poldy; 7) and Ted (4) and the partner of Jerry.
How would you describe your craft?
I write fiction. Traditionally I’ve written adult literary fiction, but at the moment I’m working on a historical/fantasy/adventure novel for children.
Has your creative process and practice changed since becoming a parent? If so, how?
It’s hard to even remember life before kids clearly! There’s such an overwhelming before-and-after demarcation. But I don’t think much has changed about my process, except for the understanding that when I have a chunk of time available to write, I have to make the most of it. I’d love to say that I never procrastinate anymore, but sadly it’s not true – I still procrastinate, but I have a much more acute understanding of how wasteful it is!
Being a parent has helped prove how important writing really is to me. Parenting and working a day job, it could have been easy to just part with my unpaid creative process and let it drift away. But if I go too long without writing I feel dissatisfied and incomplete. So even though it’s harder to fit into my life now, I know that is an essential part of my sense of self.
Do your kids inspire your work? If so, how?
I think I can credit my kids at least partially with my decision to finally start writing children’s fiction. I had an adult literary novel going when I got pregnant with Poldy, and I ultimately found it impossible to pick it back up after he was born, though it took me about five years to finally give up on it. When I did, I felt liberated to work on something that made me feel good. I read the Harry Potter books at the same time as we started reading them to Poldy and they made me so happy, I realised that children’s books were where my heart always lay. And the idea of writing something that my kids could read and hopefully enjoy was a powerful one – essentially it’s just a life goal to impress my kids somehow!
Two of the characters in my book are based on them, too. When you’re a parent your child is the most fascinating person in the world to you, so it’s not terribly surprising that I should turn them into literary characters. Pure self-indulgence. (But they are fascinating!)
Who could fail to be inspired by this pair?
Do you include your kids in your creative practice? If so, how?
As mentioned above, two of the characters in my book are directly based on my two sons, so in a very literal sense, yes I do include them! But not in the way that you mean.…
In that way, the answer is, frankly, no. I have an annoying dependency on solitude and isolation to get any writing done.
If you count editing as a creative practice (which it is, in a very different way), I’ve been thrilled to be able to use Poldy’s input in my work. I edit books for children and young adults and this year I’ve shown him a couple of manuscripts I’ve been working on. On more than one occasion he was able to articulate something that was niggling at me as a problem I had not been able to grab hold of. It’s also been a brilliant way of exploring with him the things that don’t work in stories – things that, I suppose due to having editors as gatekeepers, he has never come across in published books before. Examples being when characters do or say something out of character, or express a view that might be the author’s but isn’t appropriate for the form, or the age group. I think it’s been great for his (and my) understanding of story logic.
Story under construction
How do you think the way you were parented influenced your career choice, and your creative interests?
I was always encouraged towards books by my parents, particularly my mum. They saw that I loved reading and writing and always praised me for doing it. I think it was important that my mum was (and is) a big reader herself, even though our tastes don’t overlap much. One of the biggest and hardest things I’ve learned since becoming a parent is that giving advice, direction and encouragement towards a certain behaviour means nothing if you’re not modelling that behaviour yourself.
That said, my parents were certainly glad that I chose to pursue a meaningful (if not high-paying) day job as well.
What do you do to encourage creativity in your own children?
Most importantly, we make books part of our everyday lives, and they are built into the routine – a book for the boys together before bedtime, and then another one (in Poldy’s case, a chapter of a book) individually in bed. Then Poldy spends 10-30 minutes reading another book on his own before lights-out. We have another habit, which I love, of making up stories around the dinner table. We start a narrative with something very open-ended, eg ‘Once there was a young girl who lived high on a mountain, and she…’ and we take turns building on the narrative until we have a complete and often bizarre and/or hilarious story.
Toys like Lego are incredibly useful in fostering creativity, not just for the building but for the imaginative games that spring from it. In our family we are much more about games and stories than creating in a physically constructive sense. Jerry is an amazing storyteller as well and I love the idea that we can each have an alternate universe happening in our minds, and sometimes they intersect.
Sometimes I have to struggle against the romantic idea that if you give a kid free time they will come up with all sorts of wonderful worlds on their own. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they need prompts. Recently, Jerry built them a brilliant cubby house/cushion fort, and I was so dismayed that they played in it for a couple of minutes before losing interest. But then I suggested to them that they could be spies and the fort their secret base, and they launched into something that lasted for hours. The really simple things like that can be easy to forget.
Dilemma: which to read first?
How do you make time for your craft? What strategies do you use to ensure that you get shit done?
You have to very purposefully carve out time for yourself, and give up the idea that it can be done without sacrificing something else – be it sleep, paid work, or time spent with your family. Last year I negotiated with Jerry to spend a day each week writing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a partner who takes my writing seriously, because paying for child care one day a week without any guaranteed income to show for it is a pretty big ask for the family budget.
Coming up this year I will be able to spend a few months finishing my novel because of an Arts Victoria grant. But after that I’ll be returning to work four days, with one day spent with Ted, and writing is going to mean getting up eeeaarly in the morning.
How do you recharge when you’re feeling totally tapped out?
The best ways I have to recharge are spending time alone, and spending time out in nature. On the rare occasion I can combine the two I’m totally revitalised.
On a more day-to-day basis, it’s very important to find the balance between sleep and time to yourself. Sometimes truly the best thing for you is an early night, while other times the idea of going to bed without having had a stretch of time with your own thoughts, or with adult conversation, feels completely suffocating. As you get more experienced as a parent, you get better at knowing which it is you really need.
Out in nature…
All the photos used in this post were taken by her.