Ep 57 Words that should be in the dictionary, how to save time as a writer, are you a coffee-shop writer? How to make a motza as a self-published author. And we talk to Writer in Residence Rachel Power.

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In Episode 57 of So you want to be a writer: Brilliant words that we should add to the dictionary, time-saving tools for busy writers, the coffee-shop writer – Jane Costello, the fastest-selling adult novel in history, how to make a motza as a self-published author, the book Why is Q Always Followed by U? By Michael Quinion, Writer in Residence Rachel Power, and is this the biggest improvement to email since spell check?

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

The Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards Notables 2015 (Yay Allison!)

The Future of Media: How Tech is Disrupting Journalism – FREE LIVE EVENT in Sydney and Melbourne!
Get Melbourne tickets here – 23 April 2015
Get Sydney tickets here – 29 April 2015

Check out Allison at the Sydney Writers’ Festival! She’s talking about finding time to write when you have a family.

24+ Brilliant New Words We Should Add To A Dictionary

15 Essential Time-saving Tools for Busy Writers

The coffee-shop writer – Jane Costello

The Fastest-Selling Adult Novel in History: Paula Hawkins’ ‘The Girl On The Train’

Amazon Pays $450,000 A Year To This Self-Published Writer

Why is Q Always Followed by U? by Michael Quinion

Writer in Residence

Rachel Power is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. Her latest book is Creativity & Motherhood: The Divided Heart (Affirm Press), which is an updated edition of her previous publication, The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Red Dog Books), featuring conversations with some of Australia’s most prominent writers, artists and musicians about combining the twin passions of art and motherhood.
She is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Australian Education Union.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@altait
@valeriekhoo

Email us
podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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57

Transcript

Allison          

Rachel Power is a Melbourne based writer and editor. In 2002 she published her book called Alison Rehfisch: A life for art, then followed that up in 2008 with
The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, featuring conversations with some of Australia’s most prominent writers, artists and musicians about combining the twin passions of art and motherhood. In recent weeks a new edition of the book called Creativity and Motherhood: The Divided Heart, has been released.

 

Welcome to our podcast, Rachel

 

Rachel

Thanks so much, Allison.

 

Allison

Let’s talk about how you came to write The Divide Art: Art and Motherhood in the first place. Where did your interest in this subject come from?

 

Rachel

It came from my own personal experience, really, of being fresh out of art school. I already worked as a journalist for a number of years, I went back to university in my early 20s, studied part time and by my final year of university I was pregnant with my first child. In a way I didn’t really get that chance to build up a creative career, which is what I was hoping to do post-study. I found myself straight out of art school, new baby, and just feeling that I had — it was shock. I had no idea that babies could just eat time the way that they do. I could barely manage a warm piece of toast, let alone pen a short story.

 

I started thinking that I wanted to know how other women were managing to do it. So, I started looking around for examples. I had already studied art history, and so I knew pretty well that there were a disproportionate number of women artists who were childless, particularly I’d studied painting, so you just have to look at the list of famous female Australian painters to recognized that barely a single one of them has children, at least historically speaking. I wanted to find out if things had changed for women and how much they changed, and if they had changed, why and how.

 

Allison

How did you begin the process? Did you start by making a wishlist of people you wanted to speak to?

 

Rachel

No.

 

Allison

Did you put a proposal together for the book first? What was the impetuous how did you go forward with it?

 

Rachel

Yeah, I was flying blind. I suppose because I had all of those years as a journalist, one thing I knew how to do was track someone down and get an interview. I applied that really, and in a way, yeah, it was like a wishlist of sorts. I looked for women that I thought were interesting with children, often they were women who had already publicly spoken a little bit on the subject, or even just made a single remark in an interview and I’d followed it up. I started trying to contact women and see if I could meet with them for an hour and have a chat. I really had no idea at that point what I was going to do with it.

 

I was really just on my own path with trying to find out whether there was something of interest here, whether this was just my problem, or whether this might actually be a more universal experience.

 

Allison

This is a question that I’m often asked by sort of new freelance writers, let alone people who are trying to write a book, when you approach people, saying to them, “Look, I’m exploring this subject…” because you spoke to several people — we’re talking about people with profiles here, what did you say to them? “I’m thinking about putting together a book…” how did you convince them to give you their time?

 

Rachel

Interestingly enough you don’t always know who’s going to be really difficult to get to, and who’s going to be really easy. You would think Rachel Griffith, who’s one of the first people I approached, you would have to go through a funnel of gatekeepers, I sent her an email via her agent and I got a response directly back from her within, I think, 48 hours, which is really unusual.

 

I think that’s because she wanted to talk about the subject. I think I got lucky in that this was actually — to take it back a bit I suppose I did write a message saying, “I want to look at this subject, I want to look at it seriously, this is a chance to really have a conversation about the impact of children on your creative life, I want to get underneath, or past magazine, beautiful life stuff. I don’t want to have a superficial conversation, I really just want to know your experience. I think the interesting thing is there’s a difference between the profoundly personal and the profoundly public, I suppose.

 

What I’m trying to say is that I feel like you can talk at a very deep level about your experience without having to actually expose anything private about your family. I wasn’t asking for that, something different, between personal and private, that’s what I’m trying to say.

 

I found it actually quite easy to approach people, not many people rejected my approach, except for those women who really didn’t want to make the fact of being a mother part of their public profile, who were really trying to keep away from that, which is also understandable.

 

But, in terms of how other people might do it, I think most people are very reachable, especially now with social media. Obviously people with a high public profile, you will have to go via their agents or their manager, but it’s usually pretty easy to find out those details online. You just give it a go, they’ll say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

 

Allison
Which I think is fantastic advice, because that’s what I often say to people. You can’t make assumptions as to what someone will agree to do or what they won’t, you have to ask them. It’s amazing. I think people will generally try to be helpful if they can, generally.

 

Rachel

Yeah, that’s my experience, no one ignored me, I don’t think. Maybe Nicole Kidman’s agent ignored me, there might have been one or two, which is fair enough, they get flooded. But, I think on the whole I got a friendly and thoughtful response from almost everybody, and I think if it speaks to them chances are they’ll be interested in talking to you, if you’ve got a subject that they haven’t had a chance to talk about before, or they feel like they haven’t spoken about already somewhere else and they have something to say on it, chances are they will say yes.

 

Allison

When that first book came out what was the response to that first edition of
The Divided Heart?

 

Rachel

Interestingly, the response from the women I sought to interview was similar to the response I got from readers, which was quite a surprise to me, it was a real, “Thank God, someone is finally talking about this. Yes, the fact of having children has had a profound impact on my creative life. Good and bad.”

 

It’s not a book of complaint, I don’t want it to be seen that way, it’s definitely about the difficulties and the benefits of having children to a creative life. And there was a sense that there was a gap there. And, so my feeling, the personal feeling was there had been a gap there for me was actually true for other people, which is always nice when you feel that there has actually been a universal resonance and you’ve met some need out there.

 

I feel like, obviously, a book like this is never going to be for everybody, it’s got a very particular readership. But, of that readership there was a real hunger for this information. It was really lovely that it was a book that spoke directly to people that caused an emotional response.

 

I mean I got huge numbers of letters and emails. I feel like I’ve heard from almost ever reader I’ve got. It’s one of those books that it may not have sold in the hundreds of thousands at all, but means something that small readership that its got, and you can’t hope for more than that, really.

 

Allison

I think the thing about it was, and we were speaking about this before we pressed ‘record,’ but I read the book when it came out and I read it because Mia Freedman had spoken about it, and she’s got a blurb on the cover of the new edition. But, I think it was one of those situations where I think anyone who is in that situation will read a book like this and go, “It’s not just me.”

 

It’s like it gives you permission to realize that the way that you feel about this, like this being torn thing that you can have with it, is it’s not just you, because I think women feel so guilty about everything. That feeling can be — you just feel like you’re the only selfish person in the whole world who isn’t just throwing yourself into motherhood with gay abandon, and I think that’s possibly what I took from it when I first read it, “Oh thank God, I’m not alone.”

 

Rachel

That’s really good to hear. I think that’s exactly right. I’ve got letters along that line, this is the first time… I mean I think hopefully people have communities of a lot of just friends around them who are understanding and who you can be honest with, but I think there is a particular issue, when I first approached publishers I did get that question a lot of, “Well, why artists? Why are you so special? Why not all working mothers? Aren’t they all struggling with the guilt and with the work/life balance issues and so on?” which is true.

 

I mean nicely enough I’ve had letters from scientists and women as well who actually found something in this book as well, because they’ve also got a driving passion that they’re struggling to get at.

 

Allison

A passion for work.

 

Rachel

Yeah, that’s right. I think though, firstly there’s a lot of books out there on working motherhood and working mothers and work/life balance, I’m not saying that artists are special, I just didn’t feel that there was something out there specifically for them, and I do think it’s particular. I think it’s a particular experience that was worth exploring.

 

I think that’s because — lots of reasons. Art is a fundamental driving passion often for a lot of people, it’s quite obsessive, usually you’ve been able to do that in a very different way than before you’ve had children. It’s also very rare that it pays, so there is a different set of dilemmas.

 

Allison

For me, it’s often felt like a third shift. It’s often, I think for a lot of people, particularly you have to do the food on the table stuff, so you’re working and then you are also 24/7 parenting, and then there’s this drive in you that wants to paint or write or whatever it is you do, garden, make ceramics, whatever it is that you do. That always feels like something that is an extra, and I think maybe that’s where it comes from too, because it feels like something that you should not be so excited about, you know that you would actually like to spend time with your children, so you could go and do that. I think that’s maybe partly what it is, would you agree?

 

Rachel

Yeah, I mean Joanna Murray-Smith calls it the ‘third shift.’ I call it the ‘fourth shift,’ because I think housework is the third shift —

 

Allison

Oh, I don’t even do that.

 

Rachel

Well, lots of people say that, but you know, even if you don’t do it, there is a certain point at which —

 

Allison

You have to, that’s true.

 

Rachel

— you need a clean dish.

 

Allison

True, you’re right, you do. I do it.

 

Rachel

I feel like when you have children it’s not the having children part in many ways that’s the shock, it’s the workload that comes with it. In some ways having the children, not always, but often the lovely part of the whole picture. I mean the housework was just — I was quite overwhelmed by how —

 

Allison

The washing — how could there be so much washing?

 

Rachel

Yeah, and how could you have to do a load of washing every single day or you start drowning?

 

Allison

And fold it — what’s that?

 

Rachel

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I really definitely see it as the fourth shift. Particularly, I suppose for myself, because I work full time as well, in a paid job. It very much I feel like, that’s right, I’m already doing two full time jobs and trying to fit these other things around the edges. And, they do get stuffed in around the edges, that’s right.

 

I think it’s mixing, I suppose from my own experience and from talking with other women, is that you can see why it’s a point at which you could just so easily give it away, and that is historically what’s too often happened, sadly.

 

I think it might have been Alice Monroe that said, “This is the point at which so many women fall silent, because you’re already so overwhelmed that actually the discipline required to keep doing that creative work is really massive. It’s almost like a struggle against self, I think, sometimes, to not give in.

 

Allison

It is, you have to push yourself to do it, because if you don’t push yourself to do you then, as you say, you give in and you walk away.

 

Rachel

Yeah, and every moment that you give to yourself is basically bought, borrowed or stolen, and you know what that’s like. I mean Kate Kennedy in this edition of the book said something fantastic about how every time she got a chance to write was when she paid for a babysitter or put her child in childcare for a few hours, it was like writing with a taxi sitting outside with its meter running.

 

Allison

That is a great image, it’s very true.

 

Rachel

It was! It’s a perfect analogy, that’s how it can feel. It’s very pressurized.

 

I think also when you’re confronted with — particularly when your baby is very small and you might get an hour, or if you’re lucky two hours to yourself, it’s very hard to justify spending that wrestling with a blank page when you’ve got mountains of washing and dishes in the sink, you know? Because that’s much more realizable and achievable sometimes, than writing with no outcome.

 

Allison

There’s that whole thing of maybe you should just lie down and have a rest.

 

Rachel

Oh that, yeah, maybe get some sleep.

 

Allison

Yeah, that’s what goes for me. I make a joke about it on my website, but, yeah, I gave up sleep pretty much when my children were born, I just stopped.

 

Rachel

People tell you to sleep. I remember early on all of the midwives would say, “When your baby sleeps, you sleep too, that’s when you should get your sleep.” I think sleep, apart from the fact that the house is completely out of control — when would I ever write if I didn’t write when my babies were asleep?

 

Allison

That’s so true, so true.

 

Let’s talk about the new edition, why did you decide to update the book? It takes creativity of all different kinds, what made you decide that the book needed an update?

 

Rachel

The book went out of print quite awhile ago now, the first edition, and that just was very upsetting to me, because I had a lot of people writing to me trying to find a copy and I knew there was a lot of people out there who couldn’t get their hands on a copy.

 

I went through that process of thinking about whether I should self-publish it, but I don’t have a lot of capital, I really felt like it deserved a publisher to earn that kind of backing.

 

But, I wanted it to be something new, so I started seeking out a new publisher and fortunately found one , who’s my editor at Affirm Press. She really took it on. She’s been a bit of a champion of the subject, which has been great. I really was guided by her in her feeling too that it really needed to be updated.

 

Early on it was just going to be an additional couple of interviews, and then it grew and grew and we kept thinking of new people who could be in it. I had to make some pretty tough choices. In some ways I left those to editor, actually, in terms of who stayed in the new edition, in order to allow us to have some new voices in there, because I felt very attached to the first edition. I didn’t lose any interviews easily. Yeah, I guess I had to make some of the tougher choices, but I think it means that it’s a book that even those who have read the first edition, it will still have value, new value for them.

 

Allison

We’ve kind of moved on — what? Seven or eight years since the first one came out, has there been any difference in the response that you’ve received this time around?

 

Rachel

Well, it’s not even —

 

Allison

It’s only just coming out, isn’t it?

 

Rachel

It’s only just coming out. It hit bookshops, I think, yesterday, but bookshops can take awhile to actually get the book on the shelf, so I don’t even know that anyone has seen it yet.

 

Allison

I feel very privileged.

 

Rachel

Yeah, so I think it’s already getting a lovely response from those people who sort of stuck with me on my blog and so on, and have been engaged in the issues, but I’ll wait to see what the actual response is.

 

Allison

Well, maybe if our listeners read the book or have it to hand you guys can let us know what you think, because I would be really interested on your thoughts on the whole thing.

 

Let’s talk about the actual putting of the book together. Interviewing is something that is very close to my heart and my theory with interviewing has always been you get the best response if you ask the right questions, and that putting your questions together, that’s really where you’ve got to put your thought process in.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about how you interviewed for this book? Did you spend a lot of time with these people, or how did you go about that?

 

Rachel

I totally agree with you, I think coming to the right questions is so important.

 

I also have another theory, but this is only — not that it’s my own theory, it’s nothing new to anyone who’s used to interviewing, it’s only really right for certain kinds of interviews, but I felt that if you give something of yourself then the other person can meet you there.

 

I did a huge amount of research before I even started interviewing people. I read and read, I read biographies by women artists. I read everything I think I could get my hands on that had already been written about the subject, so that when I went into interviewing people I kind of had that whole backlog of information that I could bring to the conversation, even if they never saw it. I suppose I could go into it feeling like I really had my head around the subject so that if they raised an issue — sometimes I could even bring in a quote from another writer on that that they might find interesting and respond to. I brought in that.

 

But, I also just brought in my own profound interest, I suppose, in the subject and in
what they had to offer on it. Often I would go into those interviews telling them a little bit about… without wanting to use up too much of their time or take it over, telling them a little bit about where I was at so that hopefully they could kind of meet me at that same level, because I wanted a, for lack of a better word, ‘deep,’ which is such an annoying word, but, anyway, I didn’t want a superficial interview, because it’s a book. It’s not a news article. So, really I felt like I needed to get something really solid from them to make it worthwhile.

 

I only really met them for an hour. I mean I didn’t want to ask anymore of them than the minimal amount of time that they had to give, because it’s enough to ask anyone for that out of their day. So, it was really only an hour to an hour and a half, maybe, of talking to them, but, in that time I really knew what I wanted to get from that interview, so I went in very well-armed, I’d say.

 

Allison

With regards to all of these women and to make the narrative of your book interesting and readable, because, you know, the thing with a collection of interviews like this is there still needs to be a narrative arc to your book. So you were obviously looking for points of difference as well as similarities, would that be fair to say with each of the women?

 

Rachel

Yeah, of course. I mean the great thing about women is they talk. The great thing is about artists is they’re so articulate about their experience. I was pretty lucky. They were all incredibly intelligent, generous… they knew this stuff. I mean I picked women who I already knew had some interest in this subject, and I already knew could speak well. So, I was blessed with the generosity, I think, of the interviewees themselves already.

 

But, now I’ve just forgotten your question.

 

Allison

With regards to doing the interviews you said that you sort of went into them knowing pretty much what you needed to get out of them. I guess when you’re doing a selection of interviews like this you don’t want the experience to all be the same, so you were looking for a point of difference?

 

Rachel

Yeah. I have to admit that early on I was just looking for people I felt I could relate to. So, I probably wasn’t so focused on that, but after awhile, after realizing that it was going to be a book, that’s when I had to start thinking, “OK, this book needs to not just speak to me, but it needs to speak more broadly to lots of people and to lots of different experiences.”

 

I think some women just inherently in bringing their life to the page brought points of difference. Obviously they’re all working in different mediums, art forms, so that in itself has a whole different set of challenges, dependent on whether you’re someone who is expected to be in rehearsals for 14 hours a day, compared to someone who is really just reliant on trying to get some time to sit down with, you know, a notepad and pen and scratch away on their own.

 

That, in itself, was different. I was looking for women at different stages of their career and different stages in terms of their children’s ages. I looked for women whose children had already grown up as well as those with babies, because I wanted there to be hope for people at the other end — no, I’m being a bit cynical.

 

I mean I wanted to get that full picture, so that women could see that things do change, that there are women who manage to keep going, despite all of those years of
child-rearing and have come out the other end with not only having maintained their career, but also having raised some really great kids, who didn’t suffer because their mother was also trying to be an artist.

 

Allison

What would you say was the main thing you learnt, because that’s the beautiful thing — it’s one of the main reasons that I love writing articles and researching and interviewing is that I pretty much have just put myself through uni about seventeen times, with all of the people that I’ve spoken to, and you learn something all the time, you get to talk to experts and you learn. What’s the main thing that you’ve learned from having all of these conversations?

 

Rachel

I’m so lucky in that way. I’ve really felt that with every single interview that I did I just got a whole new perspective on how to move forward. I think probably the main thing that I’ve learnt that I think is important for all writers is that you have to give yourself permission to create, no one else is going to give that to you, no one is going to hand it to you on a platter, the world won’t give it to you, your kids aren’t going to give it to you. You have to hold tight to your sense that it is a valid thing to do and you give yourself permission to do it. Sometimes that means you have to be very hard on yourself, but you have to do that and you have to be unforgiving about it.

 

I think that’s what I saw in meeting with these women, and that can be confronting. People do it in different ways, some of them will literally try to write with their foot on the rocker, whereas some were employing nannies and some have full time partners at home. I mean everyone has very different situations. But, whatever their situations were what I saw is they found a way to give themselves that permission.

 

Allison

If you were going to write another non-fiction book, like what do you think the secret is to writing one that really works?

 

Rachel

I feel like now that the only secret is having a really, a really strong driving interest in the subject, because that’s the thing that will get you through, and I think that’s probably true whether you got jobs, children, all of those things that can be a barrier to getting to the writing, if you feel strongly enough about the subject you’ll usually find a way to dodge all of those, to dodge the obstacle course.

 

Allison

As a writer you’ve got a full time job, you’ve got a family, you’ve got the housework, as we’ve discussed, how do you manage to fit it all in? Are you one of those pie chart, spreadsheet, to do list people? Or are you more sort of flexible? How do you fit it in? What do you do? How do you manage it?

 

Rachel

Sometimes I don’t. I mean sometimes — you know I’ve had weeks or months where I’ve barely written at all. But, I also know about myself now that’s actually a recipe for getting really miserable and not being a very nice parent.

 

I think now, no, I’m not an organized person, actually. I mean I’m an organized person at work, but not so much outside of it. But, I think for me I now know where and how I write best, and I think if you know that, I think if you’re someone who knows that you write best in the mornings and you’re good at getting up at 5:00 AM and doing it that way, which lots and lots of people I know do, particularly mothers, then I think you just have to be really disciplined about setting the alarm for 5:00 and giving yourself those two hours before the rest of the household wakes up.

 

If you’re someone who knows that you’ve got the stamina to write at night, then you do that, and that’s true of me, I write at night.

 

Allison
So do I, I’m with you.

 

Rachel

It’s usually between the hours of 10:00 PM and midnight.

 

Allison

Yeah, look at us, we’re online together, we should be chatting. No, we shouldn’t because then we would never get anything done.

 

Rachel

It is amazing how many emails you get from women at that time of night.

 

Allison

Yeah, yeah. Most amazing.

 

Rachel

Because that’s when they get stuff done. So, I mean that’s pretty much how I do it. I read a lot when I can’t, because I don’t think you can write unless you’re reading, or I certainly can’t, maybe some can. But, you’ve got to stay engaged in reading all the time, I think, to sort of keep feeling like you’re in the conversation of writing. I just grab moments here and there.

 

I keep a journal with me all of the time. That was the other thing that came out of the interviews is all of them have found really pragmatic ways of working. So, I mean Joanna Murray-Smith she’s extraordinary and so incredibly prolific and can literally have her laptop on the bench top and be tapping on her laptop while fielding questions from her kids, answering phone calls and cooking dinner. I mean I think if you got to a point like she has where she’s very confident in knowing what she wants to do, then she’s almost just doing it in a very workman like way and getting the words down.

 

 

Allison

That’s pretty much what it comes down to, isn’t it?

 

Rachel

It sort of has to, and that’s the benefit of being really time-pressurized is you learn to work pragmatically and you learn to work fast, you ditch the luxury of atmosphere. It used to be lovely sitting in cafés and getting around to it by your latte, but it doesn’t happen like that anymore. I mean they’re a great benefit if you can harness it well.

 

Allison

Thank you so much for your time today. I know you’ve got a very, very busy existence, and I really appreciate you fitting us in. It’s been a really interesting conversation and I’m sure that there are lots of people out there in the same boat who will get a lot of your book. So, thanks again for your time, Rachel.

 

Rachel

Thanks for such a lovely chat. It was great.

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