Thursday, April 06, 2006

Mothering the muse

Mothering the Muse
-musings on finding creative space published in Q-Write Newsletter of Quebec Writers Federation

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.”
Orson Wells.

It’s a common view that all mothers are selfless, compassionate and hardworking. Although far from selfless myself, I admit the mother in me has taken precedence over the writer these past few months. When a deadline is approaching, I only wish I could leave the dishes unwashed, let moldy t-shirts lie on the floor, leave the teens to fend for themselves for supper. In fact, the central conflict in my life right now is how to leave the mother side behind and nurture the writer. How to mother the muse?

Sheherazade told her stories each night to avoid having her head chopped off. Mothers know a lot about sleepless nights, endless stories and little tyrants demanding, “just one more” or off with your head. Inherent to mothering and writing is this conflict of roles that resist merging. In my mind, I can be either a good mother or a good poet. The poet in me hates schedules, discipline and regular habits. She is moody and rebellious and she doesn’t like to be disturbed. She equates creativity with messiness. Sometimes the Muse is hard to grab onto, so I spend days writing myself reminders to write in my notebook. Sometimes I actually do it.

Maybe the trouble I have is with my image of writers and mothers: mothers are supposed to love their offspring unconditionally, drop their own projects to sew elastics on ballet shoes or drive someone to the video store. Mothers don’t say “go away,” when their daughters come bugging them for help with French homework. They don’t put up a sign on their office door that says DO NOT DISTURB. In my mind, a “real” writer is a cranky old man with a pipe and beard who works in his study and never lets any children or noise in. Children tiptoe around him and never dare hug him. At his door stands a wife, ready to shoo the young ones away and answer the phone, deal with the plumber and cook the meals. Ah, the wife… well, that would be me.

It feels like the “real writers” are cooped up like hermits behind closed doors or in mountain retreats communing with the Muse. And the “real mothers” are baking brownies, washing floors and carpooling hockey teams. But I am a hybrid: a writing mother, and I manage to do both, with some compromise.

If I don’t mother the Muse, i.e., make time to write, my inner Hemingway comes alive. Then watch out! Mothering the Muse sometimes means answering her call in the middle of the night, or finding the tiny cracks in the day’s schedule where inspiration wafts up, in between breakfast dishes and homework and chauffeur service to after-school activities. It can also mean leaving the house to write in a café, waking up 15 minutes earlier to write a few morning pages, or spending the day at a friend’s cottage, where the octopus of household tasks does not live. I have to check my “mother guilt” at the door, though; it’s only one more block to my creativity.

Self-discipline and summoning up the courage to value my work above all other tasks are the biggest part of the challenge. Like most writers, I find that the trick is the doing of it, not the thinking about it. Maybe I can’t lock myself away in a cabin in absolute stillness and silence. But in the past 10 years I have somehow managed to publish a book and a chapbook, and to teach a course in journal writing, all while raising two kids.

Mothering has become a theme, a puzzle I am trying to figure out in my writing. My first book, Little Mother, explored in prose and poetry my first pregnancy, childbirth and nursing, as well as the earlier drama of living with an alcoholic mother. My latest creative project is a play about Eve’s mother. Mothering the muse, musing on mothering, it has all become one. Ideally, with a little help to manage household duties – cleaning ladies are true angels – and a little support from the Muse, a new manuscript will soon be in the mail to publishing houses. So, Muse, I am making an appointment with you for 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning – whoops, I forgot, school is out tomorrow. How about next week?

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