The Leap Stories #27: Rachel Power

One of the prime motivators to me taking my leap was showing to my children it could be done – to instil in them the belief that their life is their’s for the making by showing them firsthand.

But I have found that one of the biggest tensions of parenthood is the desire to be a present and powerfully positive force in my children’s lives, AND the absolute life-preserving necessity of solitude and time away from the demands of mothering and partnering. They are two fiercely competing needs that this week’s leaper Rachel Power, has written about in The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, and Motherhood & Creativity.

For me, solitude and reflection are breeding grounds for leaps. It’s time on my own that enables me to sort myself out, write, think, create and gather courage. And when I’m topped up I’m a better person.

It’s a tension however that’s not easily negotiated no matter how much you love your children and your partner (in my experience anyway). As humans, we are born creative and curious, and if we’re lucky we’ll stay that way our entire lives. Navigating the pull between wanting to be connected and needing to roam challenges me everyday. I’m so grateful Rachel made the leap to produce her books in the late hours of the day so that we don’t need to feel alone (or guilty) in living with a divided heart.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Rachel has kindly offered to send one lucky reader a signed copy of her latest book Motherhood and Creativity – simply leave a comment about how you or someone you know navigates motherhood and creativity.

Enjoy. xx

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What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

My whole life I have suffered a kind of tension between my sense of political/social responsibility, my need to make a living, and my creative drive. So while drawing and reading and writing were my driving passions from an early age, I didn’t recognise that I might be able to forge a career out of those interests.

I come from a family of highly creative but prudent people, who’ve all worked very hard in traditional jobs and put their artistic interests on the backburner. As a result, I think I inherited a far too sensible approach to my working life.

This was probably reinforced by the fact that I was raised by a single mother who worked long hours in roles with high-level responsibilities – while I was a teenager, she headed up the federal branch of the nurses’ union (then the Australian Nurses Federation) – and so from an early age I was looking after my younger siblings most days after school. I also got a weekend job as soon as I was old enough to, so that I could buy the records and magazines and clothes that I wanted! I think all of those elements set me on a very conventional career path as a young person, at the expense of my more artistic passions. But I never stopped writing and drawing as well.

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What did/do you study?

When I was 17, I got a job as a “copy kid” on my hometown’s daily newspaper, The Canberra Times. I pretty quickly let it be known that I was keen on writing articles, not just delivering mail and taking down the chess results, and I was given some regular stories for the entertainment pages. When I finished Year 12, the paper offered me an ongoing job and so I worked there full time and started an Arts degree part time, majoring in Art History and Political Studies (see the pattern here?!). I moved out of home and also got very involved in student politics around this time.

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

Moving to Melbourne to do a Creative Arts degree meant dropping my job at The Canberra Times and, with that, the newspaper journo career trajectory that I was on. I needed to get out of Canberra for all sorts of reasons – but staying there a bit longer would have cemented my potential as a newspaper journalist, which was a job I really enjoyed.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

When I was about 21, I’d saved enough money to travel. Spending that year backpacking around America and Europe and Asia gave me the space to think about what I actually wanted to be doing with my life and so I made my poor mum scrabble together a portfolio of my writing and my artwork back at home and submit an application for me to do a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts. When I got in, I came back to Australia and moved to Melbourne.

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Gorgeous Rachel (looking very calm!) on a panel with Sally Rippin and Lily Mae Martin.

Who have been the biggest 3–5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

I have been profoundly shaped by the experience of growing up with a mother who is a great mover and shaker. Even before she started working in the union movement, she was a natural organiser and agitator. I still have strong memories of following her around the neighbourhood delivering leaflets about one thing or another. Despite feeling things deeply, she always remains centred and pragmatic in her approach. She perfected the art of entering every difficult meeting with a smile and a positive belief that she could make others see sense, and I think she won a lot of battles that way.

I had some amazing fellow students in my classes at VCA, including design guru Lucy Feagins, performers/playwrights Lally Katz and Angus Cerini, musician John Brooks (aka JP Shilo), singer–songwriter Clare Bowditch (who I’ll mention later, no doubt)… I could go on. They were exciting people to be around.

I could mention so many writers/artists/musicians who inspire me, but I reserve my most profound admiration for author Rachel Cusk. Time and again, Cusk finds a way to express things that I have felt in my bones but not managed to define. When I read her novels, I feel like every sentence is teaching me how to write.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

I don’t think moving cities to go to art school was more of a leap than most people take around that age. But because I was a little bit older than most first-year students, and I had already been in the post-school workforce for five years, I was conscious of what I was giving up to be there.

For various reasons, I wasn’t eligible for AUSTUDY and so I had to study part time over five years and work part time. As frustrating as that was, it led to me having one of my favourite and most creative jobs, as a court illustrator and graphic artist for Channel 9 News. I loved that job!

I have always been fascinated by the lives of women artists, and I was aware that, historically, very few well-known women artists had children. While at uni, I wrote a biography, Alison Rehfisch: A Life for Art, about a modernist painter who abandoned her family for the sake of her career as a painter.

Then, in my final year of art school, I was pregnant! Heavily pregnant, by the time I graduated. I was relegated to the aerated stairwells, where I had to sit alone and create my work away from the painting and printmaking fumes. That was the first indication of how things were set to change for me as a mother who wanted to also make art.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?

This isn’t quite the angle of the question – but my decision to write a book about creative mothers (which became The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, and then the new edition, Creativity & Motherhood) certainly came out of a sense of despair – the fear that trying to be both artist and mother made me a bad version of both. I felt torn, permanently wanting to be in two places at once. And the headspace required for art felt entirely incompatible with that needed for mothering. It still does, for me.

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How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

Compiling the interviews that eventually became The Divided Heart came naturally to me. I was a journalist – if I wanted information, I found the right people to interview! I started contacting the agents of various artists who I admired and asked them if they’d meet for an hour or so to talk about their experience of combining art and parenting. I didn’t at that stage know what I was going to do with the material.

I was amazed by the willingness of these women to speak so openly and honestly to me. The more artists I spoke to, the more I felt they were providing a really important take on mothering and on art – and on feminism, for that matter. So, my own determination to do justice to the words and ideas that these artists were giving me became the driving force in my decision to create a book.

What I didn’t expect was how strongly I would have to defend my idea to publishers. Every publisher I spoke to grilled me about what was ‘special’ about artist-mothers and urged me to broaden it out to a book about all working mothers. I know that the ‘creative mother market’ is limited, but I’m so glad I stuck to my guns, because I do think the experience of artists is particular and deserving of its own focus. And the audience the book has found has proven that.

It’s a good principle to fly by: if you have a strong need or desire for something, chances are there’s a whole community out there who’s looking for that thing too!

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How did you fund your leap?

Writing a book isn’t a ‘leap’ in the way that starting a business is. It’s more about funding your life and then trying to find the odd hour or two to write around the edges of everything else. The Divided Heart was written entirely between the hours of 10pm and midnight, on top of working and mothering and housework, as was Creativity & Motherhood.

I did get an ArtsVic grant, which was a great vote of confidence and support. I also obtained a fellowship at Varuna Writers Centre in Katoomba, which gave me much-needed time and mentoring.

Without wanting to sound discouraging, financially speaking, writing and promoting my books has cost me more than I’ve made. But it’s very humbling and satisfying to create something that has real meaning for others, and so I don’t judge it in terms of monetary success.

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What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

When I wrote The Divided Heart, I just thought I was writing a book; that once it was published, I would wash my hands of it and move on. I could never have expected all that has flowed from it, much of which has involved public speaking.

Speaking at events or on the radio still scares the crap out of me! But the way I’ve dealt with it is to say “yes” to everything and then try to be really, really well prepared. And if necessary, there’s always a quick glass of wine…

How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.

Writing The Divided Heart was an unexpected rather than intentional leap, but it did change the focus of my life. I’d say it’s a 9; that way the best is yet to come.

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What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

Being plugged in to the most incredible network of creative people.

What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The amount of time I spend on answering emails, preparing for events, maintaining a blog and other promotional activities related to the ‘art and motherhood’ subject can get a bit exhausting, on top of full time work and family life. Currently it still eats up much of the time that I would otherwise be putting toward my next project.

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What might be your next leap?

Writing a novel. I’m wading blind, so it’s a great big leap of faith!

What are your favourite words to live by?

On life: Smile at strangers. It’s more an attitude I try to maintain: one of openness, trust and generosity. If I don’t feel like smiling at the people I walk past on the street, I know I’m not in a good state.

In terms of writing: Smash it out. The only way to write! A friend who runs a cafe said it to me. He was talking about making coffee, and his actual words were: “I just want to smash it out and make people feel good” – a lovely sentiment in general but, also, words that resonated with me at a point when I was really struggling with writing.

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Who do you admire who also made the leap?

Singer–songwriter Clare Bowditch – my fellow student, neighbour, friend and most generous champion – has been an incredible inspiration. When she had her daughter Asha in her mid-twenties, she knew it was now or never for her music. Living in such close proximity to each other meant that I was a first-hand witness to the tenacity and determination Clare applied to forging her music career while dealing with the equally intense demands of new motherhood. I still remember fondly the long nights at the kitchen table stamping the hand-made album covers.

I also find myself endlessly quoting the wonderful Pip Lincolne, who has forged the most brilliant career from her unique ability to take the tiny tasks of daily life and make something rich of them; to connect humble chores with deep meanings.

Also, dynamo Anna Kellerman, who went from organising regular get-togethers with a group of artistic friends to setting up Mama Creatives, which offers all manner of events, masterclasses, school holiday workshops, panel discussions and so on to support creative mothers.

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

1. Give yourself the permission. Don’t wait for the universe to tell you it’s safe to jump – that’ll never happen. You only need one good reason to do something and that’s because you want to.

2. There is no substitute for commitment and discipline.

3. Small steps can create big change. Too often we keep ourselves from doing something because we get into an “all or nothing” frame of mind – the idea that we can’t transform our lives unless we suddenly quit our job or move to another country etc. Sometimes what looks like a big leap from the outside has really been the result of small, incremental changes. I know several people who’ve managed to write whole novels by setting the alarm for 5am every morning and writing for an hour before the rest of the household gets up.

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Right now I’m:

Hearing: Laura Marling – I can’t believe she’s only 25!
Eating: My kids’ kitchen experiments.
Drinking: Heartattack & Vine in Carlton has a cocktail – gin, Aperol, lemon juice, apricot jam and orange bitters – that is beyond amazing!
Reading: Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms.
Loving: The old-fashioned art of letter-writing.

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Don’t forget, Rachel has kindly offered to send one lucky reader a signed copy of her latest book Motherhood and Creativity – simply leave a comment about how you or someone you know navigates motherhood and creativity.

Big love, Kylie x

p.s. Here’s a little of Rachel live at her book launch earlier in the year.

p.s.s. Here’s a little Laura Marling for your Sunday evening listening pleasure.

  1. I like the optimism of the sentence, ‘navigating motherhood and creativity’. I would have to say that as a 37 year old creative mother of three I surge forward like a bull butting its head against everything when I get going and when it gets too tough I butt even harder and that is when it all falls apart (in my head). And clothing production is not an overly well paid profession, much like writing I imagine. It got to a point where I went to the UK for 4 months and worked in retail (Liberty fabrics) and it was such a joy to work full-time even if I wasn’t creating anything at the time. I could concentrate. I didn’t have my children with me. Unfortunately I missed my family, it was like a hole in my heart.
    My husband and I have decided that I should work and live in the city during the week and be a present, happy mother during the weekend. I love this idea. All I need is a job that can support this and my family. I am a couture dressmaker, costume maker and fabric sales expert yet am having no luck due to low pay for all these jobs. Any hints.
    My husband will look after the kids through the week. Society’s idea of parenthood is not working for us.
    I like so much how calm and present Rachel sounds. I hope to reconcile the differences between what I want to do and what I need to do, one day. Probably when I am 83.

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  2. Ha – do I sound calm and present? If my partner read that, he would laugh. Loudly! Like most mothers who work full time and have no extended family support, I spend most of my life feeling like I’m meant to be in at least three places at once. I have just had to develop the long view on things (as frustrating as that can feel).
    People are often reluctant to talk about money – but it is a major factor in our freedom to do the things we want/need to do. I find it endlessly frustrating that the arts industry by and large relies on the long hours put in by underpaid, overqualified women. As a creative person, it can be very difficult to decide whether to try and make your passion your day job, or just get a paying job and stuff your creativity in around the edges (which is what I do). And of course very art form is different in terms of what it demands/allows.
    It sounds like you’ve got an amazing partner, who recognises how important your work is to you, and really wants to find a way to make it work. But you’re right – society doesn’t always make that easy.
    I’m sorry I don’t have more answers. I don’t know anything about the clothing industry, though I would hope it had real jobs available. But know that you are not alone in these feelings or those dilemmas/struggles. I hear you loud and clear!

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  3. I have been eking out The Divided Heart for a couple of years now – I have an e-book copy on my phone, and I only read it when I really, really need it; I don’t want to use it all up! It’s like my oxygen mask. One particular image has stayed with me: one of the women interviewed talks about her grandmother, I think, who described the years with small children as being like the desert, which appears barren but is poised to spring to life as soon as the rains come. Between running a freelance business and being a parent, I feel lost in the creative desert some days, for sure.

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    • Thank you so much for those words, Penelope – that’s so lovely to hear. Yes, it was Sally Rippin who mentioned that desert analogy, I think, and it’s one of the ideas that’s really stayed with me, too!

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