ON WRITING ‘THE SISTERS’ SONG’
My novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’, has evolved and that’s the only way to describe how it came into being. It’s nothing at all like what I set out to write, and this draft, Final Draft 3.0, is very different to Final Drafts 1.0 and 2.0. The beginning, the ending, and the middle have all changed. Even the theme has changed.
It’s changed as I’ve changed. Or it’s changed me. Or maybe we’ve evolved together—helping each other develop in a positively reinforcing spiral.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ‘THE SISTERS’ SONG’
I didn’t start writing until I was in my forties. I used to work as a medical practitioner, but with four children, it was becoming too difficult to keep all the balls in the air. I was constantly running late and constantly running. I reached the point where I felt I wasn’t doing a good job of being either mother or doctor, and I had absolutely no time to just be me.
At the same time, I didn’t want to stop work. Being a doctor wasn’t just a profession for me—it was an identity, and it was a part of me from before I became a mother. I’d given so much of myself up to the role of mother, almost everything except my doctoring, and it took me a long time before I could give that up, too.
I knew I’d have to find a substitute, something fulfilling and something for me, but something that would fit within mothering hours. I chose an online writing course, but I had no idea of the joy that course would unleash. I began to lose myself in my writing world in the way I’d lost myself in imaginary games as a child. The creativity of my youth, which I’d forgotten I even had, returned, and I began to look forward to each day again.
During one of the first writing courses I completed in 2010, I wrote a short story set in the 1960s. It was about a good girl who’d been abused by her mother. (If you read this series of posts on my blog about my childhood, you’ll know where this theme comes from.) The short story kept growing, rapidly and without much effort on my part, and soon reached 16, 000 words, and I felt there was even more …
In 2011, I homeschooled my sons, so I didn’t get much of a chance to work on it. Nevertheless, I squeezed in a writing course or two, read lots of how-to-write texts, and whenever the boys did creative writing, I worked on my own writing. All year, it simmered in the back of my mind, and in 2012, I was ready to tackle it seriously.
OLD FAMILY PHOTOS AND STORIES
At this stage, my novel was in third person, had no title, and contained thousands of words, most of which I didn’t like. Then one of the characters visited an elderly aunt named Ida. As soon as Ida began talking, the story took off.
Finding Ida coincided with rediscovering old family photos, and these provided inspiration for some of the scenes in the novel.
This photo of my grandfather and his siblings was the inspiration for the one of the first scenes in the novel.
These are my father’s parents, aka Ida and her husband, Len.
This is my grandmother, her sister-in-law and her children, on whom I based Ida, Nora and the kids.
Not only did I find inspiration from photos, but I also remembered family stories I’d heard growing up. Like the three stillbirths my grandmother had endured before she gave birth to my uncle and father by caesarian. As a child, I’d just accepted such things without thinking about them too deeply, then one day in 2012, I found the cemetery record of one my father’s stillborn brothers.
This record is from March, 1937, and on the 22nd(in the middle of the photo), you can see ‘ALLAN (BABY) MRS L. D. PARENT’ and then ‘Still born’ in the next column.
Seeing it made it real, and I imagined how hard it must have been for my grandmother to feel her baby alive inside of her for nine months, only for him to be crushed on the way out. Three times.
Other memories came to mind, too. Like the time when as a young gyneacology resident, I found a baby in a bassinette out the back of the ward. I thought it was sleeping, but as I crept closer, I saw it was very still, too still, and its chest wasn’t rising and falling. I leaned in, to see if I could feel its breath against my cheek, but I couldn’t. The nurses later told me that it had been stillborn.
Early drafts of Ida’s Children were all about child abuse and how the abuse baton is passed from one damaged generation to the next. The story was very black, one abusive incident after another, and very depressing.
Looking back, I see that I had to write that fictionalized version of my own childhood to work through it and towards finding some meaning in it. Some incidents were drawn directly from my memory, and while others were completely fictional, they had an emotional truth.
This version of Ida’s Children was shortlisted for the 2015 City of Fremantle-TAG Hungerford Award. It didn’t win, which was disappointing at the time, but since then, I’ve rewritten it and I think it’s now a much better story.
WOMEN AND DREAMS
The current draft is not so much about child abuse, although that’s a significant part of it, but more about women and motherhood, and the way our dreams and our biology often conflict. This was true in the first half of the 20thcentury, when the novel is set, and I believe it remains true today. Nature has conspired against us—we want children, and we love them and want to nurture them, yet we still have our dreams, too. From the moment we become mothers, we’re torn between the two.
Before I had children, I thought I could have it all—a career and a family. I had no idea of the love I would feel for my child, or that the umbilical cord would never really be severed. I found it hard to leave my kids, and I felt selfish when I did. At the same time, I had my own aspirations, and being a mother wasn’t the only thing I wanted from my life. My personal dreams and desires constantly battled, and still battle, with my desire to be with my children.
So, Ida’s Children is still a very personal story, but different to the one I originally wrote. It’s personal, yet, I hope, universal, too.
I think of Ida’s Children as my fifth child. I chose to have children, and I helped nurture and shape them, but this is the only one over which I’ve ever had any real control.
It’s still in the womb—a four-year gestation, and counting—but I’m hoping there’ll come a time when it’ll reach maturity and we’ll separate. Yet again, I’ll probably have difficulty severing the umbilical cord, but, as with my other children, it’ll be its own independent and unique thing, and I’ll have to let it go.
But this child will be different, too, because not only does it contain all that I’ve dreamed up over the past four years, but it is my dream.
I really enjoyed your guest post, Louise, and reading about how you came to write ‘Ida’s Children.’ In my own family there is a story of an aunt several generations back whose husband didn’t want children, so they never had any. Apparently. When she was very old and senile, a family member went over to see her and found the table set with four sets of children’s bowls and cutlery. When she asked who it was for, the aunt replied ‘For my children.’
I also agree that you had to write the first, darker version to get to where you are now. My own first version of Oak and Mist was very different to the current incarnation – I think when we start writing there is a process of clearing out – then we can move forward.
Your poor Aunt—what a sad story. Did she actually give birth to any children, or was it fantasy? Or would anyone really know because they tended to be quite secretive in those days.
I love that concept of ‘clearing out’. That’s exactly what I did—a purging of the nastiness and anger, not that I did that consciously. Writing fiction is quite liberating in that way, because you’re not writing about yourself, or constrained by real events. So you write it all out in a coarse kind of way, and put it through the sifter and get rid of the lumps!