Teena Raffa-Mulligan has stepped into the attic today and gives us another beautiful essay in this series. The honesty and simplicity with which she tells the story of what writing has meant to her will move you.
Teena is a reader, writer and daydream believer who believes there is magic in every day if you choose to find it. She discovered the wonderful world of storytelling as a child and decided to become a writer at an early age. Teena’s publications for children include poetry, short stories, picture books and chapter books. She recently released her first romantic novella.
Teena’s writing life has also included a long career in journalism. She shares her passion for books and writing by presenting talks and workshops to encourage people of all ages to write their own stories.
A writing life
Yet with age comes change. A different perspective. I find it no longer matters in the same way whether I write the novels I planned or add to my list of publications. It’s a place of acceptance … and there’s a beauty in not feeling I have to force creativity.
Novelist Anna Jacobs says writers need ‘fire in the belly’ to succeed and as a young writer starting out, I had that burning desire to write. I was serious in my intention and I wanted to be taken seriously. My reading diet in those days consisted of classics from Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, DH Lawrence and Guy de Maupassant. I was reading philosophy, biography and autobiography. Children’s author and journalist weren’t included in my plans for a literary life.
I wanted to be a writer from soon after I learnt to read and aside from a brief pause in my late teens to fall in love and marry, I’ve written throughout my life. As a child my head was full of stories and if I didn’t write them down I would get terrible headaches. Once I had the words of a poem running through my mind and ran home to write it, leaving my friends playing at the playground down the street. I produced comics and newspapers in scrapbooks and was always starting novels. My first poem was published on the Sunday Times children’s page when I was about 14 and about the same time a couple of my poems were read on an ABC radio children’s show called The Argonauts.
Once the love factor in my life was settled, I went back to writing, entering competitions, submitting my short fiction and poetry to literary journals and reading all I could about the craft of writing. There was no instant success. Instead a series of rejections came my way but although each one battered my sense of myself as a writer, I never considered giving up.
In the meantime, I’d become a mother. Motherhood was such a powerful experience and I approached this new role with my usual idealism and earnestness. Our first child had been stillborn at 32 weeks so this small new arrival in our lives was especially precious.
My son’s birth triggered an outpouring of creativity and not surprisingly for me this was expressed in words. I woke at night with poems and stories running through my mind and wrote while breastfeeding him at the kitchen table or during his naps. From the time he was a few months old, I shared my love of literature with him. Picture books, of course, but also my favourite poems, among them John Masefield’s Sea Fever, Wordsworth’s Daffodils and The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, along with beautiful poetry my English grandmother has recited to me as a child.
My own ambitions as a writer were still literary—I wanted to make a difference to the world through the written word. In the meantime, our family had grown to include a beautiful baby daughter and one day, I wrote a couple of stories about their toys—and had an epiphany: I would write children’s books. Of course I knew nothing about crafting picture books and those early stories didn’t show much imagination. With naïve confidence, I submitted them to leading publishers and received the inevitable rejections. I was devastated. If I wasn’t a writer, what was I?
My well-meaning husband suggested I find another hobby, art or pottery. But writing for me had never been a mere hobby and the stories kept coming, along with another wonderful addition to our family.
Whether it was my nature, my background of growing up loved and cared for, or the fact we’d lost our first much-wanted child, I devoted myself to being the best possible mother I could. Writing remained an integral part of my creative expression, but I could no longer give it the same focus. Especially in the early years when our children were young, I didn’t have a lot of energy to give to non-essential activities. I wasn’t one of those wonder women who could pen novels into the wee small hours while the family slept. My physical energy didn’t run on permanent charge.
So began a pattern of writing in fragments. A scene here. A paragraph there. A poem, a picture book or short story in between everyday mum activities.
Later, when my three children were all in school, this piecemeal approach continued as I became increasingly involved in writing for newspapers and magazines. Throughout those busy mothering years, it was easier to write short pieces in between the juggling act of work and family. Committing to anything as substantial as a full length novel felt too daunting. That dream went on hold while I waited for the right time to be a ‘real’ writer.
I ignored the constant feeling of being in one place—journalism—and wanting to be in another—writing fiction. I told myself my day would come. When the children were grown and had lives of their own … when the grandchildren started school … when I didn’t need to help care for a mother with Alzheimer’s and, later, a father dying of cancer.
The right time to write did come. Six years ago I finally found myself in a position to walk away from journalism, to retire from the demands of the workaday world and come home to be the ‘real’ writer I’d always yearned to be.
It’s a funny thing about human nature. Sometimes we get what we’ve always wanted and find it isn’t what we thought it would be after all. I now have all the time I could possibly want to write whatever I choose. But that intensely burning fire in the belly that drove my passion is no longer aflame. Instead there’s an ember, quietly glowing. From time-to-time, it sparks brightly and briefly. I still write but not in the way I expected to.
That pattern of short sprints rather than marathons seems to be embedded in my creative practice and I realise how much motherhood has shaped me as a writer as well as a woman.
Yet with age comes change. A different perspective. I find it no longer matters in the same way whether I write the novels I planned or add to my list of publications. It’s a place of acceptance.
There’s an occasional restlessness that I’m not writing more, particularly when I hear how productive other authors are with their daily word counts. Fortunately it passes and there’s a beauty in not feeling I have to force creativity, to push against that wall of trying to find publishers. Some writers could see it as apathy. I prefer to see it as the ease that comes with allowing my creativity to express itself naturally as and when it will.
If you’d like to write something for ‘Writers in the Attic’, I have one spot left to fill before Christmas so let me know via the Contact page. The topic is what writing means to you, but it can be taken as broadly as you like. A length of 600-1000 words seems to suit best. If you’re stuck for ideas on what to write, I have a Q&A I can send with some prompts, so let me know. I offer a small gift as a thank you for your time.