A few weeks ago, after I shared this How to Write a Book post, a writer I didn’t know emailed me. That writer’s name was Karen Lee, and she told me that she’d read my post whilst at the hairdressers. It was the first time she’d visited a salon in the five years since she’d become a mother, and she’d been feeling guilty that she was spending three hours of babysitting time on herself instead of at work or writing.
‘(Your piece) really spoke to me, and in some way gave me permission to say okay. Spending time on myself is okay. I think we forget to value ourselves as women, especially after children and when I read your piece I actually exhaled.’
It thrilled me to know I’d made someone exhale in relief and helped them feel better. Today, it’s even more of a thrill to share Karen’s piece for the attic. Here it is:
Karen is the CEO of a small not-for-profit, and a writer of Chinese-Malaysian origin who currently lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her husband and two children. She is passionate about stories with Southeast Asian focus. She particularly loves books by writers that explore the complexities of culture and growing up as a minority in a Western country, as well as historical fiction
Karen is also a freelance travel writer, always on the lookout for their next destination and loves writing about the adventures of discovering a new place with her little brood.
IF THE CLOAK FITS
I came to writing and motherhood late in my life. In fact, they seemed to arrive hand in hand. I don’t know if becoming a mother precipitated creativity or whether it was there all along, lying in wait for me. Whatever it was, I found myself here five years down the track, two young children in tow, with a manuscript under my belt and another one on the way as I wrestled with the growing unease of calling myself a writer.
I’m perfectly at ease with the other titles I hold, such as mother—having given birth twice, I certainly qualify. Check. CEO—double checked my business card and the fact that I get paid to do this job. Check. But writer? That’s a tricky one. I’m not a published author, I haven’t won any awards or prizes, nor do I hold any writing credentials to my name.
If you asked me 20 years ago if I’d ever envisaged myself here, I’d have laughed. I had been a solicitor and jumped into the intriguing world of federal politics working as an adviser, and later as chief of staff to two Senators. I travelled extensively, met the most incredible people and achieved things I was proud of.
Fast forward to the present, my world had changed as the tide of my working life ebbed and flowed along with the arrival of my gorgeous children. Being a mother was a game changer, life-affirming. But there was something within me that still yearned for something. I was restless, little did I know my muse had been whispering, nudging me for years as I turned myself inside out to figure out what I was searching for.
My muse whispered, telling me to take my writing seriously. It was a powerful revelation. It didn’t come roaring down the highway heralding its arrival; it was a quiet sort of epiphany.
It was in Palawan, the Philippines sitting on the wooden balcony of my resort, overlooking the lush tropical gardens. Coconut trees towered above, filtering the harsh afternoon sun as the sun scattered diamonds across the turquoise waters of the Sulu Sea. My little family paddled in the pool as I blogged about our latest trip when my muse whispered, telling me to take my writing seriously. It was a powerful revelation. It didn’t come roaring down the highway heralding its arrival; it was a quiet sort of epiphany.
Yet, I struggled with it. I had been brought up like all good Chinese daughters to believe that education and being employed in a respectable profession (code for being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer) was the foundational requirements to set up your life. Becoming a writer seemed almost frivolous. But something shifted when I became a mother, it gave me the courage to try. So, I gave myself permission to explore it.
But, as I would discover, becoming a mother also meant I had to battle to carve out time to write in amongst the business of life’s responsibilities. Working part-time, I felt I had to devote every child-free moment I had to work which paid the bills. It felt decadent using that time for anything else. I gradually realised that while I had given myself permission to explore writing, I hadn’t attributed much worth to it. Calling myself a writer felt fraudulent. I felt I hadn’t earned the title or right to call myself that. I was waiting for that magical moment when a contract would land on my desk, announcing my worth as a bona fide writer to the literary world. I had become so wrapped up in the ‘getting there’ bit, I had almost missed the journey itself. The learnings, the mistakes. The growing into the craft.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a senior Whips Clerk when I worked in parliament. We were watching newly minted Senators navigate their way around the Chamber’s process and protocols. She said something that had always stayed with me:
‘You can always tell the moment they become the Senator, after months of acting like the new kids on the block, comes the time where they slip on that cloak and become the real deal.’
Like all writers, I have my days where I am on the verge of giving up. When competitions roll by without a hint of my name of any lists, when the deafening silence of all those rejections tell me I am no good. When I wail and moan to my writer’s group about the futility of it all. Then when I hit rock bottom, I remember a paragraph from Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Big Magic that gives me a kick in the pants:
I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines:
“Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work.”
So, I’m getting back to work. Perhaps, one day, when I least expect it, that cloak will fit me like a glove.
Urgent call for posts for Writers in the Attic!
For the first time since I began this series, I’m running low on posts, and if I run out—god forbid—I might have to bore you all with one of mine!
So, if you’re at all inclined, please write a post. The topic is anything to do with writing—your writing life, what writing means to you, or what has influenced your writing. 600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to contact me.
To further entice you, here’s the back cover blurb: