When a creativity hack isn't good enough
The power of commiseration against the jungle of... well, life. Also lots of links!
Welcome to the Just Beautiful Newsletter where I write about making space for beauty and justice to meet, share about tinyhouse living, and give you too many links. Right now, I’m focusing on making space for creativity in the midst of motherhood. If a friend forwarded you this email, hit subscribe to get the newsletter each month.
There is this problem I have, where I will be relating some catastrophe, (usually involving children, foiled attempts to be productive, household illnesses, wet distributor caps that are killing my car, you know, life), and someone will give me advice. A hack.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good hack. If you haven’t noticed, I love useless research articles on obscure topics. While you are telling me your current struggle, I have googled it, read three articles, and am now slowly dying inside until I can tell you about them. I am fascinated with things like people’s creative routines and what the most productive people do before breakfast time. Most of the time, I am the irritatingly optimistic person saying to people, “Well, that’s a bummer you have no time, but did you know I live in a tinyhouse?? There are ways around these limits!”
But hacks are just that - blunt tools for when you don’t have anything else. They are for the moments you are fighting your way through a jungle that’s deep and complicated and that you’re not in control of, but you just have to figure out a way to keep moving forward.
I need the creativity and productivity hacks, because the hacks are ways to stay human in the midst of a dehumanising system, a way to keep creating, to keep breathing, when there’s no time or space but somehow you must.
Virginia Woolf and Tille Olsen argue that there are certain conditions that make it likely to produce creative work (education, space, time) and these conditions have systematically been denied women, particularly mothers, particularly working class mothers or mothers of color. Stella Bowen, an amazing visual artist and writer who ended up being the “daily life buffer” for her creative husband and never produced as much as he did, pointed out this was because, “pursuing art is not just a matter of finding the time—it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.” (Mental load, anyone?)
Yet mothers have still found ways to write. We have always been writing outside our limits, pushing the edges of what is possible, focusing our brains to produce meaningful words even through exhaustion and lack of time and resources and desk space. We’ve been queen of the hacks, writing before sun-up, writing with kids strapped to the top of the dryer, writing with kids in the bathtub, spending a stipend on a swimming pool because it was cheaper than a babysitter.
Reading Madeline L’Engle the other day made me a bit grumpy. I felt she was just a bit too prolific. A bit too productive with three children and an ancient washing machine and a husband who was often away in theatrical productions. It wasn’t until she started talking about how difficult it was to find time to write, about how she wasn’t writing and was frustrated, about how she despaired that she’d never write again, that I noticed my heart-rate go down and my shoulders relax back into my chair. Much better.
Then I realised- “Do I actually want to write a book about mother-writers in history who …. didn’t write? Because that seems to be the only bits I’m interested in.”
Perhaps it’s just this moment. At this point in the pandemic, it seems that most mothers who have young children who are trying to do unpaid creative work (not to mention paid work) are spent.
And while it’s true that on normal days there are inspiring methods and ways to find space to be creative in the midst of the noise of parenting, and that most days I’m ready to fight you over the statement that mother and creative are two opposing roles continually in conflict, sometimes I am forced to stop hacking and just stare at the immensity of the jungle: the inequality, the history, the lack, the covid, the gender norms, the mental loads and dried cheerios stuck to the carpet. And in those moments the prolific Madeline L’Engle’s of the world (or people on instagram) just seem a bit excessive. I begin to feel a bit like a six-year-old who wants to scribble on someone else’s art project because mine isn’t turning out and besides, she had her mom do half of it.
Sometimes, when there isn’t a fix, the hacks are just insulting. In those moments, what I want is commiseration. Deep, satisfying, commiseration. Emphasis on misery.
Can I get a witness?
In that spirit…. a special new section for you: Commiseration Links
(Don’t worry, the Just Beautiful Links are still on their way)
I know we are not in hard lockdown or anything, but reading about artists struggling with kids at home- so satisfying. Here’s Austin Kleon, visual artist. “I was talking to a friend of mine who doesn’t have kids, and he asked me what our days are like, and I said, “Well, the kids get up every single day at 6:30 a.m.” We both started laughing, and I said, “Is there really anything else I need to tell you?”
This article in the Atlantic on “Bad Moms” with a line I wish I wrote: “In motherhood, there is no space anymore; there are no idle stretches of time within which to ruminate or look at the sky or simply let your mind do nothing at all. There is no more catering only to yourself. Time, while precious, can be bought; space, that mental state of unfettered carelessness, cannot.”
Why do we make it so hard for artist moms to flourish? “There is a lack of interest, lack of understanding, a lot of bias, preconceptions, systemic issues and structural limitations,” she said of how mothers are received in the art world. …It doesn’t help that some powerhouse female artists have framed motherhood as a liability… Tracey Emin, who said in a 2014 interview, “There are good artists who have children. Of course there are. They are called men.”
Catherine Ricketts, literary nonfiction writer, has been hosting these lunchtime instagram lives with mother-artists and as she says here, “In both motherhood and artistic practice, I thrive most in conversation with friends who can commiserate about the tedious difficulty (another sleepless night, another rejection letter), who help me to notice small victories (a 4-hour stretch! a ✨personalized✨ rejection letter!) and who send me flowers when the big moments, forged over years of daily effort, finally arrive”
Spilt Milk Gallery recently did an exhibition on acting balanced, there were some really arresting pieces. This is Exhaustion II by Emily Zarse. “I am particularly interested in making visible maternal exhaustion and responding to the questions: What is depletion, being on the brink, untenable time, fatigue threshold? What is the antidote to burnout? What does nourishment/care look like?”
Tiny House Life
We’ve had family visiting, and while we normally do things outside, it’s sometimes fun to pack the kids inside for things like a morning pancake party.
We discovered a nearby cafe has an outdoor bike track just the right size for our 4 year old, so that’s been fun. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place (and have summer!)
My house has been more chaotic this month as life has been busier with activities and outings. I try to enjoy and document it, though. Even though a small space gets messy fast, it tidies up fast, too. And the sun still streams in the morning in my favorite way. A great example of how design choices change the atmosphere of a space so easily. Imagine this room if it were dark.
Just Beautiful Links
If you enjoy artist routines, or just thinking about writing and art, this Substack is the perfect one for you. Subtle Maneuvers by Mason Curry. I am enjoying it so much I have already linked to it once in this newsletter. Check it out! :)
There is an amazing speaker database up on Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing page, and while I’m sorry people can’t meet in person I am THRILLED it’s an online gathering since I’m in South Africa. If you want to hear from favorite authors about the intersection of faith & writing for them, or just get a little creative jolt, registration opens mid February, so sign up for their newsletter.
If you need a poem for Valentine’s Day, here’s one I wrote:
PS- any artists out there want to collaborate on a print?
This article on prodigal hospitality “What might it mean to live a life that is free from the inhuman demands of efficiency? In reflecting upon this question, Dr. Noble proposes that the alternative to efficiency is prodigality. He suggests that “we live prodigally when we act according to love or goodness or beauty rather than primarily efficiency” (p. 151)…One of the most beautiful and accessible expressions of prodigality is the Christian practice of hospitality.”
This article by a South African author I love on being a black mother writer and being awake to anger and joy. “If you want to write stories, first you must live. If you want to live you must pay attention.”
Some really beautiful picture books being shared over here to celebrate US Black History Month:
A way to hack the jungle?
So, there’s commiseration about lack of time and space and brain for creativity, and that’s catharsis and we need it. And then there’s like institutional policy systemic overhaul, and that’s justice but kinda beyond me. But maybe there’s something beautiful we can work out in the middle, maybe it’s just a hack, but a beautiful hack?
Is there some way we can get more support for each other? Maybe it’s taking time to share the work of another mother-artist with a bigger audience, maybe it’s paying someone $10 a month for childcare on their patreon, maybe its commenting on people’s instagrams although we all hate it in order to boost their stats? What could it be? Comments open! (Or reply to this email).
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