Today I spoke to a group of around 200 VCE students at the Methodist Ladies College (MLC) as part of preparing them (and me) to be their Writer in Residence for a week next month. In addition to my standard ‘author talk’ spiel (more on that in future posts), I wanted to say something pertinent to this group of 17 and 18-year-old women–something I’d have liked someone to say to me when I was on the verge of finishing school. I came up with the following (noting that I did a project in my final year of high school on ‘the unsung heroines of French Impressionism’):
“French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas once said, ‘There is love and there is art, but we have only one heart.’ He was also reputed to have said, on seeing the work of his lesser known but equally talented contemporary Mary Cassatt, ‘I refuse to believe a woman can draw that well.’ So he was a silly old fart all around.
“In my experience, it’s not the limitations of our hearts that make it hard for us to balance love and art. Our hearts have an amazing ability to expand to accommodate new passions, new friendships and new loves throughout our lives.
“By contrast the eminently more sensible Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ and this rings true for me. You need money–more or less, depending on how modestly you can live–and you need it to be your own money. But as well as this, you need a room of your own, literally and metaphorically. And this becomes harder as you get older, particularly if you go down the path of marriage-mortgage-motherhood. And I use the term ‘marriage’ metaphorically, too: whether you are straight or gay, married or partnered, good relationships take time. Working to pay off a mortgage takes time. Being a mother–as precious as it is–takes time. At the age of 40, with a partner of 17 years, an 18-month-old daughter, a four day a week job, a published novel and a desire to keep writing, I’m still trying to figure out the balancing act.
“I think my life would have been different if I didn’t have a passion for writing and a compulsion to become a published author. Most significantly, I might have had children earlier and had more of them. As it is, I feel incredibly fortunate–and satisfied to have the one I have. I look forward to writing more books, but I won’t panic if it takes a while. Fortunately, being an author is not like being a rock star–there’s no age limit (though tell that to The Rolling Stones!).
“For those of you who have a passion for something, whether it’s writing, music, dance or one of the other arts, sports, science, numbers, other people–whatever–you’ll need to find a way to fulfil that passion at some point if you’re to be true to yourselves. I wish you every luck in the world in finding your own balance in honouring all the love and art your own hearts can handle.”
I appeared at MLC today and will reappear next month at the invitation of English Head of School Brian Pryke, who 23 years ago was my own English and English Literature teacher in my final year of high school, to whose skill and support I credit pleasing final results in those subjects and to whom I will always be grateful for encouraging me as a writer.