The Challenges of Motherhood
Alice Ann Laidlaw was born in the rural town of Wingham, Ontario, the daughter of a fox and mink farmer and a schoolteacher. While writing fiction and studying English at the University of Western Ontario she worked as a tobacco picker, a waitress, and library clerk.
“I had no chance to be anything else [but a writer] because I had no money,” Alice told The Paris Review many years later. “I knew I would only be at university two years because the scholarships available at that time lasted only two years…I had been in charge of the house at home when I was in my teens, so university was about the only time in my life that I haven’t had to do housework.”
In 1951, she left the university to marry James Munro. Alice Munro’s daughters Sheila, Catherine, and Jenny were born in 1953, 1955, and 1957 respectively; Catherine died just fifteen hours after her birth.
“I got married right after the second year,” Munro explains. “I was twenty. We went to Vancouver. That was the big thing about getting married—this huge adventure, moving. As far away as we could get and stay in the country. We were only twenty and twenty-two…We were thinking of getting a house and having a baby, and we promptly did these things. I had my first baby at twenty-one.”
“The Day of the Butterfly” (from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades) was one of Munro’s earliest stories. “That was probably written when I was about twenty-one. And I can remember very well writing ‘Thanks for the Ride’ because my first baby was lying in the crib beside me. So I was twenty-two.”
“I was writing desperately all the time I was pregnant because I thought I would never be able to write afterwards. Each pregnancy spurred me to get something big done before the baby was born. Actually I didn’t get anything big done.”
For almost two decades Munro juggled writing, motherhood, being a wife, and running a business with her husband:
When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.
Before her children attended school, Munro had no choice but to write during her children’s nap time:
Yes. [I wrote] from one to three in the afternoon. I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t any good, but I was fairly productive. The year I wrote my second book, Lives of Girls and Women, I was enormously productive. I had four kids because one of the girls’ friends was living with us, and I worked in the store two days a week. I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six. And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about thirty-nine or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don’t have that kind of energy now…
I remember the day I started to write…[Lives]. It was in January, a Sunday. I went down to the bookstore, which wasn’t open Sundays, and locked myself in. My husband had said he would get dinner, so I had the afternoon. I remember looking around at all the great literature that was around me and thinking, You fool! What are you doing here? But then I went up to the office and started to write the section called “Princess Ida,” which is about my mother. The material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off. Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it. That’s when I learned that I was never going to write a real novel because I could not think that way.
Alice Munro’s first book was published at the age of 36. Today, she’s considered one of the world’s foremost fiction writers. She has published 17 books, publishes regularly in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, and is still writing at the age of 81. Munro has also received the Man Booker Prize, the Edward MacDowell Medal, and is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize.
Short stories remain her medium of choice, not only for stylistic reasons, but also because it’s the medium that has worked best with Munro’s busy schedule.
Limitation & If-Only Syndrome
Munro’s story is a familiar one. My own grandparents lived in the mountains of North Georgia and had eighth-grade educations. My grandmother was one of twelve children growing up on a small farm, where they buried meat in saltboxes and made lard and cracklings in iron pots. They milked cows, canned vegetables for winter, churned butter, and made syrup with a sugar cane mill powered by a donkey. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university, after thirteen years attending a Christian fundamentalist school.
But I’m not alone. We all have a story like Alice Munro’s. Each and every one of us is constrained by something…by our upbringing, our education, our busy schedules, our health, our finances, our geography, our skills, our materials, our community, our politics or religion. These physical, social, and intellectual constraints are very, very real. We push up against them every single day, and the experience isn’t always pleasant.
One of the biggest hindrances to doing our best creative work and living a happy life arises from our inability to embrace these obstacles. Too often, we see such limitations as impediments, instead of seeing them as opportunities. We resent them, especially when we compare ourselves to others who appear to have had an easier life.
In this frame of mind, our obstacles become oppressive, undermining our self-worth and eroding our sense of possibility. We develop a mindset of scarcity, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by If-Only Syndrome: “If only I had more _________ (time, help, support from my boss, money, the latest technology, training, skill, etc.), then I could finally __________ (insert whatever passion project or life change is most important to you).”
But as I’ve discussed before, these perfect conditions we’re waiting for are never going to happen. These elusive, ideal circumstances are a myth. Things are imperfect now, and they always will be. We will always have limited time, limited skill, limited knowledge, limited money, difficult co-workers and clients, limited physical capacity, etc. Unless we want to be continually blocked and dissatisfied, the only viable option is to make peace with this fact and embrace these constraints and imperfections.
Style is a function of your limitations, more than a function of your skills
In order to do our best work, we need to learn to accept the limitations that can’t be changed. We need to find a way to work within these confines instead of constantly battling against them.
I’m not suggesting that we simply accept the status quo. Living a fulfilling, productive life is a collective responsibility, as well as an individual one. Not all people have the tools and resources they need to overcome oppressive circumstances. Creative pursuits and what we blithely refer to as “self-improvement” are luxuries for many people. It’s only fair to acknowledge that some individuals are coping with more “limitation” than they deserve. (This is one of the reasons that education, social policies and services, and community involvement are essential).
Acceptance doesn’t mean that we no longer have goals or no longer attempt to make changes in our communities or personal lives. Acceptance is about letting go of anger and resentment; it’s about making peace with the past and the uncertain future. Such acceptance allows us to stop wishing our lives were different. This frees up time and energy to focus on the present and the people and projects that matter most.
What stories are you clinging to right now? What obstacles make you feel most resentful and trapped? Is it your job? Your finances? Your ailing health? Your relationships? Your family history? Past injustices? Anxieties about the future? Demands on your time? Make a list. Only by recording these thoughts can you begin to make changes.
Once you have a list, examine it closely. Do these circumstances really define who you are as a person? Are they really as bad as they seem? What items on your list concern the unchangeable past or unforeseeable future? What obstacles can you let go of entirely? Which ones can you accept (at least for the time being), and which one need to be changed as soon as possible in the interest of your health and happiness?
Now consider your creative assets. Make a list of your talents and skills. What tasks bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction? When do you lapse into a flow state with your work (a state that leaves you neither bored or anxious)? Who and what are you most grateful for? When do you feel most content?
Our creative work emerges from our limitations combined with these creative assets. Art is a product of doing, a product of constraint combined with skill, vision, and personality. As Johnny Cash once said, “Style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.” In other words, constraint is just as important as skill. We need both. It’s this combination that creates a unique style. Johnny Cash’s version of “Personal Jesus” will never sound the same as Depeche Mode’s version, even though the music and words are exactly the same. If you give Chuck Close and John Currin the same tubes of paint, the same canvas, and the same model, and ask them to paint a portrait, the results will look entirely different.
The choice of artistic medium often arises out of constraint, not just from technical experience and skill. The short story format was a natural fit for Alice Munro, just as making art out of twist ties, fruit stickers, and spam email made sense for Rachel Perry Welty, when she was a working mother trying to create art at home during small windows in her busy schedule.
Too Much Opportunity Kills Creativity
But limitations don’t always come in the guise of personal hardships. Some artistic constraints are intentional.
Poet Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Many poets create artistic limitations for themselves by using a poetic form, such as a sonnet, haiku, villanelle, tanka, or couplet. Composers do the same when they choose to work with a musical form like a canon, waltz, symphony, mass, sonata or motet.
Jack White understands the benefits of limitation better than any other rock musician I’ve come across. He knows that you don’t need 20 guitars and a huge band to make memorable music. “The whole point of [the duo] the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself,” White told David Fricke at Rolling Stone. “A duo can only make so much music without tapes and samples. I’ve always centered the band around the number three. Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums…I can only play one thing at a time…In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity.”
“Too much opportunity kills creativity?” That’s a radical idea. Many of us are more comfortable with the romantic notion of the free, liberated artist, beholden to no one, than we are with the idea of a disciplined, creative clock-puncher deliberately painting himself into a corner.
Problem-solving is overrated. Problem creation is far more interesting
No one exemplifies these ideas better than visual artist Chuck Close. The physical and personal obstacles he’s encountered over his lifetime have been numerous. But Close shows us what can be accomplished creatively in spite of and because of constraint.
Chuck Close went through a number of personal trials as a young man, which you’ll see in the below video, but he ended up studying art at Yale, along with Richard Serra and a number of other artists who would go onto to have successful careers.
While in college, he had a teacher who told him that painting was dead, and that the most bankrupt form of painting was representational painting, especially portraiture. Close took that as a challenge and decided to focus his artistic practice on painting portraits. This is the small corner of the art world that he has spent a lifetime exploring.
“I tried to, with a series of self-imposed limitations, back myself into my own personal corner where nobody else’s answers would fit,” says Close. “I’ve always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.”
As a young man, Close also struggled with dyslexia and face blindness. Painting the faces of his family and close friends helped him cope with these illnesses.
Artist Chuck Close shows us that acceptance is better than resistance, and that we can actually create something remarkable and original, even under the worst and most limiting of conditions. As this video from CBS Sunday Morning shows, Close’s unique style is a byproduct of both his skill, his personal limitations, and his decision to restrict his artistic medium to portraiture.
(If you’re reading this in an email, and can’t see the video, click here to watch it on the Gwarlingo website).
What are some of the limitations that are holding you back in your creative work? Is there a way to use these obstacles to your creative advantage? How could you use the constraint of time, medium, form, materials, or money in an innovative way? Your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments field.
The Complete Creative is a new series of articles, workshops, and talks for artists, designers, students, and creative thinkers. Over the next few months I’ll be covering topics like fear, procrastination, technology, time management, as well as practical subjects like money, social media, deadlines, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing. If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo. You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.
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