Interview of the Week: Joanna Murray-Smith

Note: This is not Joanna Murray-Smith. This is not even Lady Gaga. At least, I don't think it is.

Hey hey hey!

It’s that time again!

Did I not mention I had a childhood dream of becoming a game show host?

This interview with Aussie playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is one of a series I did a few years back for a book project about mums rocking the world (it’s still gonna happen! I’m actually re-writing it as I type. I know. Writing while writing. Dig.)

I LOVE this one. I could wax lyrical – wax on, wax off – about it, but instead, I’ll just let it do the talking. And without further ado…

When Joanna Murray-Smith’s hugest career landmark coincided with her first (unplanned) pregnancy, her dreams seemed destined to be put on hold. However with the help of a supportive husband to point out this need not be the case, Joanna now says her career has not only be influenced by her mothering but improved by it. Today she is mother of three and one of Australia’s most prolific playwrights, with her most successful production “Honour” enjoying a reading on Broadway with Meryl Streep.

Realising that children aren’t the end of possibilities

I found out I was pregnant just after I had won a scholarship to study Creative Writing in New York. I remember sitting my husband down and saying “we’re not going to New York in February,” and him saying “why the hell not?” and me saying “because we’re going to have a baby!” He said: “Well I’m going to take the year off, we’ll get into colossal amounts of debt, we’ll take the baby with us and we’ll just do it somehow.” So he really set up the idea for me that it was possible to do both. That was a great blessing. That year actually turned out to be actually the happiest year of our life. I really think that year has served me in good stead, because what it set up was first the fact that it’s difficult and that it’s doable: that those two things co-exist. It’s not easy, writing and mothering, in lots of ways, but it’s definitely doable and the things is that if you want both you have to put up with the difficulties and I do want both and I think it’s worth it. The more children I have, the more I realize two things. One is that my children are more important to me than my writing life. And secondly, the writing life is not only not harmed by having children, but actively improved by child-having.

A lot of young women say “oh I really want to have children, but I really want to be a writer. How do you do it?” and I just feel like shaking them and saying “Look, if you have the child, everything else will fit around it! And if it doesn’t then you’re probably not a writer.” Somehow you do it.  I turned to my husband the other night and I said ‘What has having kids stopped us from doing? Nothing. It hasn’t stopped us from travelling, it hasn’t stopped our careers, it hasn’t stopped us from going out to dinner’. The passion wins.

Adjusting to the pros and the cons

There are all sorts of things I miss terribly from my time before having children: mainly silence! Once you have kids you never have silence. I can organize child-care so that I have time to write, but I don’t have that incidental thinking space you get before you have kids, where while you’re washing the dishes you’re thinking or meditating  on some creative problem. I can’t do that anymore because there’s always too much noise around. And I miss that terribly. And I miss the fact that when things are rolling creatively, I can’t always go with them. I have to stop because I have to pick up the kids from school, or I’ve got a baby yanking my skirt, or someone needs a vegemite sandwich. That I find frustrating that I have to stop sometimes when I’m firing on all cylinders, but conversely, I feel more deeply about everything because of my children. And ultimately that’s a writer’s rocket fuel.

Ultimately I think they’ve been a great blessing for my writing. My children have made me a more interesting person. I can’t even think what sort of writer I would be without my children now. I’m sure there are a lot of women writers who would be appalled at that notion, but I feel as though without my children I would be moving less dynamically through life. I’d be stagnating, whereas my children are constantly forcing me to experience life in new ways, because you’re experiencing life through them.

Embracing the influence of mothering on creativity (and vice versa)

I think partly I wasn’t a good mother to Sam (my first-born) because I hadn’t learned how to effectively balance writing and mothering and I think there were times I felt tremendously frustrated and worried that my mothering life was compromising my writing life. But I think now that my working life has been good for my mothering, because I’ve learned that ultimately the work doesn’t suffer. I’ve reached a point where I feel as it I’m giving enough to each of those parts of my self and my life. That’s a very peaceful kind of recognition, because to begin with I thought “I have to have all the balls in the air at once” whereas now I think it’s fine to put one ball down occasionally. It’s fine to put the children aside to come to the writers festival for a few days, that’s okay, they’re not going to turn into serial killers because I’ve left them for three days. And it’s also fine to put my work aside and to concentrate on the kids at certain times.

Seeing isolation as an opportunity for motivation

We made a decision to leave the city and go and live in a semi-rural area by the beach just outside of Melbourne. The children have been happy, but my husband and I have been really unhappy. Me in particular. I feel removed from my old life and generally have found that it hasn’t suited my temperament. But, that said, it’s been a super-productive period because I was so miserable when we moved there that as a sort of strategy for combating my sense of loneliness, I said to myself “well I’ve got to get myself out of this somehow”, so I set myself the task of writing 1000 words every time Charlie, who was then 2, would have a nap. It didn’t matter what those 1000 words were about. It was just the sense of feeding the part of me that was not a mother, that was not a housewife and was some kind of interior way of getting out of the house. I was kind of trapped in the house, but I could exit the house through my imagination. It was incredibly exciting writing. It was really adrenalin-filled, creative rush. And I began to look forward to that time each day when Charlie when to sleep. It was like a secret life because I didn’t tell anyone about it, I didn’t tell my publishers, I didn’t talk to my agent about it, I didn’t tell anyone, I just did it. So I started writing a novel, not really expecting anything to come out of it, but then found that within four months I had a first draft of a novel: I’d written 90,000 words.

Connecting with the kids through work

I think it’s great for the kids that I work. I think that they’re excited by the life of the imagination and I’m happy that they know they can make a life in the world of the imagination if they so choose. And I think that’s a great blessing for a child. A lot of children are dissuaded to believe in that: “it’s not a proper job,” or “very few people are successful at it”, which is true. But happily my children have seen that you can make that life, and of course the creative life, my life, is not so different from the life they lead, in lots of ways. Because they live inside their imaginations as young children, and I live inside my imagination, there is actually quite a lovely bond between writing parents and young children. They understand what I do because I just do make-believe, the same way they do.

Balancing the instability of the arts with the financial responsibilities of family

My husband – although he doesn’t make a lot of money –makes a stable income. Lots of our friends are couples of two artists in one medium or another, and life is incredibly stressful for them, particularly if they want to have children. So that makes a big difference for me.  But the other thing is we live in constant debt. Lots of people are terrified of debt, but we’ve been forced to embrace it! I guess you just work out what’s worth it to you, and it’s worth it to me that I do what I do.

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