As a child, I was obsessed with two things – ballet and reading. If I wasn’t flinging myself about the living room doing re-enactments of Swan Lake, I had my nose buried in a book. ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfield was (and remains) my favourite book. By the age of 10, I had a subscription to the magazine, Dance Australia. Every month, I pored over its pages, reading about the latest productions, along with the tremendous highs and lows of the dancing life. There was also a children’s page for letters, stories and poems by young fans.
I’m sure you see where this is heading.
Recently, I spent a fruitless afternoon, searching through my red-leather archive suitcase for that particular copy of the magazine. Amid the mice poo, I found my old ballet leotard and shoes, but not the magazine. No matter. I can still see it in my head. The grey colour of the page. My poem printed in italics. A line about the curtain rising. Something more about the dancers moving, and an uplifting end with the audience applauding. The poem did not rhyme. There was no set meter to it either. I remember the thrill of seeing my name, in print.
What I didn’t know then was that another three decades would pass before my second piece of creative writing would be professionally published.
What happened in between? Life, I suppose. By 15, I was set on TV journalism, for it combined my general love of words and story, along with a general curiosity about life. Plus, there was an identifiable career path, the chance to earn a proper wage.
At the age of 32, I had my first child. For the first time in a decade, I was completely cut off from the world of work. For me, the maternity year was full of emotional highs and lows. More tears than I’ve ever cried before, both happy and sad ones. For hours, I sat in a dark room, patting my unsleeping baby’s wriggling back. At times, I thought my life was over. But there were other magical times. Seeing the baby stare in wonder at their hands, watching them play with their own shadow, playing games with their dolls. It reminded me – we are all born with a tremendous well of creativity, so where had mine gone? I enrolled in a Master of Creative Writing to find it again.
As time has passed, I’ve come to realise that my experience – of turning to writing in the midst of new motherhood – is far from unique. Shankari Chandran, Lauren Sams, Sally Hepworth, Lauren Chater – these are all women who drafted their first novels in the wake of childbirth.
You’re probably thinking – well, that makes sense – when you’re on maternity leave you have all that time to yourself. Of course, it’s the best time to bust out a novel. But if you’ve ever actually had a newborn, you’ll know that babies are small in size and large in demands. The ‘work’ of raising them is never-ending. So, why choose possibly the most inconvenient time to undertake another absorbing task, the writing of a novel?
There are two points in a woman’s life when the brain undergoes major change – puberty and pregnancy. Boffins now know that the flood of hormones causes a woman’s brain to adapt in ways that make her better able to respond to her baby’s needs. Baby brain is indeed a thing, though the scientists now position it as a ‘neural clean up’ designed to make us feel closer to our offspring. In other words, our emotional empathy becomes more acute, and, as all writers know, our craft is a continual exercise in understanding how others feel.
When I read back over my first short story efforts, it’s hard not to cringe. Overly-dramatic and cliched – I made all the mistakes that new writers tend to. But after nearly two years of study, I wrote something that felt real. It was the story of a new mother, struggling to find her identity. I entered it into the Margaret River Short Story Competition and it received a highly commended.
Thirty years after the ballet poem, I had my second published piece of creative writing.
I’m not saying that women need to be mothers to be good writers. In fact, perhaps the opposite is true. Parenting and writing both demand tremendous time resources. Usually, one has to give. Then, there’s the fact that maternity leave is a privilege not available to all. This needs to change.
But for me, becoming a mother set me on a path of rediscovering the child I had been. The tedium gave me time to think. The huge emotional highs and lows gave me so much to write about. Motherhood made me a writer.
Cassie Hamer is a Sydney-based writer whose short fiction has been published by Black Inc, Margaret River Press and Mascara Literary Review. Her debut novel, After the Party, will be published in 2019 by Harlequin. For more, go to CassieHamer.com.