4 August 2023
Hi, I’m Magdalena. I’ve always loved stories, books and words. Reading has been one of the great loves of my life, so it’s no surprise that I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
When I was a kid – like many people – I didn’t know that writing could be a ‘job’. I thought it was simply something that you did. That is, that writing was a verb, not a noun. I wrote stories, therefore I could call myself a writer – or so I thought.
When I got older things got more complicated. Self-consciousness kicked in and the stories didn’t flow from my imagination to my fingers like they used to. Even worse, it dawned on me that only some people got to go around calling themselves ‘Writers’ (most of these people seemed to be men). Suddenly, it seemed that writing was a very serious and very intellectual business. I’ve tried to rid myself of these archaic ideas but they’re difficult to exorcise altogether. Maybe this is why I still feel sheepish calling myself a writer. It feels like I need a whole lot of credentials (maybe a different gender?) to claim this title. Which is silly, really, because if another woman writer told me this, I’d tell her to own it – own her space, call herself a writer. So, ok. I’ll say it: My name is Magdalena, and I’m a writer.
Along with my partner, I’m raising two very funny, and very chaotic, young boys. My older son is in grade one and my younger kid is in kinder. One of the nice things about having kids is that it’s given me the chance to delve into children’s literature. At the moment we’re reading a lot of Andy Griffiths in our house! I’m always encouraging my older to kid to get into other Australian authors, but he always wants to go back to Andy Griffiths. Reading these books together has made me think about what a skill it is to tell stories that grab the reader, that make them laugh and that keep them on the edge of their seat. It’s such a talent! Reading books with my kids has also re-connected me to my childhood love of literature.
"It kind of grates on me when, as women, we are compelled to say, ‘I’m really lucky because I have a supportive partner who helps with the housework and looks after the kids.’ I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if this was simply a given? And wouldn’t it be nice if we heard men waxing lyrical about the fact they’re lucky to have partners who ‘help out’ with the domestic load? "
Like many women, my creative life is somewhat fractured and haphazard; it takes place in the cracks and margins. My writing time contracts and expands depending on other people’s needs and competing demands like earning money (I work part-time in the research department at a children’s hospital).
Something that has helped me immensely in my creative journey is the notion of closing the gap between my writing life and my life. When I first got back into writing fiction as an adult, I thought that I had to make everything up in order to, well, prove that I could. Some people get very sniffy about ‘autobiographical’ writers – particularly when these writers are women. I used to come up with all kinds of outlandish fictional situations in order to prove to myself, and other people, that I really was writing fiction.
When I had kids that slowly started to change. I realised that becoming a mother is one of the biggest transformations that a person could go through and that this makes the experience worth writing about. More and more, I started to use my own experiences as catalysts for my fiction. This escalated when I had my second child in 2020. When I went to hospital to give birth, the world was ‘normal’. When I came out, we were in lockdown. It was a point in time in which my own life – and the broader world – were undergoing massive change. So I began to write about it. And because my writing responded to the world around me, it became easier to write in the small slivers of time that I had.
Many of these experiences – of having a baby during uncertain times, of finding the funny side of parenting – have made their way, in fictional form, into my short story collection, Born for You. Now, when I’m spending hours shivering in a playground, or when I’m faced with a toddler’s meltdown in a supermarket, I think to myself: ‘Oh well, it’s research. I’ll be able to use this, somehow, in my work.’ In this way, my mum-life has also become my writing-life. Closing the gap between these things has helped me to see motherhood itself as a creative act. To see it as something that, yes, takes time away from my writing but also enriches it.
It kind of grates on me when, as women, we are compelled to say, ‘I’m really lucky because I have a supportive partner who helps with the housework and looks after the kids.’ I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if this was simply a given? And wouldn’t it be nice if we heard men waxing lyrical about the fact they’re lucky to have partners who ‘help out’ with the domestic load?
Having said that, I know I’m extremely lucky. My husband is a feminist, a man who’s great at caring and cooking. How did he end up this way? He was raised by a feminist mum, that’s how. I’m hoping that this sharing-of-the-load helps us set a good example for our own boys (time will tell!).
This support enables me to keep writing. If I had to manage the entire domestic load on my own, as well as do paid work, I don’t think it would be possible for me to be a writer.
Motherhood is an incredibly emotionally intense experience. This intensity is something that I try to channel into my work, which examines motherhood as a catalyst for, and symbol of, personal and systemic change. In my short story collection, Born for You, we meet women at the crossroads of change. Sometimes these changes are global, in the cases of war or pandemic. And sometimes these changes are more personal, like, for example, a woman who is grappling with a catastrophic lack of sleep. Each story asks the question: What is it like to love and care for another person when your world has tilted on its axis?
I guess this sums up my own transition to motherhood: it felt like my entire world had tilted on its axis. This sense of the ground shifting beneath my feet has been destabilising but also fruitful: it’s something that continues to provide creative fuel for my work. Likewise, I find myself obsessed with writers who explore the territory of motherhood in their work. International authors like Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy, Bernardine Evaristo, Patricia Lockwood and Celeste Ng. And Australian authors like Angela Savage, Melanie Cheng, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Stephanie Bishop and Kate Mildenhall, to name but a few. These are the writers who inspire me.
"I realised that becoming a mother is one of the biggest transformations that a person could go through and that this makes the experience worth writing about. More and more, I started to use my own experiences as catalysts for my fiction."
After I had my first child, writing became something I had less time for, as well as something that I desperately wanted to do. It became more important than ever to guard my interior life; to have something that was just mine.
Those early days, and nights, were fractured and sleep deprived. Just about all my outings were child-related: trips to the park or rhyme time, or the children’s gallery at the museum.
When my child was still a baby (I can’t remember how old he was – that time is a bit of a blur!) I treated myself to an afternoon workshop at a writer’s centre. It was my first big solo outing in a long time. The workshop was hosted by a short story writer, Irish, gregarious, and after class he invited all of us to go downstairs to a wine bar – it’s a very ‘literary’ wine bar, where all the writers hang out, so it was exciting to be going with a crew of writers. We were sitting outside, a large group of us, split over a few tables. On my table, a woman asked about my writing life. I said that I had a baby and that I was working on a novel. I talked about the challenges of doing both these things. There was a pause. Then she said: ‘I have grave concerns for your baby. When I became a mother I gave up writing for twenty years. The wellbeing of my children came first.’
Even as I’m writing this, my heart is speeding up; my fingertips are thrumming. Nearly seven years later, the shock and humiliation still burns. I can still feel the heat of that accusation landing in my chest. I was too shocked to respond. I had too many questions to process: was I doing something wrong by going to a literary event instead of staying at home with my baby? Was I damaging my child because I wanted to be a writer as well as a mother? Did nurturing my literary ambitions inevitably mean that my child would develop a host of psychological problems? Was this a thing?
This happened years ago and that baby is now a soon-to-be-seven-year old, and he’s fine. In fact, he’s amazing. But that comment still burns.
Recently, I spoke to my friend about what happened. This friend of mine is eminently sensible – and I mean that in the best possible way. She has a finely tuned bullshit detector. She’s also childless by choice and there’s something about this fact that enables her to be completely objective about these motherhood-dilemmas. When I come to her with an issue like this I know that she’ll approach it without any hangups or vested interests.
When I told her what happened she laughed in a kind of horrified way. Then she said, ‘I had a mother who dedicated her whole life and her whole identity to looking after me. And you know what? It was a burden. I wanted her to have her own life, her own interests and friends. I wanted her to show me how to be a well-rounded person.’
This is the thought I keep returning to: my job as a mother is to care for my children, yes, and also to show them, through my example, how to engage with the broader world.
And that soon-to-be-seven-year old who I stole slivers of time from so I could write? Well he’s ridiculously proud that I’m publishing a book. He says that, one day, he’s going to publish a book too (as well as build houses and look after children and plant trees and make millions of dollars, and, and, and….). He’s seen me work hard at my writing and grapple with the highs and lows, the wins and rejections that come with this sort of work. And I think – I hope – that that’s setting a good example for both my kids.