Someone's a mother... and a bright yellow chicken
Published on: 04 April 2011 Author: Clare Wigfall
The critically acclaimed writer Clare Wigfall became our fifth Writer in Residence back in 2011. In this blog Clare discusses troubled mothers, the effects of the subconscious in writing, and not being afraid to spend years on an idea.
I remember being surprised when an interviewer asked me why I wrote about troubled mothers. She was right, of course, but it was news to me.
'I don't know,' I stumbled in response, feeling suddenly exposed, 'I've got a great mother.' This was one of the things I found most unnerving about publishing a book. Until the collection came out, I thought I was writing a collection of unlinked stories that had nothing to do with me.
But when critics and readers began to identify recurring themes and pre-occupations, I realised that my subconscious had played a larger role than I'd intended. Unbeknownst to me, and in many differing guises, there were subjects that I had been writing about over and over again. The discovery was unsettling. I guess it goes to show that often you don't know what you're writing about until after you've written about it. Or until after you've published. Be warned.
True to form, I'm working on a story about another troubled mother at the moment. Actually, it's a story I've been writing for a while now. In the course of writing it, I became a mother myself. Will my own experience inform the story I'm writing? Who knows? Perhaps. Maybe not. Ruth, the mother in my story, was a very fully-formed character from the beginning - independent, intellectual, fierce, promiscuous, and ultimately vulnerable. She is not like me, although there are elements of her mothering that I now find I can relate to.
To spend this long with a story is not unusual for me. I usually live for months, even years sometimes, with my stories; I was almost nine years working on my first book. I'm always a little thrown when I meet someone who says they like to write short stories because they're quick to whip off.
This has rarely been my experience. I remember reading an interview with Alice Munro in which she said it takes her six to eight months to write a story and that heartened me. I didn't feel quite so bad about being so ridiculously slow.
In the case of Alice Munro, it doesn't surprise me that her stories take her so long. Each one conveys the perfectly distilled essence of her characters' lives and their world, and that's no easy feat to manage in a handful of pages. I love her stories. They're exquisitely crafted, resonant and beautiful, hard-hitting in their understatement. She elucidates what it is that makes ordinary life extraordinary. I overlooked her books for a long time. Then one day I picked one up, Open Secrets, I think it was and found myself astounded. She has her fair share of troubled mothers, maybe that's one of the reasons I like them so much.
But anyway, mothers seems an appropriate subject considering that today is yesterday was (it has taken me a day to work out how to upload this post!) mother's day. I came across a site this past week that I thought I'd link to. It's called Pictures of my Mother, and essentially that's what it is, pictures people have submitted of their mothers. I was telling a friend about it and she asked, 'But why is that interesting?'
Here are just a few of the mothers you'll find on the site - see what you think:
I've always been intrigued by found photographs - the stories they hint at, the lost moments they capture. I can never resist flicking through those shoe boxes of discarded photos that you find in flea markets. So I guess a site like this was bound to attract my curiosity. I'm glad the mothers on the Pictures of my Mother site are mostly anonymous, it reinforces the fact that motherhood alone is the universal factor that links these many diverse women. I think that's kind of fascinating. What I also like about it is the normality of these photos, their snapshot quality. These are women you could pass in the street and not give a second glance to. But knowing that somebody somewhere has selected this particular photo as representative of their mother makes you, for a moment, see the extraordinary in the everyday, a bit like Alice Munro's stories do.
See, I promised you there'd be a chicken! What single photograph would you choose if you were to share one of your mother?