from the editor's desk

Women of a Certain Age

The Act of Creating: Women of a Certain Age

Jodie Moffat, Maria Scoda and Susan Laura Sullivan

For more information about Women of a Certain Age and to buy the book, visit Fremantle Press


The Act of Creating

The ageing body continues to disappoint […] No matter how hard we try, we can’t avoid gravity or destiny, given the failing nature of the body. It seems unwise to take care of the body so religiously but forget to take care of the mind. (Lowry 141–142)

Women of a Certain Age (WOCA), from which the above quote is drawn, is an anthology of personal memoirs from women who have passed into that eponymous, somewhat indeterminate stage of life women enter after age forty. The book collates the life experiences of fifteen such women, and is particularly concerned with claiming a space for women in the wider ageing world. These women show that even if the march of time is unstoppable, they have not relinquished the power of self and cognisance.

In popular culture women over forty barely exist as a cohort. We are not seen on television and cinema screens, we are not the voices wailing into earbuds of commuters and early morning joggers. We do not grace billboards or glamourise the sides of buses to inveigle the masses to buy whimsy and widgets. Yet we are one of largest growing population demographics in Australia. Women’s stories are under-told when we are younger, and our public face recedes in an inversely proportionate manner to the quantum of wrinkles we acquire as we age.  Our immense wealth of knowledge and life skill is ignored through our under-representation. Yet our lived experience is often richer—we contribute as much to civil society as we ever have, if not more—we continue to create.

In 2016, three friends, Jodie Moffat, Maria Scoda and Sue Sullivan (Susan Laura Sullivan), set out to counteract this profound lack of social presence of women over forty by seeking and sharing a selection of stories of these self-same women as they continue to negotiate the paths, both overt and covert, available to them as they age.

 

Jodie Moffat

The year I turned fifty, I was on the telephone with Maria, lamenting my work situation, and she said, ‘We should write a book about what it is like to be a woman of our age.’

I said, ‘My friend Sue may have some ideas about how we could do that’, and so this book began.

But there was so much, in my life at least, that went before this zygote of creativity metastasised into a fully formed anthology. Simultaneously, and not inconsistently, WOCA was always within my fellow editors and me, hibernating until such time as we wrested it into being, until we had the time and its time had come. That to me is the nature of creativity—it is always there, dormant or engaged, like breathing or digestion or living or self.

As a child, my creativity was aspirational and plastic. I drew huge colourful drawings; once I learned words, I wrote stories. My stories and pictures were for Great Uncle Jack, my grandmother’s sad, wonderful brother who survived a World War II prison camp and never married. He said he never met a woman he loved as much as his sisters, my grandmother and Kathleen, long dead from scarlet fever. Uncle Jack had a magical suitcase full of chocolate he would give my sisters and me for our stories and pictures. He said we were extraordinary.

I was supposedly gifted in English at school, but my parents thought I should do something sensible at university, so I studied biology. I did one unit of English Literature, my beacon in a week of statistics and dismembered guinea pigs. When that lecturer had a breakdown and I couldn’t reschedule his class, I took it as a sign to leave science for the arts. I told my parents I was studying journalism and instead enrolled in film and creative writing, where I met Sue.

I graduated after taking time off study to work and travel and moved to Japan to teach English. I reconnected with Sue there, before moving on to Hong Kong and then Sydney where I read tarot, joined a writers’ group and a theatre troupe, and befriended Maria. With my thirtieth birthday pending, I returned to Perth and was presented my future husband by a mutual friend; that is, I asked if my friend knew any single men in Perth and he arrived at my thirtieth birthday in the company of the man I later married. My husband and I still joke about how he was ‘given’ to me. We bought a decrepit hundred-year-old weatherboard house, married and had kids.

My creativity as a mother was functional and pragmatic: restoring houses, engaging in games and stories, repairing the broken toys and torn clothes constantly burdening the ‘fix-it’ table in the spare room; growing herbs and roses. I read tarot part time in a gift shop, till one day my cards were stolen and I reasoned it was time for a change.

A friend from high school called me just before we both turned forty, and we commiserated about being left behind by our more ambitious peers. We contacted two other friends and thereafter met once a month, regaining our personal selves and non-wife lives through mutual support. From those meetings I deduced that a career in law might be a practical way to engage my latent theatre and creative writing skills. I entered the practice of law as Hansel and Gretel entered the witch’s house, wide-eyed and hungry: in litigation, the stories are ready-made for you, you just write the ending.

My legal career progressed well at first, but I became increasingly aware I was ageing out of my peer group at work. That’s not to say there were no older people there—the principals were all middle-aged white men—but the few older female practitioners decreased in number every year, then the older female non-legal staff. Then it was my turn.

It was at this time that Maria proposed writing a book about what it is to be a woman of a certain age. We spoke with Sue, and once she was on board, we contacted women from all walks of life who we thought might contribute. We received an overwhelmingly positive response, so we drafted a proposal to prospective publishers.

I remember taking a hard copy of that proposal addressed to Fremantle Press (FP) into my workplace and the lovely outside clerk offering to post it. Not long after, she succumbed to the purge of middle-aged women from the firm.

FP called me and asked to meet. I walked into their office and discovered that the publishers we would be dealing with were women of an age with me and Sue and Maria. It was as if half of what we needed to say to convince FP to publish WOCA had already been said.

With Maria and Sue online, I met in person with FP several times to progress the book. FP said they wanted narratives mostly from Australian women, preferably from Western Australia. FP suggested a third of the contributors to the anthology in addition to the women we proposed.

After our combined discussions with FP, we settled on fifteen pieces, editing these over a year by cycling each one among the three of us before passing it on to FP. We arranged our final collection into a sequence roughly emulating the arc of life—how women express themselves in each stage, and if and how these are impacted by age and circumstance. And then we published.

There is something of value in being willing to adapt self-expression to practical limitation, to shape what one has been given to what one needs to get done. Once we move past the impetus to acquire material wealth or have children—once we age beyond the capacity to do those things, or reach the point where we recognise we are limited in our capacity to do those things—I believe we’re liberated to be that person we were before those possibilities were foisted on us as expectations; before we became physically capable of producing young or working for reward. We revert to who we once were.

WOCA to me typifies how creativity manifests in real time. Creativity aggregates around the areas of our life which are the most time-consuming, coalescing when it’s required. It is expressed in different and sometimes prosaic ways, depending on our needs and life circumstance.

When I was younger my creativity focused on whatever engaged me most, be it pictures I drew for Uncle Jack, or places I travelled. When I settled into motherhood, my creativity responded to the unlimited minds of my children, and to transforming my family homes. I then harnessed my creativity to the study and practice of law.

I feel I’m again that child drawing pictures for a suitcase of chocolate, but now I have the knowledge of the mother of that child. I know there is time to let creativity sit and mature. I know any urgency is self-imposed. My creativity as I age is focused and effective.

The year I turned fifty, my friends and I wanted to create an anthology. Who knows what we will do next year.

 

Maria Scoda (visit Maria’s website)

Creativity, like psychotherapy, gives us a space to tell a story we want to tell; they are different but similar processes. Both psychotherapy and creative expression can be transformative. Both are avenues we can use to process and make sense of experiences, and reduce painful feelings. Both have a relationship with an audience and provide an opportunity for us to find our voice, to become visible and be heard and understood. It’s often through telling our story that transformation is possible. It is useful to bring an element of openness and curiosity when reflecting on, and trying to understand, our own experiences.

What transpires in psychotherapy is a creative process between me (the clinical psychologist) and the client, where together in a safe space we make sense of, and try to come to terms with, my client’s experiences. We hope that by doing this the client can move past distress and embrace a fulfilling life.

A couple of years ago, I embarked on a different creative process. I decided to contribute my story to an anthology I was co-editing with Jodie and Sue. Suddenly I was on the couch, looking in, and reflecting on my own internal processes.

It was our job as editors to try to bring visibility to older women’s voices. Ironically, editors themselves, in many ways, are often invisible. The audience doesn’t know in what way or how much the editors have worked on each story.

Editing is a complex process. For us, that process started with choosing contributors for our anthology. We were interested in finding writers and non-writers from different backgrounds; we wanted the stories to be relatable to as many women as possible.

As the stories arrived in my inbox, I became more conscious of the fact that these women trusted us to edit their stories. But these were more than just stories they’d written: they were personal narratives that needed to be treated with the utmost respect while maintaining the contributor’s voice. My sense of responsibility was heightened. This process was going to be a delicate dance that required empathy and understanding of what the contributor wanted to convey while keeping in mind the brief of the anthology. There were times when we three editors didn’t agree with one another, but we kept moving things forward. As a contributor myself, I knew how important it was to remain objective and open to the ideas of others. Detaching from your own work as opposed to your own story can be tricky because an important aspect of the creative process is being comfortable with your own work, and ignoring internal censorship about what others think.

There are inherent challenges in writing a personal story. It isn’t easy to decide how much of yourself you are willing to reveal to the general public. Once committed to print, there is no retrieving it. An uncensored approach is likely to leave you feeling too vulnerable. Too little personal input, and you risk writing a story that lacks connection with the audience. When you think about the consequences too much, you can become stuck and closed to the creative process. The openness required to write, the ability to play with ideas, can shut down.

I wavered on what I would and wouldn’t include in my story in the anthology. I didn’t want to feel too exposed. I wondered whether two of the other contributors, Tracey Arnich and Goldie Goldbloom, had similar experiences to me, how they felt when they wrote vivid and raw depictions of their childhood experiences. Reading their pieces, I had a visceral sensation of what it may have felt like for them as children. Their descriptions have an immediacy to them and I wondered if they were reliving their experiences at the time of writing.

Recalling her step-father, Tracey writes, ‘He liked to hit us with a belt, using the buckle end […] One night I was standing at the kitchen sink. He was belting Mum; she grabbed my hair to stop herself from falling. I went down too’ (62).

Regarding her father, Goldie says, ‘He taught me that drunks have wicked aim when they decided to throw something at you […] He taught me that leather is best when it comes time to discipline the children, but the back of the hand hurts worse than the palm’ (32).

In my story in our anthology, I talk about the vulnerability and fragility we share as humans and the importance of recognising and accepting that we are imperfect works in progress. I demonstrate this not only through the act of sharing my story but also in the story itself.

Psychotherapy and creativity are not necessarily linear processes. Most of us feel good about connecting with and expressing our authentic selves. You don’t know how difficult the journey will be or how long it will take, but the grounding component of the process helps you to keep going. Eventually you notice a shift within and you find your way, and often your voice.

I started painting and writing creatively as a teenager. It was one way of expressing and processing my raw emotions. With each draft the messy parts of me slowly started talking to the healthy parts until I felt okay again, like a pot of raw lentils simmering to become a nourishing meal.

Now, as both an adult and a psychologist, I help others through that process of transformative change from one mental state to another. I still paint and write for my personal creativity but I am more freed up and connected to myself these days, so my work is less about processing raw emotion and more about creating a multi-dimensional and layered piece; I put more effort into creating depth to my meal by adding textures and flavours that not only feed, but which can be enjoyed, savoured and shared.

 

Susan Laura Sullivan

We are no longer the people we were six, sixteen, twenty-six, thirty years ago. Things remain constant, but are never exactly the same. Similarly, the hybrid of poetry, prose and creative non-fiction we envisaged for WOCA three years ago has metamorphosed into its current form.

The stories in the anthology draw from many sources. For example, Liz Byrski’s contribution includes sections published in Getting On (2014). Her WOCA article focuses on relationships with ageing parents, on things loved and lost, and living with that loss. A perfect close to the book, it complements stories of change and reflection, following chapters exploring the shared life experiences we wished to depict.

However, Liz’s relation to self and others, by dint of one day leading to the next, must differ over time, as it does with us all. Correspondingly, the process of WOCA becoming public—from its genesis to internals to final proofs to books on shelves—trod and treads an ever-changing path.

When we started, friends, colleagues and contacts mentored us through collating a proposal, communicating with contributors, and shaping ideas to print. There are many teachers not apparent in the anthology’s pages whose encouragement was pivotal to the book’s manifestation.

In a similar way, the stories these mentors helped mould have become guides for others. WOCA has taken on its own life as readers interact with its content. Younger women report on drawing reassurance from narratives that illustrate relevant and fulfilling lives for women beyond the confines of physiological fertility; from stories that highlight alternatives to prescribed roles. Older women see themselves: their achievements, potential and possibility. Male readers have connected to personal histories within, relating parallel experiences, whether those of family members or their own.

This type of guidance and need for connection is evident in many of the WOCA contributions. Maria describes the kindness of others in recognising talent and skill, and in acknowledging restrictions placed upon girls by family, society and self-doubt. ‘It only took a few simple words of encouragement to give me enough self-assurance to take the next step’, she says, outlining the process of making a better world for herself (73). An observance from another mentor was all the validation needed for her to undertake a psychology degree.

Jeanine Leane, Mehreen Faruqi, Pam Menzies and Liz Byrski write on the influence of those who help us, whether family, friends, colleagues or strangers; whether by single words or expressions, or by seeing us through our own beliefs and struggles. Empathy and an ability to adapt are constant themes.

This is important, because the stories of our sisters, friends, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and colleagues remind us, in a way that mass-media often fails to, that women are and always have been powerful. When such stories are absent from our professional and social circles, answers and examples can be sought elsewhere. To be one such repository of identification and legitimacy was our aim in creating the book.

Media and societal bias can be challenged by seeking alternative forms and vehicles for expression. Accepting the limitations of bias and popular definitions can result in stagnation. Confinement can be self-imposed, a foundation of security, or a prison of restriction. Subverting norms is a form of creativity. Diversity is a biological necessity.

WOCA contributor and Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane in her piece Black Boxes ruminates on checking a box on a work form asking ‘Are you Aboriginal?’. Doing so delineated her professional identity, trapping her inside the expectations of white Australians for Indigenous Australians, allowing very little movement. The box, or definition, excludes perspectives beyond the ‘whitestream’ and refuses to recognise individual experience. As an individual, as a ‘blackfella’, a mother, a professional, and a woman of a certain age, Jeanine dreams of a world where her children won’t need to check boxes that limit their identity and opportunities (45-57). Progress asks us to create, to question. Creativity asks us to progress—dares Jeanine to dream of and create a world of vibrant prismatic possibilities; dares us to put together an anthology about the rich lives of women.

If we don’t adapt, don’t sense danger, don’t know how to procreate—via imagination or our bodies—if we don’t learn how to interconnect, we die out one way or another. Throughout life we learn how to turn our minds inside out and to then return to our pre-existing base. Brigid Lowry states, ‘We are always in relationship: with our body, our feelings, history, the earth, each other, the weather, our ancestors. There is no end to this list; there is nothing to which we are not in relation’ (141). Yet, ageing takes its toll. ‘Some days you feel young: zesty, happy, energetic. Sometimes you feel ancient: tired, in pain, world-weary’ (141). This could well describe the editing process. The progress of the anthology was sometimes sluggish, occasionally smooth, always interesting, and always ‘in relationship’.

The book’s stories follow life journeys in terms of experiences and expectations. The women in WOCA have travelled––through generations and states, physical and metaphorical. Pat Mamanyjun Torres outlines the sheer creativity that exists in our bloodlines through listing her family’s genealogy (99-100). The creativity necessary to survive is also reflected in her work, as it is in the contributions from Jeanine Leane, Tracey Arnich, Goldie Goldbloom, Anne Aly, Charlotte Roseby and Maria.

Exposure to new circumstances—the reinvention necessary when entering new cultures—are applications of creativity, whether through work undertaken, such as in the stories of Liz Byrski, Goldie Goldbloom and Brigid Lowry, or in assessment of what one needs to change.

When it came to ordering such diverse stories, an alchemist’s touch was needed to balance the bleak with blithe, slice of life with sliced lives. A tale of secrets shares space with a story embracing societally defined taboos (Drummond 119; Kneen 139). Discovering pathways to the right vocation complements an overview of a rewarding professional career (Scoda 69; Smithson 78).

The chapters are expeditions through family and memories of family, countries and countryside, psyche and place, and all highlight the need to connect inwardly and outwardly. The interdependence of people, landscapes and opportunities, and how we learn to react to and deal with them, creates who we are and will be.

Just as Jodie’s Great Uncle Jack unpacked a suitcase of childhood wonderment, setting fire to her imagination and opening a world of possibility, just as the recounting of stories in Maria’s practice unpacks problems and issues we may have buried away, allowing us to breathe, WOCA  unpacks one intelligent conversation after the other. Even in its most fleeting moments, creativity taps into the wish to contribute, to alter, to make a difference, and WOCA ensures that the grit and resilience, humour and sustainability of older women’s lives are interwoven into the public sphere with the strongest of threads, prominent and proud.


Works Cited

Byrski, Liz. Getting On: Some Thoughts on Women and Ageing. Momentum Books, 2014. <https://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743340479/>

Moffat, Jodie, Maria Scoda and Susan Laura Sullivan (eds.). Women of a Certain Age: Life Stories from Anne Aly, Liz Byrski, Sarah Drummond, Mehreen Faruqi, Goldie Goldbloom, Krissy Kneen, Jeanine Leane, Brigid Lowry, Pat Mamanyjun Torres & more. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2018.


Jodie Moffat commenced a law degree in her 40th year, graduating as a Juris Doctor. Her paper ‘Arranging Deckchairs on the Titanic’ won the Morella Calder Memorial Prize in 2010, and was published in the Australian and New Zealand Maritime Law Journal. Jodie worked as a commercial litigator in the Perth CBD before taking up practice as a generalist solicitor with a community legal service in 2017. She ran as the Greens Party lower house candidate for Mandurah in 2017

Maria Scoda is a clinical and consult­ant psychologist who works in private practice in the Sydney CBD. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Australian National University in 2002. She also holds a bachelor of arts, with honours in psychology.

Susan Laura Sullivan writes fiction, essays and poetry. Her work has been published in Westerly: New Creative, Tokyo Poetry Journal and Plumwood Mountain Journal among others. In 2012 she was shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award. She holds a Master of Creative Arts, has taught creative writing at Curtin University and at a community level, and currently lives and works in Japan.

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