Last year I finished a novel. Three years of sweat and tears, false starts, protracted labour, the wish that I’d never conceived it in the first place. I had an eerie sense that it was attached to me by an umbilical cord, but once it was done it had a life somehow distinct and separate, as if it had grown and shaped itself despite me.
And now here I am, trying to capture the process. Over and over, when talking about writing, we revert to the metaphor of childbirth.
Sarah Dessen groaned of her novel This Lullaby (2002), ‘Once you realise how awful it really is, you never want to do it again.’
Vera Nazarian’s Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration: Old Wisdom for a New World (2010) taps the same vein:
‘You… look inside yourself. You pull and tug and squeeze and fish around for slippery raw shapeless things …. You latch onto something. And you bring it forth … like Zeus giving birth to Athena…. You have given it cohesion. You have brought something ordered and beautiful out of nothing.’
Our comparison-making is an act of creativity in itself. Apparently it’s called ‘structural metaphor’, this way we parallel one kind of human experience with another (G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, ‘The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System’, Cognitive Science 4, 1980).
But, the researchers warn, one analogy is rarely enough: in the end, any comparison breaks down. Take this one, childbirth. A poem doesn’t start from sexual congress, on the whole; and a novel doesn’t come home from college years after it’s been published expecting to get its washing done.
In the UK, USA, Canada and Australia today one in five women has not given birth to a child by her mid-forties, whether through choice or circumstance. This is a growing phenomenon, not seen since World War I.
Sadly I’m one of these women. I’ve had to come to terms with it, and it’s been hard. Now I write about it on my blog, and in the aforementioned novel, coming out soon. But when I talk about how I made it, given my situation should I avoid loose talk of creative labour pangs – along with anyone else who hasn’t given birth?
Susan Stanford Friedman’s interesting essay ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse’ (Feminist Studies vol. 13, no. 1) has me asking myself this question. What do I actually know about childbirth, after all? Maybe I’m insulting all natural mothers, hijacking their sufferings in labour, and their joys afterwards?
On the other hand, my inner author argues, writers are supposed to be able to insinuate themselves into experiences they haven’t personally been through, are they not?
Male writers – who, last time I looked, have never given birth either – latch onto childbirth too. In Ulysses, James Joyce sets his Mrs Purefoy in the hospital struggling to produce offspring while, close by, the ‘narrator’ is wrestling in labour with his prose.
Friedman argues that men use the theme differently, as part of their fascination with the ‘Other’, the female, while for women writers, it’s more psychologically charged. She warns though that it enforces the traditional male-female hierarchy, reminding us of women’s bodily functions while elevating men to some more cerebral plane.
The seventeenth-century Anne Bradstreet’s The Author to her Book distils the male-female divide on childbirth. It narrates how her brother-in-law took her poor volume of poetry and had it published without her permission:
‘Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true
Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view;…
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy visage was so irksome in my sight…’
An exertion of male power, forcibly and wrongly inducing the production of written work.
So if not childbirth, to what else can we liken writing? In her novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf keeps to the physical and visceral:
‘We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.’
There’s a famous but variously attributed quotation: ‘Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, then you do it for money.’
Maybe the originator is on to something, joined right up to the minute by Lady Gaga:
‘When you … write…, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.’
But the creative act is often a solitary process, if not downright self-indulgent. Maybe it’s more akin to one particularly covert sex act. ‘Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards,’ says Robert A. Heinlein.
From the down-and-dirty to the sublime. Sufis regard all creation as a spiral dance movement, extending skyward and earthward, attuning to some calm point at the hub of life in a spherical spiral of development. Yet this is still a physical process: believers use words like ‘fleshing’.
Combined with the other images, above, maybe we childless women can begin to see our writing less as solipsistic navel gazing than as a ruthless, delicious, never-ending helix of navel excavation.
With kind permission for her quotation from Vera Nazarian: www.veranazarian.com
Paula Coston blogs on childlessness, singlehood, her desire for a boy child, the gender divide and more at http://boywoman.wordpress.com.
Her novel on these themes, ‘On the Far Side, There’s a Boy’, about a woman wrestling with the idea and loss of motherhood, finally pops out in June. Follow her on twitter @BoyWoman2 and goodreads Paula_Coston