My niece just gave birth, delivering herself of a bundle so very substantial that it was getting on for the weight of a small turkey. Doubtless it would be a fairly thin Thanksgiving if the extended family sat down to feast on an eleven pound bird, but eleven pounds of ‘little’ May easing her way out of a previously untried tummy is a hell of a lot of baby. Naturally, I wouldn’t want to push this comparison any further. May is a wonderfully pretty child (takes after her great uncle, I believe) and bears no other discernible resemblance to a galliform, but she did get me thinking about birth pangs in general, notably the only ones –I’m glad to say– that I’ll ever experience first hand . . . bringing forth a book.
Of course, I’m not the first to dragoon the birthing business into analogies about writing. For all his polymathic erudition and abundant energies as a novelist, Anthony Burgess indulged in a characteristically outrageous bit of sexism when he said that the reason most of the world’s great artists have been men is because women satisfy all their creative urges by making babies! Yeh, right. Then they pop off to the kitchen and don’t worry their pretty little heads about another damn thing. If I recall correctly –by no means guaranteed– A.S. Byatt, a woman (“Bless her little heart.” – A.B.) with experience of a more bloody birthing, observed that the process of bringing a book out took about nine months from delivery of a manuscript to the date of publication, implying that it was all a very pregnant process.
Elsewhere, a quick google search reveals the following:
Carl Sandburg: "Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child." (May’s got red hair, as it happens. So has her mother. The coming years promise to be most entertaining.)
Nora Ephron: “If pregnancy were a book they would cut the last two chapters.” (. . . and doubtless plaster the goings on detailed in the first page all over the cover.)
Rainer Maria Rilke: "You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of the new clarity." (. . . . which looks straightforward enough, but has a certain Rumsfeldian quality about it when you consider it awhile.)
There are other parallels we can play around with here, too. Every writer knows that most books begin with an insignificant little seed, often as not one you barely pay any attention to until its progenitor slopes off in the early hours of the morning, leaving you with the nagging feeling that something might have taken root. So you wait for a while –stories, after all, are a dime a dozen, and there’s no knowing whether this one is going to develop into anything– wondering whether the periodic urge to chase another tale is going to return, or if this story has really taken hold and is the one that has to be told.
These preliminary moments can be quite fretful, but no less so than the dawning realization that, yes, you are big with story and the blighter is going to dominate a good deal of your life in the ensuing months, if not years, and it’s not always going to be a very comfortable experience. It’s going to play havoc with your social life for starters and it might well keep you up at night, kicking about inside you trying to make its cramped quarters a bit more commodious.
It’s going to get bigger and bigger, displacing more and more of your vital organs, until you are so replete with it that everything else pales into insignificance, possibly to the point at which you just want to get the thing out and hold it in your arms and coo over it and have everyone else cluster round admiring the miracle. Even after a period of patient gestation, some books are so recalcitrant that they have to be wrested from their costive author, or even require the interference of an outside party (like a publisher or agent), whose intervention may seem so intrusive and violent that it pretty much amounts to a caesarian.
Happily, giving birth to a book doesn’t entail years of nurturing it and paying for its education and coping with its tantrums and wondering when it’s going to grow up and go away and get on with its life because you wouldn’t mind having a bit of your own life back. Not, at least, unless you spawn some mammoth international bestseller that will haunt you down the years with the obsessions and unrealistic expectations it has provoked, fans pestering you to live up to your new found status as public property, fond editors carrying on like a bunch of maiden aunts calling for more offspring from the same stable, while critics and rivals carp, demanding that you defend your book and answer for all its inevitable little failings. For the most part, though, it’s just a question of pushing the thing out and hoping that the world will be as kind to it as the world is inclined to be.
I wouldn’t want to take all this too far. I’m fairly certain I’ll never produce anything as perfect as a baby. Come to that, I hope I won’t be churning out too many turkeys, either. But if a friend’s death merits a blog, I reckon a baby’s birth does, too.
One in, one out.
So, all power to you May. Welcome to the world. You’ve not been here a week, yet you are already better and more complete than anything I or any other writer will make after decades of labour (“Women, eh? They’ve got it easy.” – A.B.)
Did you really have to be so big, though?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace