I’ve noticed that my writing output significantly decreases when I am pregnant (as I am now: 31 weeks). It’s not just that I lack the focus or the energy to sit down and sustain a thought for more than three seconds – it goes deeper than that: I am low on inspiration.
Usually I find myself up to my neck in a veritable river of metaphors, ideas, images, controversies…the trick is to catch one and figure out what to do with it. Last summer there was this chili pepper, curled into a hook-like shape, drying on my windowsill, and in the evening when the gold late sun filtered through the screen it glowed red like a beacon. Everything else in the kitchen went sort of dim and fog-like. I wrote a poem about it…also about vultures flying off with road-kill, about bagworm tents in the black walnut trees, about iris rhizomes, and even about moon-pies. Everything was fraught with significance and connected to everything else.
This summer though a chili pepper remains stubbornly a chili pepper (which is fine, really – why should it be anything else?) and I haven’t written a damn thing, beyond lecture notes, Facebook posts, and one creative project that I HAD to finish. My body is very busy creating a whole other person, and my mind is left either to dangle about and wait or to get invested in the process – which, in my case, usually means worrying.
One thing I have noticed, though, is that contrary to a fairly popular trope, pregnancy and childbearing are absolutely nothing like producing a work of art – beyond the fact that both are work, and in both cases you end up with Something New. But the same could be said of baking a pie.
I spent so much time analyzing the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the development of literature is juxtaposed against the birth of a baby, in which the forty paragraphs coincide with forty weeks of gestation, I got all caught up in the metaphor and even wrote a conference paper on “Birth and the Book: Joyce’s Pro-Life Aesthetics” (which incidentally I didn’t get to present since adjuncts don’t get travel stipends – insert loud bitchy noises here)…but when it comes down to it, the comparison only goes so far. I would hate for writers to approach writing the way women approach childbearing, vice versa.
It is true that both books and babies are kind of a part of oneself, but also kind of separate. You can see bits of yourself in both. But in the case of the baby, it is absolutely guaranteed that the New Thing is completely unique, an individual, separate from you. The same, alas, is rarely true of literary works. The good ones have a life of their own, but all the rest, the mediocre and the poor and the downright shitty (and most of them, you know, fall into one of those latter categories) do not. They remain tied to their mamas’ apron strings. Read one, and it makes no sense unless you know who wrote it and why, and on what biographical event it is based….and even then, you won’t find it very interesting. Unless you are in love with the person who wrote it, or something, and sufficiently loopy with desire to find ANYTHING associated with that person – a used tissue, for instance – deeply compelling. It doesn’t speak to you on its own. A baby will eventually learn to talk, but a poorly written poem never will.
If you treat your artistic productions as you should treat a newborn, then you are probably guaranteed to produce utter schlock. A baby, you love flaws and all: you wouldn’t have it any other way. You love it, coddle it, tolerate its messes and its bawling. It is your baby – it is completely unique and beloved, even if it is bald and red-faced and covered with baby acne and flaking cradle cap and stinky sour milk-puke in all its little folds and creases. No one else may see that it is beautiful, but you KNOW that it is.
That’s totally the right way to look at your baby and totally the wrong way to look at the crappy poem you just produced while half-drunk under a lamppost, dripping tears of scorned love and sucking at a cigarette and feeling like what you really want to do most is scream and break things, but you don’t want to get arrested, so you write this poem instead. Even if the baby, like the poem, came about because you were drunk and thought it was love and weren’t thinking clearly…
Have you ever had someone just out of the blue ask if you would take a look at his / her poetry? It happens to me all the time. I don’t know whether I have some sort of “reads poetry!!!” aura around me, but I have actually had total strangers approach me and ask if I can look over some poems. I really hope I will get time off purgatory for this. Because there is always a “you can hold my baby if you want to” feel to such an offer. You can’t look at someone’s baby and say, “well, the nose is okay, but if I were you I would just get rid of the rest and start over….see if you can make something of the nose, it’s not bad. But the rest…it’s sort of awkward, it doesn’t hold together. Actually, it stinks.” You can’t. You wouldn’t. But that is often pretty much what you ought to say to the poem-mother who has just handed you her poem-baby. I usually try to be nicer than that….there is enough suffering in the world as it is, between wars and famines and political parties and baby-puke and bad art.
The comparison between the baby and the book becomes downright alarming when you think about some of the advice a burgeoning writer should take to heart. Here are a few things I told my creative writing class last year: be ruthless with yourself and with your work. Don’t hold onto a first draft just because it is yours and you have an affection for it. Detach yourself from your work. If it’s no good, throw it away. Does it have a life of its own? Then let it live. Does it serve only as an expression of yourself – does it need you, in order to survive and thrive? Then trash it. Or, if you want to keep it, keep it only to laugh at later. The fact that it is yours and that you worked hard to produce it – the fact that it came from you – this is not, in itself, sufficient to make it important or beautiful or even halfway-decent. Do not love your work, unless it deserves love.
Maybe Ayn Rand would support that sort of childbearing philosophy. But she never had kids. Nor, to be honest, did she write very well.
I am thinking of the childbirth / writing comparison, and where I have seen it, and actually can’t think of a single case in which a woman has made it. I can be tolerably certain that I will never make it again.