On the Proper Care and Feeding of Literary Works

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.

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About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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3 Responses to On the Proper Care and Feeding of Literary Works

  1. Kate here. Your abiding love of pregnancy and infants really shines through here, Rebecca. O Woman. You are an amazing mother and writer. I just wanted to say that while pregnancy is bad for writing, and also bad for becoming a better dancer, it is actually helpful to me in working on harp. The wild scattershot distracted procrastinatory process settles down a bit and I am able to just sit down and play. Perhaps you could pick up your guitar?

  2. Rebecca says:

    I did mean to pick up the guitar again, over the summer – I thought it would be a nice thing to do, strum old Hank Williams songs on the porch and drink some sweet tea. But I never did finish getting the pegs fixed. And now I fear my ponderous belly might intervene between the instrument and me. Ah well, less than two months to go!

  3. Judy Bratten says:

    Love this…laughed out loud…thanks for the honesty!!!

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