Why do so many people – often interviewers at writers festivals – use the birth analogy when describing the process of writing a book? I’ve given birth three times and written two books so I have some authority to comment on the matter and I can tell you that writing and birthing are about as far apart as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Thankfully, pregnancy takes nowhere near as long as writing a book and if giving birth took a couple of years, like a book does, there’d be a lot less kids in the world.
I’m hoping we writers, with all our fancy words and fabulous metaphors, can think of a more apt analogy. Having a baby hurts. A lot. More than anything. Especially the third time. I have yet to experience physical pain when writing a book unless you count the time I dropped the Macquarie Dictionary on my toe.
A book begins, for me, with a vague idea – something that makes me ask ‘why?’ That’s when I know I’ve found something I want to write about; all I need then are characters and a plot, which is where the hard work starts. My second book, for instance, was going to be about a woman called Alix who is a heart transplant surgeon. But somewhere along the way she acquired a daughter and the daughter’s story became the more compelling one.
I have no idea what the plot of my novel is when I start writing. As to where the story is headed or how it might end, that is a complete mystery to me until about three-quarters of the way through the book when I suddenly have an idea and breathe a huge sigh of relief. That’s why I hate writing the first draft – I just have to trust that as I am writing things will work themselves out, that a plot will somehow appear, that a resolution will make itself known. This was very scary when I wrote my first book and only slightly less so when writing the second.
So, as you can see, the process of writing a novel is completely unplanned and haphazard: characters are likely to suddenly appear mid-sentence, beginnings often get thrown away into the great pile of unpublishable words and plots lurk in unexpected chapters. All of which is why I think the birthing/writing metaphor is such a bad one.
For me, falling pregnant was a much more planned and organised event than stumbling upon a story idea in the middle of the Financial Review (unlikely as it sounds, this did actually happen to me for If I Should Lose You). And pregnancy is not quite as mysterious as writing a book; these days there are so many books, blogs and websites about being pregnant that I could, if I wanted to, find out exactly how long, how heavy and how developed my baby was on any given day. And the wonders of 3D ultrasound are now there to show you just how odd a twenty week old baby can actually look.
There is no ability to go back and change things in a pregnancy but there is in a book. I thank God for editing – there are chapters of the first draft of What is Left Over, After that I never want anyone to read and no one has to read them because I have re-written them so they are no longer recognisable as that awful first draft. And of course you would never want to change anything about your beautiful baby but sometimes it would be nice just to edit out a little of the crying and add in just a bit more sleeping.
The only way in which I can see that writing and giving birth are similar is in the uncertainty. You never know what you baby is going to be like, what sort of person they are going to become; you can only watch and learn a little more every day. Just as I learn more about the story I am writing every day I sit down at the computer with it. But here again the analogy fails. It is my babies, rather than my books, that I spend most of my days learning about. Because my babies won’t sit quietly and wait while I type out another chapter; my book is much more patient. And I wouldn’t want my babies to wait because then I might miss one of the things I want to learn more about. And if I miss something about my children then it is gone forever; it cannot be recovered from the hard drive of life.
Both are uncertain. Both are hard work. Both are wonderful, both will keep you up at night and I love both but they are absolutely not the same and nor would I wish them to be.