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Childless female writer WLTM ideal metaphor for describing writing, music-making, artwork etc.

August 2, 2013
Is the act of creation like childbirth? (Childbirth by forceps, William Smellie, 1754). Especially for the childless woman, not entirely.

Is the act of creation like childbirth? For the non-child-bearer, not entirely. (Childbirth by forceps, William Smellie, 1754).

I’ve just finished a novel, sent it off to more than twenty agents. Three years of blood, sweat and tears, false starts, protracted labour, the feeling that it would never end, that – much of the time – I was forcing it, the wish I’d never conceived it in the first place. I had an eerie sense that I was communing with it; that it was attached to me by a kind of umbilical cord; that we were almost one. Once it was done, I couldn’t quite believe I’d made this thing that lay before me: it had taken on a life that was, now, somehow distinct and separate, as if it had grown and shaped itself despite me. And now here I am deep in the mire of metaphor, trying to capture the process. As if the process itself was still not quite enough.

Probably most of you are creative types: if not writers, painters, composers of music, etc. etc., you may sometimes find yourself bursting with inventiveness, or you design and nurture a garden, or whatever (‘bursting’ and ‘nurture’, notice); probably you, too, toil to express what your times of creation feel like. Over and over, we revert to the metaphor of childbirth. (After all, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? And there I go again.)

Sarah Dessen (This Lullaby) does it, justifying the comparison by saying of writing a novel, ‘Once you realise how awful it really is, you never want to do it again.’

Vera Nazarian (The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration) is more high-flown on the subject:
‘You are faced with a blank slate – a page, a canvas, a block of stone or wood, a silent musical instrument.

‘You then look inside yourself. You pull and tug and squeeze and fish around for slippery raw shapeless things that swim like fish made of cloud vapour and fill you with living clamour. You latch onto something. And you bring it forth out of your head like Zeus giving birth to Athena.

‘And as it comes out, it takes shape and tangible form.

‘It drips on the canvas, and slides through your pen, it springs forth and resonates into the musical strings, and slips along the edge of the sculptor’s tool onto the surface of the wood or marble.

‘You have given it cohesion. You have brought something ordered and beautiful out of nothing.’

Kim Greenblatt (a man) gives simplistic advice on writing at his website, under the title ‘Writing Fiction is like Giving Birth’ (I don’t recommend it, as you can tell – and he’s a man: see below). For a more in-depth, balanced look at the metaphor, there’s also ’20 Ways Writing is (or isn’t) like Parenthood’ at, while Andrea Goldsmith, the Australian author of seven novels, pooh-poohs the whole comparison in her piece ‘Nothing like Childbirth’ at

But this is where, for me, the whole metaphor thing gets fascinating. First, there’s the fact that we have this metaphor compulsion in the first place – an act of creativity in itself. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson confirm this (‘The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System’, Cognitive Science 4 (1980), pp.195-208). Our likening of a creative act to childbirth falls into their category of a ‘structural metaphor’, one kind of human experience paralleled with another. But second, they warn us that one such analogy is rarely enough: we usually have to use several, because in the end all metaphors break down. After all, a musical composition doesn’t start from an act between two naked people, on the whole; and a novel doesn’t come home from college years later asking to get its washing done. August McLaughlin and Andrea Goldsmith, above, have found the same with other details of difference.

Third, the childbirth metaphor technically excludes anyone like me (including men) who haven’t, or can’t, give birth – or at least, perhaps it should. Susan Stanford Friedman’s ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse’ has really got me thinking on this one (Feminist Studies vol. 13, no. 1 (spring 1987), pp. 49-82). What do I actually know about childbirth, never having given birth? Nada, zero and ten times zilch. Maybe I’m presuming, obliquely insulting all those natural mothers out there, piggybacking on their sufferings, and their joys, come to that, furnishing myself with a little creative smugness at their expense., ‘How Publishing a Book is like Giving Birth to a Baby’, confirms my sense of growing unease: she wonders if those who haven’t given birth might, subconsciously, use the comparison as a kind of self-validation; and I think I’m beginning to agree – although, again, many would argue that writers are supposed to be able to write about experiences they may not personally have been through, are they not?!

As for creative men using the childbirth metaphor, an interesting phenomenon, that one. Friedman reminds us that in Ulysses, James Joyce has Mrs Purefoy struggling to give birth in the maternity hospital and close by, as it were, the narrator struggling with his prose, thus linking procreation with creation; and I’ve come across other male authors who use the childbirth image for authorship. But – according to Friedman – men tend to use it differently, as part of their fascination with the ‘Other’ in the form of the female, while for women writers, it’s more psychologically charged. She highlights though that whoever uses it, it’s in danger of enforcing the traditional male-female hierarchy: of reminding us of women’s bodily functions while underlining the historical norm that regards men as on some higher plane, somehow more cerebral creatures all together.

This whole male-female divide is epitomised for me in The Author to her Book:

‘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;
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge)
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…’

This work, by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), relates how her brother-in-law (i.e. a male, obviously) took her first volume of poetry and had it published without her permission: his was the dominant male’s forcible induction of the creative birth, hers the labour, the malformed product and the role of victim.

Now I’m thoroughly put off the childbirth metaphor, I need others, though. And various authors rush in to help me out. In her Orlando, Virginia Woolf encourages me to stick with the imagery of 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.’ Elsewhere she says, ‘Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, then you do it for money,’ while John Steinbeck suggests, ‘Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.’

Flippancy aside, though, I’m excited now: I think they’re on to something. Even Lady Gaga has the same idea: ‘When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.’ Some creative types may be celibate, of course, so sex as a metaphor wouldn’t help them out, but at least for the rest of us, it’s non-gender-specific.

Hang on. Let’s be brutally honest about the creative act: it’s often a solitary process, if not downright self-indulgent, solipsistic. Maybe it’s more like masturbation. ‘Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards,’ says Robert A. Heinlein. I’m not sure he’s even joking.

From the comic to the sublime. I’m no expert, but I gather that Sufis talk about creation as a spiral movement or dance, extending skyward and earthward at the same time, attuning to some calm point at the hub of life: ‘fleshing out the spherical spiral of development toward both poles and toward all phases of the cycle’ (This is still a physical process, though: I note the word ‘fleshing’). I love this. I combine it with the other physiological images, above, and begin to see my writing less as navel gazing than as a kind of ruthless, delicious, never-ending spiral of navel excavation.

What does anybody out there think – especially men, and childless women?

Image for the process of writing: fleshy-looking DNA double helix spiralling? (Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/

Image for the process of writing: fleshy-looking DNA double helix spiralling? (Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/

(This post is dedicated to Sylvia Plath for her pregnancy poem Metaphors:

‘A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!’

Not drawn to childbirth metaphors for writing, but to writing about metaphors in her childbirth-state-to-come.)

One Comment
  1. Duncan permalink

    Brilliant! Seriously need some new metaphors for creativity, but then childbirth seems like an ultimate personal creative act, too. I thought of science and nature. The Big Bang, the creation of stars, planets, worlds from nothingness, or at least later from the heavy atoms endlessly recycled. I like this thought because it gives an impersonal creation metaphor, suitable to all (?), suitable even to those of us wrestling with the idea of a deterministic universe.

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