Writing Is Like Giving Birth (Or Not)

pregant woman holding her belly
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I get an urge, like a pregnant elephant, to go away and give birth to a book.”  Stephen Fry.

There’s a whisper in creative communities around the world that long-form art is like giving birth. Both men and women suffer the symptoms of pregnancy as a direct result of their creative endeavors. Suddenly, a nine-month timeline becomes ingrained into their scopes of work from conception to completion. On average, nine months is the time it takes to pump out a well-rounded manuscript, to develop a podcast series, or to prepare an upcoming art exhibit.

This article about a performance artist giving birth in front of a public audience, just, you know, takes the fucking cake along with the big fat cherry on top! I mean, talk about giving birth to art literally.

This creativity/birth paradigm stems from the common threads between long-form art and long-term pregnancy. They’re both arduous journeys fueled by a deep sense of love, commitment and responsibility towards something yet to be born. In each scenario, there is something precious lying within consuming the very fibers of your existence.

We’ve heard of tortured” artists who not only accept mental pain and suffering in their creative lives but believe it is essential to produce a brilliant work of art. This can lead to bleak outcomes. Virginia Woolf, for example, drowned herself in a river. And Ernest Hemingway shot himself in his home.

Although these were modern writers, we can trace the affliction of the tortured artist back to ancient history. The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that “no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.”

So it goes without saying that writing ain’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the toughest jobs around. Kind of like pushing a human being out of you, don’t you think?

Creativity-as-birth has gained much traction in the field of writing as opposed to other professions. You don’t hear many contractors say, “Man, I just gave birth to a property over on Main Street.” It’s the writer who — once the manuscript is delivered — is keen to call their work their “baby.”

In my senior year of college, I toiled for nine months on my thesis: a full-length screenplay about a cleaning lady on the verge of a nervous breakdown (don’t ask.) When I finished the script, I took a long walk to my advisor’s office, thesis in-hand, and delivered my baby. This was the same advisor who had called on me in class one day because I looked “pregnant with thought.”   

But what happens when you plant the seeds of creativity and realize later that you are completely unfit to become its caretaker? You experience morning sickness, moodiness and chronic fatigue. You take one glance at your bank account, which is currently in overdraft, and come to grips with the harsh reality that you will not be able to support the thing growing inside of you; the thing that wants to be released out into the world.

Well, in this Huffpost blog, you’re welcome to “abort” your creative work if you feel ill-equipped to care for it. (This is how intense the subject matter has become!)

On the other hand, let’s say that despite your unpreparedness, you go through with it anyway, like Ellen Page’s character in Juno.” You find the Vanessas of the world (Jennifer Garner’s character in the film who was barren) and give your baby up for adoption. In other words, you pass along your million-dollar-idea, or the rough draft of a manuscript that you bludgeoned to death with red ink, so that someone else can raise it for you.

When it comes to the art we make and unleash upon the world, there is a subsequent sense of abandonment. You — the artist — as the “abandoner.”  

How often do we writers, musicians, painters, sculptors revisit the things that we’ve created? How many paintings are gathering dust in our storage rooms? How many books have we reread from other authors, yet barely revisit our own works? Perhaps because they elicit painful memories about the arduous journeys we took to give them life.

Take this blog post, for instance. Will I ever read it again? Will these words that are competing for your attention gnaw at me in the middle of the night, pleading for SEO optimization, focus keywords and further edits?

The masterful filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, had a long list of abandoned projects; films he “aborted” in the initial stages of their development. And those he put out into the world? He also abandoned them so that he could freely and unabashedly move on to the next film.

It’s important to note that not all writers and other long-form artists think of creativity as birth (see this blog.) It makes me wonder why men (present company included) get to chime in on this topic when it is anatomically impossible for us to have children. What, then, becomes our benchmark for comparison? Urinary incontinence? Chronic erectile dysfunction?

Perhaps we should leave the birthing analogies to women. And yet, as a man, I fully comprehend. 

In my research for this post, I visited Reddit forums and found quotes on Goodreads that described writing as a tougher job than giving birth. As one author put it, there’s “no epidural in writing.

But let’s think back to the tormented artist for a moment. This is someone prone to chugging a bottle of Whiskey at 11 AM just to get through the five hundred words they committed to writing that day. Sometimes, when I’m at the kitchen table pumping out a string of incoherent, unbearable words, I stare at the pantry knowing that edibles can be easily accessed through the cabinet doors. It’s become a natural temptation that I consciously resist.

In his memoir, “On Writing,” Stephen King shared that once he had finished a manuscript, he’d notice hundreds of empty beer cans packed in trash bags in his garage. It took this moment of contemplation — the vital imagery of his folly — for King to acknowledge his struggles with alcoholism.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like the epidural of writers to me.  

As a creative, I’m bewildered by the notion of giving birth to art.

From a wellness perspective, it feels like too grave of a responsibility. It’s like asking me to shave my head, don the garbs of a monk and balance two buckets of water on a bamboo stick that I must carry upon my shoulders, up the steps of a majestic mountain somewhere in China.

Yeah. No, thanks.

Let’s not punish ourselves with exorbitant tasks.

Let us, instead, define our goals by what we can accomplish realistically rather than set ourselves up for failure.

I had always wanted my writing to be perfect, or as perfect as can be, until I discovered the notion of “good enough.”

Good enough is the condom.  Good enough is the morning-after pill.

This mindset has liberated me from the plight of the tortured artist. I’m now able to leap over the precipice of my own irrational fears and deliver these words to whoever wants to read them. I have incontrovertible license to “kill my darlings,” as Stephen King advised, and the bloodshed feels fucking great.

But what about you? Do you feel “pregnant with thought” upon reading this? Do you view long-form art as your future baby?  Do you have Doula to help you along the way? If so, who or what is it? 

I “birthed” these thirteen-hundred words as I do with all of my words: in the humble acknowledgment of my truth. The only thing I can ask of art/creativity/inspiration is that brief yet wondrous splendor of a moment in time. The satisfaction I derive when I click on the “publish” button and send this post out so that it may find its rightful place in the world.  

Maybe I’ll check in on it sometime.

Maybe I won’t.

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