Forgetting: What Childbirth and Novel Writing Have in Common

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Image: cassy1723, Creative Commons license

A lot of comparisons get made between childbirth and writing a novel. At the end of each process you’ve created something you love. You feel protective of it. You want to tell everyone about it. Perhaps share too many photos of it on social media.

The part of novel writing I find most like childbirth* is the forgetting. The way the mind glosses over the pain so that you’ll repeat the process.

After my friend, Julie, gave birth to her first child, her husband, Derek, vowed they’d be a one-child family. “I couldn’t do that again,” he said. “The smell. I’ll never forget it.”

Julie concurred. It had been very distinct, and terrible.

The smell? What smell? I’d never heard anyone describe a having-a-baby smell and the writer in me desperately wanted to know what it was, this eau du delivery room. A few months later I asked Julie about it. “Smell?” she said. “I don’t remember.”

“But you said you and Derek would never forget it!”

“Honestly, so much of it’s hard to recall,” she said. “I think you lose part of your brain when you have a baby. And your brain tricks you so that you’ll have another kid.”

And her brain did. Almost three years later, she and Derek welcomed their second daughter into the world.

How’s this like writing a novel, you ask?

Every time I complete a novel I think, no. Not again.

Even if I have some terrific new book ideas burbling inside, my gut reaction is, “Hell no.”

After I finished writing My Summer of Southern Discomfort I looked at my laptop and felt as though I was staring into the abyss. And the abyss said, “Hahahahahaha” because it’s very cruel.

I couldn’t face the idea of writing 400 pages. Even 40 seemed too much. So I made a bargain with myself. Just write 250 words. And that’s how I started writing flash fiction. After I’d been at that a couple of months I moved onto short stories. Up to 3,500 words. It felt manageable. It also had the funny consequence that by the time my novel was published some of my reviews referred to me as a “short story writer.”

I was a short story writer because I refused to gestate another novel.

But after I’d written stories for months, I felt up to the challenge of a novel. The pain had passed. I’d forgotten what the endless editing was like. The terrible moments of “this doesn’t work at all and must be burnt!” I only dimly recalled that novel writing was a lot of work. I more vividly recalled it as fun.

So I wrote another. After completing Idyll Threats, my latest novel, I said, “God, no. Not again. I want to write something shorter. Much shorter.” And that’s how I came to write 800-word personal essays. 800 words! After 86,000 this felt doable. Very doable. And the essays were based on real-life episodes so I didn’t have to world build like I did in my last novel where I’d had to invent an entire town.

I wrote essays for a few months. And then it seemed my publisher liked my novel enough to consider it as a series. So I had to return to novel land. But I’d been away long enough to miss my protagonist, Thomas. I’d forgotten how many plotlines I’d excised, how many crises of faith I’d endured. How many times I’d wondered if this was any good at all. Instead, I thought of how much fun it would be to play in the fiction world again, to create anew.

I’d forgotten the smell of novel making. Which is probably most like sweat-soaked gym clothes and briny tears plus a dash of candlewax. But I’m not sure. In fact, I’ve kind of forgotten. Funny, that.

*Hypothetically. I have not procreated.

4 comments

  1. Bob Fernandes

    I’ve yet to comprehend this novel writing = pain dealie. I’ve written three (one of which clocks in at about 850 pages) and I love the process. The whole thing. First drafts, revisions, endless edits. Pain? WTF? (Maybe I’m not doing it right or something.)

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