By Ann Bauer
This post will probably offend a few people and if it’s you, I apologize. It’s not my intent to injure but rather to set straight some of the language I hear around book publishing. Because just as it grates on me to hear someone say “I’m going to lay down,” or “It was a great day for him and I,” it drives me crazy when an author tells me that she (or even worse, he) has “birthed” a book.
I’ve given birth three times, to human beings. Complicated, flawed, entirely organic and completely separate—once they emerged—from me and my force of will. This is an awesome process. And I mean that not in the colloquial sense of ‘awesome’ but in the original Merriam-Webster definition: causing feelings of fear and wonder. There is nothing else like it in the world.
My children continue to cause me fear, wonder and awe on a daily basis. But their stories are entirely their own. They do myriad things I could never imagine and definitely would not recommend.
One of them frightens me so profoundly, and so often, I actually did grow a gray streak in my hair one dark, wild night. One of them thinks in ways I will never understand: distance and facts, mathematical theorems, remembered song lyrics from long before he was born. The third? She’s a Republican and a member of the U.S. Military—which if you know me may be the most mystifying of all.
And you know what? I absolutely love that they are curious and different from me and totally inscrutable. Their lives enthrall me. I didn’t create them, I only birthed them. At which point, in the most wonderful way, I lost all control.
My novels are different. I am not “ book pregnant” with them as I write (may I pause briefly to say: Eeeewww?). I am working. Writing is my career because I happen to have a talent for it. If I were great with baked goods I’d be a pastry chef. If I were a craftsman I’d make custom cabinets. Turning out a book is no higher a calling. It’s just what I do.
Some will argue that the great theologian and fantasy writer C.S. Lewis started all this birthing talk. The quote “I was with book, as a woman is with child,” is frequently [wrongly] attributed to him. He wrote these words, yes. But it is Orual, a character in his mythical novel Till We Have Faces, who utters them. A bitter, ugly woman who ruins her beautiful sister’s life out of spite, Orual burns to write a “charge against the gods.” She—not Lewis—is the true source of the book-as-baby conceit.
Now, I’m not unreasonable. I understand the occasional pregnancy metaphor between friends. Last week a writer I admire confessed to me that her editor may not want the book she is currently writing, yet she cannot stop. “It’s a little bit like carrying through with a stillbirth,” she told me. And I understood.
But publicly, whether we are standing in front of audiences or addressing people on social media, I abhor the authorial use of birthing language because—and feel free to disagree with me—it exalts the act of writing in a ridiculous, self-aggrandizing and frankly inaccurate way.
I’ve published three books at this point in my life, and I have grand hopes of publishing a fourth. But my experience says professional book writing is a hugely collaborative process. Agent, editor, publisher, readers, friends, booksellers. This is no single great achievement. It isn’t something you could do, say, alone at midnight in an empty barn.
And yes, a story can have a ripple. It can go out there and touch people—if you’re lucky. It can be deep and meaningful and comforting. But it isn’t sacred. It isn’t human. And God doesn’t care more about writers than He does about auto mechanics. That’s my opinion, of course. But I’m pretty sure I’m right.
Ask me about my babies and I will never whip out a book. I will tell you about my glorious, weird and interesting children until you cannot stand it and want to leave. Look on my Facebook page. You won’t see many book announcements. What you will see is this:
Text from my 19 yo daughter last night, 10:30 p.m.: “I’m drinking hot lemon water and reading a book before bed. So I am becoming you. I just thought you should know.” This made me irrationally happy.
Sure, I write books. I also read them. More important, I raised a gorgeous daughter who wears a uniform and leads a platoon of midshipmen, and she reads them, too. There’s my baby. Do you see her? She’s third from the right, above. And I could not be more proud.