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My Books Are Not My Babies

April 1, 2014 Business of Writing, Reading, Writers, Writing 17 Comments

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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.

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Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. Ann, thanks for putting my inchoate thoughts into words. As always, you hit the sweet spot.

  2. M.J. Rose says:

    Great article – I agree!! I am so happy someone said this – the comparison always gives me the creeps. I am really shocked too that any author would compare her novel that her editor has a problem with – to a still born baby.. i hope she is not speaking from experience.

    • Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

      Thank you, M.J. Your endorsement means a lot. I probably should have been more clear in the essay: The woman who spoke to me about the ‘stillbirth’ of her book did so quietly, ruefully, just the two of us in a coffee shop. That sort of casual remark (at which even she blanched), I understand. But the banner-waving about books being birthed? Mmmm. Makes me queasy every time.

  3. Ann, I’ve never been able to voice why this bothered me so much. Very glad to hear you voicing it here loud and clear.

  4. Sukey Forbes says:

    Well said Ann. The experience of getting a book out of me has been more like an excision than a pregnancy. The pressure built up inside of me to the point of just having to be released onto the page–usually in an emotional first draft. But no, not a pregnancy in my experience. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  5. Andria says:

    I always thought that was kind of icky, too! “Pregnant” is just one of those very specific words that seems odd when you try to move it into another realm — like the “pregnant pause,” or something being “pregnant with meaning.” There’s always just a little ick factor there.

    I like what you’re saying about how a novel is completely the product of your mind and your will, while children are surprising beings with minds of their own — to be shaped but never revised! So true.

    Andria
    http://www.militaryspousebookreview.wordpress.com

    • Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

      Andria, what a wonderful line – “shaped but never revised.” I must admit, I’m a mother who’s always tempted to edit my kids’ lives. But I love that they won’t let me.

  6. Jillian Medoff says:

    As always, Ann Bauer, you are completely wrong. I have written three books, and I bore them with the same deep-felt love and mystical, magical awe that I did my own flesh-and-blood child. How dare you take this beautiful, life-affirming, unique experience from me by denying me the pleasure I take in saying I “gave birth” to my books?! How dare you believe that your own experience speaks for the tens of thousands of novelists in this world who have birthed their books–from their own loins–to create an entirely new population of meaningful, important, and–yes!–necessary small universes? And to actually state that a car mechanic–who births nothing–is as important in God’s eyes as a writer–who births actual words that transmit feelings and ideas across nations and have the ability to change the world as we know it.

    How dare you, Ann Bauer! How dare you!

    Please stop allowing Ann Bauer to contribute to this website.
    Signed,
    Jillian Medoff
    Novelist, aka Literary Midwife to My Own Brilliant but often Meandering Stories
    PS–April Fools

    • Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

      Dammit, Jillian. If you’re going to point out how totally misguided I am, do you have to write it so freakin’ well? My husband read your comment an hour ago but every couple of minutes he chuckles and shakes his head and mutters, “From their own loins. Ha!”

  7. Anne says:

    Perfectly put. I also think it’s particularly hard for people to accept criticism/edits/constructive feedback when they think of their book as their baby. No one likes to hear their baby is ugly. : )

    • Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

      What a great point! The comparison of book to baby would make every word just too precious to cut. So glad you liked the piece, Anne. And I see from your website we share a hometown.

  8. Mona says:

    Although I have never said I have birthed a book, and I hate that phrase, I did start a novel after I had a miscarriage, which was my last chance to have a child, and in some ways I do think of that finished novel as my baby – certainly not literally my baby but something to help me with the grief of not having a child. So while I understand your frustration, I also think people who exalt childbirth above all else are missing the point. I don’t care if women want to call their novels their babies. Maybe women want to start calling their children their novels, which seems just as accurate for a lot of people.

    • Ann Bauer Ann Bauer says:

      I understand what you’re saying, Mona. And I agree that the issue isn’t so simple as whether parenthood is more important than novel writing. The “birthing” language seems ridiculous and elitist to me because it treats the business of writing books as something different from other jobs. We don’t talk about how software developers birth a new line of code, or how plumbers birth a new line of pipe. My objection really is the exaltation of writing above other jobs and ways of life.

      More important, I’m very sorry for your loss.

  9. Mary Jo C says:

    t’s the author’s choice whatever analogy he or she uses to describe the writing process and resultant work. I know authors who liken the creative process to making a word Frankenstein, to be unleashed on the unsuspecting reading public.

    I never had a child and so can’t personally speak of my WIPS as “babies.” The best of them, however, have a sort of life, some gem of truth or wisdom or folly that sticks with readers for awhile and has a positive impact. These are the same gifts I look for in the books I read.

    Please relay to your daughter our thanks for her service to our country.

  10. The one way I like the connection of books and babies (granted, I’m a man) is to make the point that book promotion is not self-promotion. When people act as if there’s something crass and shameful about getting the word out about something you’ve written, I’d say it’s more like doing whatever you can to help your child find a school or a job that will make them happy—helping a book find its readers. It’s your job.

  11. VM says:

    I think we all may need to loosen up a bit. I find it interesting that some people are creeped out by the metaphor. I’m creeped out by a lot of metaphors, but I am usually too polite to mention them. I’ve seen Amazon forums where some readers have gone a bit further, being absolutely OUTRAGED by “badly behavior authors” using the metaphor to try to stop people from freely expressing their opinions about how lousy the author’s work is. Even if an author is indeed doing that, it’s not a strategy that’s actually going to work.

    The truth is people talk about all kinds of things that aren’t babies as their babies. People refer to their furry friends as their babies. People refer to their cars as babies. We all know that only human babies are babies. (That’s what makes it a metaphor.) Using the metaphor is not a slam at motherhood. I’m sorry but claiming that mothers are somehow victimized by this is like saying white males need more privilege or there really is a war on Christmas. I’m sure the author of the above post has done an awesome and amazing job with her kids, but somebody else’s pregnancy metaphor doesn’t take anything away from that. The process of book writing is something that takes time. It can be all consuming. A premature “birth” can be a disaster. Books need to gestate and sometimes for a lot longer than nine months. CS Lewis had a point.

    Are the people who are creeped out by authors’ doing this equally creeped out by their next door neighbor showing off the new grill? Do they cringe when “baby” is used as a term of endearment for a sweetheart? Sweetheart? Now that’s really icky if you think about it!

    Let’s take a step back. It’s one thing if an individual author takes the metaphor too far. That’s rude behavior. My cats are my babies, but I won’t take it personally if you don’t want to pick them up.

  12. […] all got together and had a baby. Not that authors should ever call their novels their babies because that is worst according to some readers and writers who are real mothers of human babies and whose delicate sensibilities we must never […]

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Ann Bauer

Ann Bauer
Ann Bauer is the author of two novels, A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards and The Forever Marriage, and co-author of the culinary memoir Damn Good Food. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, The Fourth Genre, The Sun, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, The New York Times, ELLE and Salon. She has been shortlisted for the Pushcart prize and Best American Essays and named a notable nonfictionist by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Ann earned her MFA at the University of Iowa and has taught creative writing at Macalester College and Brown University. Today she and her husband split their time between Boston and Minneapolis, which is home base for their three grown children. Read Full

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