Thursday, January 12, 2012

Writing is Like Childbirth

I've heard a number of male scholars make a comparison between writing and childbirth in the past. They always do so rather reticently, of course, since they're men and they've never given birth before. But, let me give my male colleagues permission to use the analogy. As someone who has has two natural, drug-free births, and experienced every difficult, excruciating, and joyful moment of labor and delivery, I want to tell you: writing is like childbirth. Here are a few of the ways, as I see it...

Preparation is always different from the real thing. No matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you read and study, no matter how many details you include in your "birth plan," the actual experience of labor and delivery is always different from your painstaking preparation. This is not to say that preparing for labor isn't good. It is! It is vitally important! But, the one guarantee, especially for first time moms, is that labor and delivery will not go as planned and will not feel like you expect it to. Surprises are a given.

Writing is similar, I think. You read and study and ponder your topic. You outline your ideas and design how the paper or book will be arranged. But then you sit down to write the darn thing and it just morphs into something else--something not entirely within your control. Like a flailing two year-old in the freezer aisle at Kroger, you just can't get your hands firmly around it. And so you wrestle endlessly with your project, staring wistfully at those neat little outlines and beautifully scribbled notes, wishing you could somehow cram what you've constructed back into that perfect package you had anticipated. It may end up being better than you expected or worse than you expected. But with writing, the real thing is always different from the preparation.

The work advances in discernible stages that increase in intensity until the finish. In general, labor can be divided into three stages: early, working, and pushing. Early labor is exactly what it sounds: the earliest part of labor, when the cervix is dilating from 1-4 cms. Usually (and there are always exceptions) a woman will find this stage quite manageable. She can talk through and between contractions. She may be nervous, but she is excited too for what is to come. Working labor is also exactly what it sounds: the part of labor when the real work gets underway, as the cervix is dilating from 4-10 cms. This part of labor gets much more serious for the woman. She can't talk through contractions and often won't talk between them either. She has to really concentrate to work with her body as it labors in earnest to birth her child. This is the part of labor when women often experience self-doubt because the work is so very hard and the pain (most of the time) is increasing in intensity. The reward for a woman making it through the working labor stage is the realization that it is time to push. The pushing stage is definitely the climax of childbirth--it is "all downhill" from here. With proper support and encouragement (and no complications, of course), a woman can easily sense her body's rhythm and work with it to joyfully push her baby into the world. Finally it's over! You're not in labor anymore!

Writing is like this, too. Though not every project works in the same way, I think the writing process has some discernible stages (at least in my experience). For me, things start off optimistic and promising. I enjoy the beginning stages when things look clear, the words flow easily, and the sentences are beautifully crafted. This is the early writing stage. But, in my experience, the early writing stage gives way to the working stage rather quickly. In the working stage of writing everything becomes muddled. Anxieties rise and threaten my clarity of thought. I obsess over words and feel the defenses of my ideas slipping away. I begin to wonder if the project has any real merit and whether I shouldn't just ditch the whole thing and start over. But, by this point, I'm too far along and I just don't have the time or energy to give up. So, I have to press on. When the working stage of writing turns to the pushing stage, though, the exhilaration of being almost done combines with a newfound optimism that "maybe this paper isn't so bad after all." It feels like it's all downhill as the premises and arguments so painstakingly laid out several pages before now lead naturally and easily to the conclusion. And, when the last key stroke is made, there is a wave of relief that washes over you. I'm not writing anymore!

There is always a period of self-doubt and fear, especially in the toughest part. As I alluded to already, the working stage of labor is where women will experience their darkest moments of doubt and fear. I went through this with both of my children. Your body is working so hard and the experience is so overwhelming (and not really within your control!) that you fear you'll be overcome. The concentration that it takes not to tense up, fight the contractions, and lose focus is immensely difficult and it is in these dark times that most women request interventions (either for pain killers, an epidural, or something to hurry the labor along). (This is not a judgment of women who do so. At all. I'm simply pointing out that this is when the majority of women decide they need medical intervention to help them along.) In my case, though, my husband (the best birth partner ever created!) encouraged me and spoke truth to me in such a way that I got back on track and did not lose myself in fear and despair.

Again, writing is filled with similar moments of fear and doubt. You wonder if you're completely out of your mind. You fear that you're nothing but a charlatan masquerading as a writer. You imagine that your argument is going to be shredded by your readers (a professor, colleagues, a conference, etc). You doubt that you'll ever finish. I face these times with every paper I write. Every. Single. One. And, every time I have to do something to shake the fears. Sometimes I talk through my ideas with a friend, trusting in their intellect to spot my weaknesses and assuring me that I'm not crazy. Sometimes I just need a few words of encouragement from my husband (the best scholarly partner every created!) that I will be able to finish and that I'm not a faker. Whatever the case may be, I have to find a way to push through this stage of fear and doubt in order to finish the project.

There comes a time when you're between a rock and a hard place. In childbirth education, midwives will talk about the critical time when the working labor reaches an end and it is time to push. Often, women experience this part of their labor as something like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you want to push the baby out because you want to be finished. On the other hand, you're afraid of what will happen, how it will feel, and what it will do to your body. Women can dwell in this difficult situation for as long as their baby (waiting in the birth canal) will let them, but often they need to be coached beyond it. "OK, you're almost there. You've done a wonderful job. I'm so proud of you. Now, let's meet your baby. It won't be long now." For me, this was the time of birth when I had to stop thinking and let my inner mammalian instincts take over. No one consciously, thoughtfully wants to push a several pound, 20ish inch object through their private parts. It just defies logic! But, it has to happen. There's no escaping it. Thankfully, once the choice is made to proceed, to work with your body and push the baby out, you are rather quickly rewarded for your efforts with your brand new baby. And, there's no greater gift than that.

Once again, I think writing can be similar to this, especially toward the end of a project. On the one hand, you want to finish the paper so you can be done with it and move on to something else. On the other hand, if you finish it then you're, in a sense, putting your stamp of approval on it and offering it to the world (so to speak) for criticism. In this way, reaching a conclusion is a daunting and scary prospect. What if I've missed it? What if it doesn't make sense? What if someone sees the holes that I already see in it? Yet, despite these loud, clamoring concerns, if you are up against any sort of deadline (as I always am) you have no choice but to press on. You've got to finish, come hell or high water. You duck your head, grit your teeth, and push on through it. And, even if your doubts remain, once the final sentence of the conclusion is written, there is a momentous "high" of freedom and peace from being finished.

When you're done, you're so grateful not to be doing it anymore. The first thing I did after I pushed Emmelia Rose out and greeted her on my chest was to turn to my mom and say, "Oh thank God I'm not pregnant anymore!" Truly, the elation of that moment was overwhelming. An almost ten month process had been completed at last and the hard work of labor and delivery was over. Overall, I can honestly say that I enjoyed my two natural births. (Really--I'm not just blowing smoke.) No, of course the painful parts were not fun--and there were plenty of those. But, I truly enjoyed the control I had over the process, the work I did with my husband, the power I felt cooperating with my body, and the achievement I felt bringing the process to completion. Even so, I was soooooooo glad to be done. So very, very glad. For me, the best part of labor and delivery was the finish.

In my experience, the end of the writing process is very similar. Although there are parts of research and writing that I enjoy, often I find the overall process to be very tedious and difficult. It takes so much intensity and concentration, so much self-encouragement and self-promotion. Writing--at least the academic writing that I do every semester--is very hard work. And it drains you (and those around you!) of energy very quickly. So, when I finish a writing project, I am truly elated. I feel like throwing myself and my poor, long-suffering family a big party. Again, even though I like writing, I am always overjoyed when I'm finished with a project. The relief cannot be overstated.

You really should trust the process. I realize that my experiences of childbirth are not the norm. Most women don't choose natural labor and delivery. I affirm that, overall, Western medicine has made childbirth safer and ensured that the women and babies who have complicated labors will not die. Surely that's a good thing! Still, I think that many (most?) women are not taught to trust the process of childbirth. They are made to think that childbirth is a frightening pathology and pregnancy is some kind of sickness that needs to be cured. So, they approach the process of labor and delivery with fear and much apprehension--trusting in their doctor/midwife to rescue them from the scary process of labor and delivery (that, unfortunately, they don't know a lot about). Again, I am not passing judgment and this is obviously a very general statement. But, my real point is this: in childbirth, for the most part, you can trust the process. By and large, women's bodies will work as they are supposed to. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, complications take place (and that's what doctors and hospitals are for!). Overall, however, the majority of women, with the right support, can successfully give birth naturally, without medical interventions. The process can be trusted, because it is the result of thousands of years of human development (not to mention, in my point of view, divine design). Endurance is the key--persevering through the waves of contractions until it is time to push your baby into the daylight.

In writing, the process must be trusted, as well. Although problems come up and unexpected things happen, writers have to trust their process to carry them through. Whatever that looks like. Word after word, sentence after sentence, paragraph after excruciating paragraph, progress must be pursued with confidence that endurance will win the day. Writers write. And writers should write as often as possible. By slowly adding to the given document day-by-day, eventually the end will be reached. And thanks be to God when that happens!

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You may or may not like my comparison between childbirth and writing. Maybe I'm a bit too hippy and granola about childbirth for your taste. Maybe there's something you think I've missed. Feel free to leave your comments and ideas below. I'd love to read them.

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