Many friends and family members have been asking about the progress of my book. About nine months ago, exactly, I conceived the idea of researching and writing a book about the lives of women farmers in the Americas and East Africa.
I have always longed to be a writer, well, a published writer, since the day I was born. Some women can say that about having a maternal sense – that burning desire to be a mother.
I can definitely say that I’ve had the writer’s sense from an early age. Deep in my gut (womb?) I’ve always known: I want to be a writer. I want to write books.
Somewhere along the journey, I read that you shouldn’t attempt writing your first book until you’re at least 26-years old. (Why 26 and not, say, 24, 25, I can’t say…ultimately I think that’s a ridiculous claim, but at the moment when I read the words, they stuck in mind like a mantra).
As life would unravel, at age 26, I spent most of the year talking to a psychotherapist named Joanne who helped me negotiate the various healing steps of overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to write a book about that experience, but I think I’ll let another couple decades go by before I venture back into onto that troublesome topic.
On my 28th birthday, I felt my internal clock going ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’ and I knew it was time to initiate – the book writing process – that is.
The last nine months have been full of emotional outbursts, ranging from excitement to major self-doubt (‘Oh God! I’m going to be a horrible writer!) to exhaustion along the multi-continental research trail (and a whole bout of sicknesses, including a parasite, raging diarrhea, a TB-like cough that can be heard on the voice recordings of all of my interviews in Central America) to confusion (too many stories!) and finally to, what I hope, is a place of grounded-ness, readiness…and humble determination. Breath in, breath out.
Yes, today I’m humbly determined for the birth of my book. I can’t wait for my water to break and the words come gushing out like a waterfall…
Okay, enough with the imagery already. Below are a few tips from my current locale in Uganda, a sort-of “best practices” for book birthing that I hope you’ll enjoy!
Know Your Birth Attendants
Last week, I accompanied two medical students to a traditional healer’s clinic on the edge of Lake Bunyonyi (I love my job!) to visit with the healer’s two (of four) wives who have been delivering babies for many, many years.
Joy and Jolie were much like their names suggested – they were more than happy sharing with us about how they attended to laboring women. How, for example, they comforted a woman shouting uncontrollably in pain (simple, put a hand over her mouth!) How they encouraged her onto all fours and supported her from behind. How they gently massaged her head, and chanted their encouragement. They showed us their herbs, shells, sticks and remedies for inducing a mother, turning a breech baby and removing the placenta.
During their active demonstrations and everyone’s collective laughter and excitement, I thought to myself, “Good thing I have a book birthing team of my own.”
It’s true. You cannot give birth to a book alone. Okay, maybe you can just like the hard working, brave women here who have given birth to all their seven children in pea fields, or into a washing basin in their kitchen. It’s possible. But it’s definitely not pleasurable.
I need someone to hold my hand when the writing gets tough.
Good thing I have my literary doula, Erinne Sevigny.
Erinne and I go way back. She’s a best friend, confidant and an amazing writing coach, I might add. Like a doula, she’s been there from the conception of the book idea. Helping my chaotic mind make sense of a creative idea, to put it down on paper, organize, plan and plot. She’s realistic with me, “Umm, sorry but there’s no way you’d get an advance from a publishing house to fund your travel and research!”
She’s also a professional. Erinne just launched a business called Blue Pencil Consult. If you’re a wannabe-writer like me and long to ‘birth a book’ of your own, I would get in touch with Erinne.
She’s a great hand to hold, and I trust she’ll bring me back down to earth when the pain of the process becomes too much to manage on my own.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting
Like having a baby, or being a parent – there’s no formula for writing a book.
When I was working on my undergrad degree at MacEwan University, I did a major research paper on ‘Childbirth across three cultures’. Research meant diving into North America’s educational information overload for expecting mothers and parents.
I read stories about pregnant women being totally overwhelmed by ‘helpful’ (unsolicited) advice from friends, colleagues, family members and even strangers. Do this, don’t do that. This is good for your baby, this is bad. It’s not that ‘ignorance is bliss’, but certainly too much information (especially when it’s conflicting information) often erodes any trust in a women’s individual experiences, in her wisdom, gut and instinct.
As an expecting writer, I can relate.
While I was conducting interviews with women farmers, food justice advocates and academics, I was often asked, “How are you going to write the book?”
It’s not as though I had never thought about it, in fact, I’ve always known what style, voice I’m going to engage to write the book. And that style is so personalized, it’s difficult for me to articulate (even as a writer).
When I’m talking with an academic writer, it’s even more difficult to articulate. It usually comes across as naïve and oversimplified and with multiple run-on sentences.
“You need to do more research on the statistics,” I’ve been told once or twice by well-intentioned colleagues and interviewees.
One anonymous farmer commented on my blog, “The fact that you don’t know the statistics makes me question how you’re going to write a book about women in agriculture.”
And let the torture of self-doubt begin…
I’m going to be the worst writer in the world. I’ll give birth to a book that even its mother (me!!!) would never love. I have zero credibility to be writing on this subject.
I’ve definitely been wading through these uncomfortable emotions in the past months.
But then, just a few weeks back, I had the chance to chat over Skype with an established writer who’s been through this whole bloody book-birthing process before.
“Don’t worry over the statistics,” he told me knowingly, “but be a slave to the story.”
(Cue: sigh of relief).
“Let the academics do the academic writing. But we’re creative writers. Our responsibility isn’t to reference statistics; it’s to create a compelling narrative.”
(Music to my ears!)
“There is a danger in including too much information.”
(Same thing my gut told me).
Prepare Your Birthing Environment
My friend Laura and her partner, Tim, painted a beautiful mural before their last birthing experience. They hung it in the room at the hospital where Laura had the boys. It was meant to give them something positive to look at, focus on and colour their environment.
Writers, listen up. Virginia Woolf wrote it long before me, but you need to have a ‘room of your own’ (and a salary, at that) to do your best writing.
Environment can be crucial to a writer’s productivity (though, of course, it’s never a necessity, as we well know that plenty of books have been written by political prisoners in tiny jail cells, using a nub of a pencil to bring their book to freedom).
Mine includes a small wooden desk with my computer, a stool and a cup of instant coffee with, say, a handful of gooseberries (or some tasty treat from the garden).
It also includes the garden. Over the past year, it’s something I’ve realized that I can’t write without. Sitting at a computer and translating my thoughts, ideas, expressions and poetry all day, everyday, is exhausting, frustrating and very lonely work.
But working in the garden, pulling weeds, watering, pruning, harvesting – and usually in the company of another person – is very gratifying and grounding work, indeed.
The garden is a good place to forget about words, to forget about expecting a book, to meditate and relax into a rhythm of physical effort and sweat.
“Buscar La Forma” and “Dar la Luz”
When I was doing research for my paper on cross-cultural childbirth, I came across a wonderful study done by an anthropologist named, Brigitte Jordan, who spent time learning from traditional midwives in Mayan-cultures in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala.
She observed that the primary role of midwives was to encourage the laboring woman to “buscar la forma”, or to find her own way to give birth. She’d help her into different positions (squatting, on all fours, being supported by the birth attendants, or her husband).
Not to romanticize the process of childbirth, or to undermine the complications that, yes, can occur in different situations, but I fell in love with this concept of female empowerment, and the wisdom in allowing an individual to find their own way of giving fruition – to a baby, or to a creative project, a book – whatever. Buscar la forma.
So that’s my parting wisdom on book birthing 101.
Find your own way. Feel it out and discover what’s right for building your birthing team, finding information/advice that works for you, choosing your location and environment, and finding a lifestyle of balance that allows you to be your most creative self.
In Spanish, there’s a lovely expression for ‘giving birth.’
‘Dar a la luz,” – to give to the light.
Yup, that’s it. Exactly. I’m not writing a book – I’m giving to the light. I can’t wait to share it with you all.
Thanks for listening.
PS – I think my water just broke! And, deep breath, write…..