On Thursday I attended a seminar at the University of London ‘Motherhood in Post-1968 European Women Writing.’ There were three women writers from three countries on the panel: French Eliette Abecassis, English Helen Simpson and Peirene’s German author Brigit Vanderbeke. All three read extracts from novels and short stories that deal with motherhood and young children. All three writers are mothers.
In the discussion the writers were asked whether motherhood had influenced their writing style. Of course mothers have less time and can’t work in an uninterrupted fashion but the question also addressed a deeper issue. Does the intense physical experience of child-birth change not merely the way we are but also the way we write?
It’s a question that stayed with me after I went home.
When I was in labour with our second child there was a moment when the midwife panicked. She couldn’t find the child’s heartbeat. I – or rather my body – on the other hand knew that the birth was imminent. I heard her panic from very far away. It didn’t touch me. All I remember thinking was: it’s coming out. All will be well. Our son was born shortly afterwards.
This concentrated calmness was one of the strangest and most powerful sensations I have ever experienced.
When I write I access that same calm space. Something then happens which goes beyond my control. And ‘all’ I as the writer have to do, is to keep my own mind switched off, to observe and note down the turn of events, in the same way as I, in child-birth, kept the panic at bay and merely witnessed my body creating a new life.
There are a lot of writers – men of course and many women – who have never given birth. For them the creative process might feel different and require other analogies. In my case, however, I believe that I could not have started to trust in the creative process if I hadn’t gone through the birthing experience.
I wrote essays and articles before having children. I only started producing fiction after the second child. And needless to say, I only conceived Peirene after having my own children.
‘You conceived me?!’ the Nymph is outraged. ‘I’m an ancient Greek Nymph and have been around far longer than you. I came to you because I saw that you might need an inspirational nymph.’
I give her kiss on the cheek. She is right after all.
Image by Sam and Ian.