I’m a mother three times, and the births of my children were relatively easy. I say “relatively” because they were each (also) fraught in their ways. But the upshot was the same each time: healthy baby, healthy mother. I remain incredibly grateful for this.
The birth of one of them, however, was a little dicey. No, I didn’t require help with the pain on this particular go-round, but I also couldn’t get any help because none of the nurses would offer it. As I breathed through the contractions, a nurse would occasionally pop into the room and then out again. But none of them would stay long enough for me to ask my question: am I getting any closer to having this baby?
I think it was a very busy night in that maternity ward.
It doesn’t matter. As I said, the outcome was what we all hope for. And while this particular baby was blue for a few minutes and while he did have his umbilical cord wound twice around his neck, he was really altogether fine and, moreover, is fine today. Thanks be to God.
I recall only one interaction with a nurse, and this was when Nurse Harder came into the room. The sun was coming up and I was beginning to feel hopeful (because mornings almost always make me feel that way), and Nurse Harder came in at the start of her shift and didn’t leave the room immediately. Instead she introduced herself to me, my husband and my mother: “I’m Nurse Harder, as in ‘Push Harder’,” and I found her little joke incredibly encouraging.
She also checked my progress and told me that “this baby is almost ready to be born,” which is what every laboring mother wants to hear, and that she was just leaving the room to call the doctor. And then she said to me, “Please don’t push yet.”
I remember that instruction distinctly: “Don’t push.” This was really very encouraging and also not encouraging at all, because it meant that the pushing part (which means the baby part) was imminent– but my compliance with her instruction was absolutely impossible.
Because here’s the thing: when the body decides that it’s time to push the baby out, the body is going to push the baby out. When you’ve reached that point in the labor and delivery, the body shifts to auto-pilot. There is simply no stopping the pushing. None.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, because, you see: I am about to write another book. I’ve already begun the research. I have, in fact, been researching for quite some time. I am already in that phase of book-writing that looks like distraction but is actually me thinking about plot and characters and potential scenes in this book all the time. Or most of the time, anyway.
Yes, I may look like I’m washing the dishes or walking the dog, folding laundry or heaving a barbell, but if I’m by myself and not engaged in conversation with anyone, if I’m not reading or studying or working on something else that needs me, then you can be sure that I am thinking about Leon. I think about Leon and his problems, about his best friend Paul, about Leon’s wife (whose name I haven’t determined yet) or about their son (whose name I also don’t yet know). And I’m thinking about western Pennsylvania (again) and the Rust Belt, the space left in landscape and economy by a steel industry that skipped town. I’m thinking about love and jealousy and the deepest of friendships, of what hurts us and how we deal (all of us differently) with pain.
Also, quite naturally, I’m thinking of bears. Black bears, to be specific. Why? Because they’re the only kind of wild bear that lives in rural Pennsylvania. Obviously.
Perhaps you’re not with me, though. You’re (potentially?) not seeing the link. Why would the vivid memory of the birth of one of my children have anything at all to do with writing a book?
Because. Many (many) people (including me) have tied the two together. They say that writing a book can feel like a pregnancy, from its quiet beginning to its urgent end. Here’s how: a notion of a story sits dimly at the back of one’s mind and then begins to grow. If the story is worthy, if it’s something that is potentially good-for-the-telling, then it just won’t leave you alone. Gradually it gathers momentum, occupying greater and greater mental space, developing in size and complexity, until eventually it’s simply too big to sit there: it must be told. People say that the drive to write is similar to the process of labor: word by word, line by line, the force of the narrative compels the writer to write until finally–through fits of terrible concentration and pressure–the book is finished. The author has no choice but to write until it’s done. Until it is, one might say, born.
That’s why I started this post by writing about childbirth: because I’m writing another book.
But I’ve written here about childbirth and writing (also) in order to say this: childbirth (for me) is no longer the right metaphor for this particular creative process. I mean, I definitely see how it relates. But I think I’ve found a better one.
What is it, you ask?
I answer: bears.
I definitely could be wrong about this. The birth metaphor might be the thing most of the time. But I wonder if this new metaphor has less to do with any metaphor’s aptness and more to do with the story itself. Healing Maddie Brees, my first novel, was the story of a mother, after all.
This new book, despite being set in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, is far more agrarian than Maddie‘s suburban world. Its people work in steel mills and factories, yes, but they hunt on the weekends. Their homes are on country roads. Their backyards are big enough to be mown with tractors, and cow-tipping is a thing.
And, like I said, there are bears.
Here’s how I see it.
While the wise and educated know to be mindful of bears, they know, too, that bears mind their own business. Typically, I mean. A healthy, normal bear– on catching wind of human presence, on hearing human noise– will skirt that presence instinctively. It will keep a wide berth between itself and the humans, and the humans will never even know it was there.
But there are exceptions. A hungry bear just post-hibernation, blinking in the bright light of spring, might sniff out food that the human campers did not intend to share. A wounded or ill bear might pick a fight with innocent hikers. And everyone knows what momma bears are famous for.
Like I said: exceptions.
I’ve been mulling over these possibilities in moments that look like distraction. What would it be like to be surprised by a bear?
Sitting by the campfire in the early morning, waiting for the coffee water to boil, you might not notice some rustling in the underbrush. Your eyes are swollen from last night’s campfire, and the smoke from this morning’s fire is already stinging your eyes. But that water needs to boil for the coffee. After the coffee, everything will be different. Then you can start cooking bacon.
So that rustling blends in with the sound of crickets and birds, with the conversation you’re having with your friends and, just now, the collapse of some wood in the flames. There is no more likely a bear in these woods than there is a new novel in your head. Both would be exciting and way too much trouble, and you are still waiting for your coffee.
Later, though, returned from a hike, you hear the rustling again. Your blood is pumping now, your eyes are clear. You stand and look towards the sound, into the woods where the sunlight falls in bands. You think you see a dark shadow move behind those ferns. You tell your friends, and they look too. You are the only one who sees it.
But on your canoe trip, no one can miss the bear moseying along the river’s edge. Everyone stops to watch it, paddles lying still across their laps. The bear is a big one: someone estimates it between three and four-hundred pounds. Can black bears get that big in western Pennsylvania? Someone says that it’s definitely less than three-hundred pounds. Someone else says it’s a baby, and then everyone starts to look for the mother. Meanwhile, the bear turns away from the river, disappearing into the green woods that close up behind it. You forget about the bear because now you and your friends are having a canoe race, which is much harder than it sounds.
Then you hear the rustling again at night, when you are all sitting around the campfire and the world around you is dark. Do you hear that, you ask your friends, and some of them think they do. You all stop to listen and hear nothing but crickets. Talking begins again, and laughter, but you are still thinking of the bear, three-hundred pounds or more or less. You are thinking that three hundred pounds of anything with claws and teeth sounds dangerous.
Later still, when you and your friends are tucked away in your tents, you hear the rustling noise again. But it’s louder this time and continuous, and this time it’s accompanied by whistling and snuffling noises and the occasional grunt. This is a large thing that has come very close. You raise your head and the dying campfire is throwing a shadow against your tent: the looming, shaggy shadow of a bear.
And that’s why a bear is a good metaphor for writing a book. See?
Or maybe you don’t see, which is fine. I’ll explain.
In our earlier metaphor, one simply can’t quit. Once labor has commenced, it really must continue. And once it’s time to push, It’s Time. There is no putting it off or waiting it out. It has to happen. Now.
When you have a bear outside your tent, things are happening. Yes, the bear might (one hopes) get distracted and move on to other things, in which case you might go home and have great tales to tell. Or something truly terrible might happen. But at the Moment of the Looming and Shaggy Shadow, you can’t simply roll over and go back to sleep. No. You are suddenly on high alert, at the ready, and you will not look away until– one way or another– this issue of the bear is resolved.
Writing a book– at least in the phase I’m currently in– is like this. Thrilling, potent, completely absorbing. AND: it cannot be abandoned. How can I leave it now, pretend it hasn’t come this close, move on to– say– repainting the house trim WHEN THERE’S A BEAR OUTSIDE MY TENT?
I have to write this book now. Many, many pieces of it are falling into place. I love the setting (deeply) and the characters already. But I honestly don’t know what is going to happen to them. Most of them, anyway.
Writing this book is the only way to find out.
So here’s my news: I’m writing a new book. A novel. It’s about a man named Leon, about his wife and children and his best friend Paul. It’s about the Rust Belt in Pennsylvania and the beauty and challenge of making a life there.
It has a bear in it.
And that’s all I can tell you for now.