writing workshops & birth stories

I got to spend the whole week writing.

From where I sit now – surrounded by piles of laundry and dirty dishes, worrying about work emails and tomorrow’s to-do list, planning meals and errands and playdates – last week already seems a year ago and a world away.

I’m left with lingering memories of my time at the workshop: an annoying tendency to analyze every phrase I write (what a lovely suspended sentence! what a charming balanced series!), a head bursting with stories I need to share, and a heart brimming with gratitude for the writers with whom I was graced to spend six days.

We laughed, we cried. We cradled each other’s sacred stories and pushed one another to go deeper into truth. And by the end of a long week, with little sleep and lots of caffeine, plenty of swearing but even more praying, we each agreed that we had been changed.

But how exactly? As writers? As people of faith? As something more?

For the past few days, as I’ve reacclimated to a life weighted heavier on mothering than writing, as I’ve dived back into the daily swirling mix of my vocations, I’ve been wondering what I could say about the week, what I could convey about this transformative experience – without sounding trite or falling flat.

Ironically, my inability to crystallize my impressions about the writing workshop has helped me make sense of a completely unrelated phenomenon: the birth story.

Sprinkled through endless blogs, splashed across pregnancy magazines, shared and reshared at moms’ groups and baby classes, the birth story has become a genre of its own. But a strange genre – a narrative that swerves wildly between lengthy clinical descriptions of labor’s stages and euphoric elations of how absolutely amazing, beautiful, and life-changing childbirth can be. Part boring medical textbook, part born-again testimony.

As someone who loves story, celebrates the act of claiming one’s voice, and wonders at the marvel of birth, I should be interested by birth stories. But I have to confess that I usually find them painfully, ploddingly boring. Even the tales that dance the edge of danger, even the feats of endurance through searing pain.

I could never understand why my eyes glaze over when I read them, why my interest wanes halfway through a friend’s passionate storytelling, why I never bothered to write the story of my own boys’ births, even when I love to write about so much of their early years.

Until I realized why I couldn’t write about the workshop either.

Because the truth about Life-Changing Experiences is that they are impossible to express in the immediate aftermath. Even when their power compels us to share, we can’t make sense of the experience when we’re too close to situate it within a larger context.

Ironically, it’s the timing of birth stories that traps them from becoming powerful narratives of transformation: new mothers want to capture all the details before they forget, but they’re too overwhelmed by the newness (and the hormones and the lack of sleep) to grasp the totality.

It’s why women seize upon centimeters of dialation or hours of progress through labor as landmarks of their story, even though inches and minutes fail to describe the transformation that takes place. It’s why tracking my progress as a writer through lessons on sentences and style falls short of expressing how I was shaped by the deeper relational experience of being in community with such a quirky, passionate, committed group of writers.

Words fall short.

I’m like the weary, wonder-struck new mother who wants to tell you how her world has shifted but can’t convey the depth of the transformation.  Even though I know something significant has taken place, I can’t yet see the scope of how I (the writer) or my baby (the writing) or the world around me (the audience) has changed.

I jot down fleeting impressions, share snippets in conversation, promise myself I’ll sit down and let the words pour forth before their immediacy passes. But I can’t capture it completely. I need plenty of time and space to sort out how this shaped me, who I am becoming.

To say nothing of making sense of the beautiful, terrifying new life – its promise and its responsibility – that is emerging.

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  1. Lauren on 5 July 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Yes. Your post rings true. Writing about The Big Things is always hard. How do we convery the transformation without reducing it to cliche?

    When I took writing workshops in college, I noticed how easy it is for me to write about my dad and his death. (It’s a Big Thing, yes, but I’ve also had over twenty years to contemplate it and to work through it.) I don’t have trouble writing about him. My mother, on the other hand, is a different story. My writing about her is just bad. But she’s alive and well; I talk to her daily. For some reason, my mother is too close. I just can’t do it.

    Sometimes all we need are the jottings, sharings, and promisings. It’s the jottings that do, eventually, add up.

    • mothering spirit on 6 July 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Beautiful example of how the closest things can be the hardest to write. Which is why I’m impressed when people can write about their spouses/partners well. Too easy to fall into trite cliches about the people we hold closest to our hearts.

  2. Joelle on 3 July 2012 at 12:15 pm

    somehow more sacred, that is!

    • mothering spirit on 3 July 2012 at 1:47 pm

      Agreed, Joelle! My first son’s birth was such a surprise (3 weeks early) that I was reeling from the shock for a long time. And even though my 2nd son’s birth was about as perfect as I could ask for, I still haven’t been able to put words around it. Maybe, like you say, it’s one of those experiences we simply have to turn over and over in our heart. So sacred – well said.

      • Lauren on 5 July 2012 at 12:38 pm

        “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

  3. Joelle on 3 July 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I can so relate to this. My first son’s birth was just one big stress, especially because he came out screaming and continued to do so for the next several months. I never even thought about writing about his birth. But my 2nd son’s birth was everything I could have ever imagined it would be. I tried to write about it a week later. After an hour of writing, then deleting,completely boring myself. I gave up. I was too close to it to tell it right. I’ve been thinking lately about writing it now. But there are too many little things happening today that seem more important. His birth story will probably just continue to live in my heart- where it will stay someone more sacred.

  4. Ginny at Random Acts of Momness on 3 July 2012 at 12:07 pm

    So much great wisdom here. And what a gift, to get to spend all that time writing!

    I too have a hard time connecting with birth stories — even though I completely understand the impulse to process and record and share. Much as I adore words, there are plenty of times that they simply fall short of conveying the reality.

    What you wrote also reminds me of one of my favorite quotations ever, from Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” (I’m paraphrasing here). “I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking. Someday this will all have to be developed, carefully printed, and fixed.”

    • mothering spirit on 3 July 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Ginny, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way about birth stories. It made me feel like a grouch to admit that I don’t get all gooey about them, but they do fall flat for me – even though I, too, understand the desire to try and capture the experience. I wonder if the desire to share birth stories has sprung up in our culture because we’ve largely lost the ancient tradition of women helping women birth. Maybe when we were surrounded by our mothers and sisters and friends and midwives during that powerful, painful experience, we connected with them on a deeper level than words. And now we’re aching to get that back.

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