3 Things Infertility Taught Me about Writing
TOMORROW, October 29, my next book is going to be released into the world! Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna is a journey through infertility grief for Christian couples and those who love and minister to them.
As of tomorrow, you’ll be able to find Under the Laurel Tree on the Ancient Faith website or wherever you get books.
Make sure to stick around this blog throughout the week–I’ll be sharing links, guest posts about different aspects of infertility and the book, and hosting a giveaway! You can join in on Facebook or Instagram.
In honor of the book’s imminent release, I thought I’d kick the week off with a reflection on three of the many things infertility has taught me about writing.
1) Books are NOT babies
Infertility entered my life just as I began working toward becoming a published author. Before then, I frequently compared major writing projects–research theses in graduate school, my PhD dissertation—to progeny. Not unlike many writers I know, particularly women, I doted on my darling “book babies.”
Once I realized that having an actual baby would be difficult if not impossible for my husband and me, though, these analogies began to fall flat.
After my first book was published, an acquaintance told me that now I could look on the bright side: even if I never had children, at least I have a book out in the world. Although she was trying to be of comfort, her words gutted me; I went home and hid under my covers for the rest of the day.
Books are not babies. Yes, they are difficult to write. Yes, they take time to grow and develop before they can “survive” outside the womb of my brain. Yes, they tend to take on a life of their own once published into the world.
But they are not babies. As satisfying and rewarding as it is to look upon those freshly printed pages or your name on the cover, it will never compare to catching the first glimpse at your own flesh and blood, or (for adoptive parents) the precious life that has been entrusted to your care.
As painful as this was to realize, it signified a healthy shift in my attitude toward my own writing. I like how author entrepreneur Joanna F. Penn puts it: it’s more useful, as an author, to think of your books not as babies but as employees. Books are not helpless infants to bask in or care for, they are our workers and ought to be crafted in such a way as to “go out there and do work for you in the world and bring you money, and business.”
Strange as it may sound, adopting this mentality has helped me set better boundaries with my books once they’re out on the shelf. My books shouldn’t need me to survive once they’ve been “birthed.” Yes, I’ll promote them, but I shouldn’t need to hold my books’ hands to persuade people to purchase them and give them life.
2) Write What
Scares Shames You
I’ve often been told to write what scares me–that what scares me likely scares others and thus would be enticing to readers.
Infertility taught me that the things that scare me most of all are those that cause me to feel ashamed. I wrote my first book on despondency (acedia), a concept for a spiritual condition not unlike depression but with a rich history in early Christian ascetical theology. Was it a scary book to write? In a sense, yes—despondency is a personal struggle. Along with research and more theoretical ideas, I imbued Time and Despondency with candid transparency that many readers have connected with.
But writing about infertility involved fear on a totally different level, because it is not just a scary topic, it touches on a deep source of shame. I was not ashamed to write my first book because, as vulnerable as I was, I figured despondency would be a struggle most people could relate to— and it was
Infertility, though, was not like that. It makes me feel different from and inferior to others. I was afraid to write about it because I feared ridicule, advice, and judgment; most of all, I feared being known for who I was. And part of who I am, part of how I experience the world, is infertility.
In the months since I’ve opened up about my upcoming book, however, I’ve been amazed by how much this topic already resonates with people. I’ve received more emails and messages from readers anticipating this book than I have for Time and Despondency–and the book isn’t even out yet.
Maybe because as humans, what we relate to more than anything is the feeling of shame–the sense of being exposed, of recognizing that sad thing in our life we can’t change no matter how much we wish we could.
3) The stories we tell matter
When I first began writing Under the Laurel Tree, I envisioned it mostly as a labor of love—a way to potentially support others by exploring the unique grief of infertility, particularly as it relates to marriage. I resisted the possibility that this writing would be helpful for me, in fact I largely expected it to make my own grief worse, and at times it has.
Still, since handing in the manuscript this summer, I sense something within me has shifted for the better because of writing this book. To borrow the words of Jessica Handler, I’ve touched the fire of my grief, and I’ve survived—and that changes things.
But this change is not just the result of facing my demons, it’s also the result of story. My book wasn’t about my story but that of another couple–Joachim and Anna, the supposed parents of the Virgin Mary, whose marriage was torn in two as a result of infertility. Tracing their story through the turmoil of childlessness and toward reconciliation and gratitude did something to my brain. It gave me a different and less shameful story to tell about my infertility; it gave an entirely different meaning to my grief.
I can feel this difference in my bones, maybe even in my neurons–the old thought processes that told me I couldn’t have hope for the future without children, I had nothing to look forward to, or that life was meaningless, have been re-routed toward thanksgiving, purpose, and hope.
Infertility has taught me, viscerally, that the stories we tell matter. It taught me that healing stories can heal us, maybe not by making our sadness go away, but by reorienting it toward a different destination. We can learn to bear almost anything in life as long as we can find meaning in it, and infertility taught me that it’s possible to find meaning–deep, hopeful, satisfying meaning–in stories and the writing of them.
If you’ve struggled with infertility, I’d love to hear in the comments what it’s taught you about life and writing! Best of all: anyone who comments on any blog post posted this week (there will be about one per day) will be entered to win a copy of Under the Laurel Tree at the end of the weekend!