Giving birth to a child for the first time is one of life’s most agonising yet rewarding moments. But publishing my first novel, The Invisible Crowd, has felt like another kind of birth. So, for any other women out there anticipating one or the other or both, here’s my take on how the two compare.
Let’s start with gestation. While growing a child takes nine months, I was working on The Invisible Crowd for nearly nine years, amongst other things (being a barrister, doing an MA in creative writing, writing a non-fiction book and having two kids) before it was published. That is a quarter of my life, spent living with this giant thing inside me, waiting for it to be ready to land in the world: an event that is significantly less likely than a child emerging at the end of a pregnancy. I’m so grateful that it did.
How about the physical toll of giving birth? Well, I can write these words shortly after publication while sitting upright at a desk, whereas after delivering my first child I seem to remember communicating through groans and wails from the bed, following nineteen hours of mind-boggling pain. So it seems fair to say that giving birth to a novel is significantly less physically challenging.
Conversely, the mental exertion involved in writing my first novel was for me as immense as the most melodramatic of writers make it out to be, while there is little required of the mind in order to grow a child in your womb. That said, I would suggest to any prospective mothers out there that, before your child arrives, it is worth making the effort to imagine what it might be like to live an entirely different life, because that is the scale of the havoc that birth is likely to wreak – not too dissimilar a mental exercise to envisioning a novel, at least at the beginning. And then of course, when the child arrives, ‘baby brain’ kicks in, throwing your mental faculties into such disarray that you can barely remember to change out of your pyjamas before leaving the house.
What about the effect of the birth on your sense of self? It’s well-known that having a child prompts a sudden revelation that you are no longer the most important person in your world. For some it can smash any sense of selfhood, at least temporarily. It would be easy to assume that birthing a novel has the opposite effect; that it validates your ability and belief in yourself as a writer. While it has done that for me, to an extent, I can’t help feeling that perhaps the novel needs yet another major re-write, and surely can’t yet be good enough. It hasn’t been easy to put myself and my novel forward, exposing something so personal that I’ve made to the world and that I can no longer change. But just as it’s become clear to me that my first child is his own person and in no way a mini-me, my novel is a piece of fiction that came out of me, and is not actually a piece of me laid out there for judgment.
What’s the impact of other people’s reactions to what you’ve made? After you have your first child, people are always kind, shower you with congratulations, and exclaim at how beautiful the baby is, even if in reality it looks like a scrumpled purple alien. But to me none of that really mattered; with hormones on fire, I was convinced that my first baby was the most marvellous human ever born, and didn’t really care much whether others commented on his appearance or not. Not so with a newborn first novel. The prospects of nobody reading The Invisible Crowd, or somebody reviewing it negatively, are both terrifying, partly because I fear that either event would make me lose affection for the book I’ve finally given birth to after so much hard work. I know I’m going to treasure even the tiniest nice review from a reader that pops up online.