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Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor
How women writers reclaimed the literary device & made it their own
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture.
When I started on my first module of a Masters in English Studies, my Professor in Early Modern Literature introduced us to the work of Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney, and later, Lady Mary Wroth.
Though this era of English literature wasn’t - and still isn’t - my area of interest or speciality, I became fascinated by the use and concept of something known as ‘the childbirth metaphor’.
This wasn’t a term I had particularly come across or considered before. But as with all things of interest to us, our brains begin to seek out opportunities for connections - known as ‘reticular activation’.
The childbirth metaphor has been used in connection with creativity for centuries, utilised by such disparate writers as Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and Erica Jong. The connection between childbirth, mothering, and creativity is pretty obvious: bringing a piece of creativity into the world - effectively ‘birthing’ it - is seen as a labour of love, and so on.
When I first encountered the work of Sir Philip Sidney, I could see how he had effectively taken that quite visceral and unique to people who give birth experience of childbirth and (arguably) exploited it to represent the experience of a poet discharging his soul through his work.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throwes,
Biting my trewand pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my muse to me, “look in they heart and write”.
Philip Sidney, (1591).
When I then came to study the work of Lady Mary Wroth, whom I discovered was a pretty impressive and influential writer of her day, I wrote a paper on how female Renaissance writers such as herself took the childbirth metaphor and utilised it within their own work to not only represent the creative process, but to take back ownership of the literary device. In Wroth’s case, this meant allowing her to represent her own experience of childbirth and miscarriage, in an opaque way which allowed her to write about this at a time when it would perhaps not have been acceptable.
In opposition to Sidney, Wroth used her actual life experience to convey the childbirth metaphor into her art, rather than using it as a simple metaphor to creating the art itself.
Faulce hope which feeds butt to destroy, and spill
What itt first breeds; unnatural to the birth
Of thine own wombe; conceiving butt to kill,
And plenty gives to make the greater dearth.
Lady Mary Wroth, Sonnet 35, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.
The reclaiming of the childbirth metaphor within women’s writing has not been a smooth ride, however. Women writers have faced both opposition and support from both the feminist movement and feminist thinkers and writers, raising questions as to whether it is regressive to represent women’s experiences of childbirth for women writers.*
Academic Susan Friedman, in her essay ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor’, acknowledges this divide. Whilst on the one side, she agrees that ‘The childbirth metaphor has yoked artistic creativity and human procreativity for centuries’, she acknowledges that this has been a controversial opinion often ‘rejected by contemporary feminist theorists, critics and writers’.
Attempting to pitch both sides of the debate, Friedman cites Hélène Cixous who claimed that ‘Women should write through their bodies’,whereas leading feminist critic Elaine Showalter feared that such use of women’s biological and personal experience was a regressive move for women, forcing their writing down a path of biological determinism.
Friedman’s opinion is clear on this: she feels that women writers have often risked such biological determinism in order to challenge the binary oppositions of patriarchal ideology.
Both arguments appear to have merit, as does the question of whether it is equally acceptable for the male writer to adopt such metaphors, as this could be seen as taking from the female experience of labour and childbirth in order to represent the (non-comparable) effort of producing a piece of writing.
The poet is in labour. She has been told that it will not hurt but it has hurt so much that pain and struggle seem, just now, the only reality.” Denise Levertov (1967)
The examples of women reclaiming the metaphor’s usage could be viewed as a balancing of the scales; an opaque way to represent difficult experiences of womanhood. The question of whether this leads to a reductionist value of women’s writing is debatable: surely utilising any metaphor that allows women to convey their experience through language is a useful tool.
The feminist thought on such usage becoming a reductionist way to devalue women’s writing, however, exploiting it to criticisms of stereotyping and assumptions around women’s writing as automatically autobiographical, is an interesting one. I have to confess that I have sometimes experienced this myself within the arena of creative writing, through both poetry and fiction. The assumption of a piece of writing by a woman which tackles difficult or emotional issues is often seen as being an opaque representation of their own truths, whilst I’m not sure the same is always true of the male writer.
There is also that age-old concern of which Virginia Woolf spoke of the ‘domestic’ writer. Women writers have long been associated with the idea of writing ‘domestic fiction’, often seen as something less than other writing through associations with the home and the ‘smallness’ of the every day.
This is something I have never understood. Isn’t it often the everyday ordinariness of storytelling which affects us on a deep level, and with which we find a connection with the creator of a piece of art? Whilst sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance…any genre you may wish to read or watch might contain thrilling scenes or exciting new worlds, it is arguably the sense of reality within these worlds which I would suggest draws us into the story.
When reading a story or novel by the late Ursula Le Guin, for example, it is the way she creates believable characters rooted in reality and situations we can relate to as humans, placing them into her created worlds, which makes her fiction relatable. As humans, we crave connection and find it within art which speaks to us for whatever reason that is. Coming back to the idea of reticular activation, we often seek out the work that speaks to our current situation or place in the world - whether that be physical or emotional. In the depths of pregnancy and early motherhood, I sought out the words of other new mothers as a way to feel less alone. As a woman facing down the emotional and physical onslaught of my middle years, I find myself teetering towards writers and artwork depicting examples of women who have successfully navigated this ‘middlepause’ and come out the other side as luminous examples of themselves.
All this is perhaps a digression from the original topic of this essay: the use of the childbirth metaphor within women’s writing, but humour me. I think it is all relatable when we come to consider the vast work of women writers, both of the past and the present. I have written before about the way the modernist writers of the early twentieth century have adopted earlier traditions from the (mostly) male writers of the canon and adapted these to fit their own experience of the world.
This can be seen within the modernist poetry of Barbara Guest, for example, which borrows from the urban pastoral tradition and blends this with the new aesthetics of modernism. It can be seen in the work of modernist trailblazers such as Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair, whom borrowed from the earlier proto feminist writing of the Bronte’s. And within contemporary fiction such as that of Ali Smith, who emulates much of the style and finesse of Muriel Spark.
Literature as a body of work and as a practice is ever evolving. Which is just one of the many reasons it is the area I have chosen to spend so much of my time and thoughts emerged in!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the use of the childbirth metaphor - or any other literary devices - and whether you feel this is something which reduces or enhances a writer’s work. Let’s chat in the comments! 😀
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*I would like to point out here that I am using the word ‘women’ throughout this essay as a reference to women writers and their experiences and portrayals of childbirth and their use of the childbirth metaphor within their writing. I feel it is important to acknowledge here that not all people who experience childbirth identify as women, merely that the quotations are taken from the works of people identifying as female.
Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse’, Feminist Studies, (1987).
Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, trans. Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen, New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron (1980).
Elaine Showalter, ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness’, Critical Inquiry, (1981).