Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Pain Of Production

First of all, I have to make a confession: given half the chance, I tend to eavesdrop.

I put this down to my fascination with conversations and my hobby of people-watching. I don't eavesdrop in a mean-spirited or gossipy way; I don't take any information I may have gleaned and spread it around the town. I listen for accents and dialect, clever uses of language, and the politics of interaction. I try to guess at hidden subtexts and past histories, the interrelationships, the degree of affection or respect among interlocutors. And once in a while, when I am out with friends myself, I spot others that I'm certain are eavesdroppers at work. Needless to say, I do not begrudge them; I only hope they're as entertained and enlightened by the conversations I'm involved in as I've been by the ones I've stealthily monitored. As long as they obey the Eavesdroppers' Code of Honor like I do (in essence, 'Do it discretely and courteously and never even dream of joining in unless invited'), as far as I'm concerned they are more than welcome to indulge in their hobby.

Not long ago, I overheard a woman in a coffee shop compare getting a book published to the agony of labor. I too have written a book I am hoping to publish and like other would-be published writers I have learned that waiting is very much part of the deal. Up until I heard the labor comparison I'd been mentally smiling and nodding to almost everything I heard this woman say. But comparing the pains of labor to the pains of getting published? Oh no. Nooooo.

"You forget the pain," a friend of mine once commented, by way of explaining why she'd had four babies. Do you? I sure as hell never did, and I can't even remember where I put my coat. Yes, I know the woman was just speaking figuratively, but I still won't allow it: the pain of childbirth is on a rarefied plane of its own and it cannot be referred to so lightly. The walls have ears, after all, and who knows what impressionable young women may be out there listening?

For any women out there who have published, but have yet to reproduce, please believe me: going through labor hurts more than the process of getting something published. I would not want you to go into childbirth imagining a lot of frenzied, late night head-scratching, long, tedious conversations, and ages and ages of waiting. There will be waiting, there may well be lots of frenzied late night stuff, but that's pretty much where the similarity between producing a baby and producing a book stops, though I can easily imagine that the sense of pride and achievement is a pretty close match.

But the comparison that really works is going through pregnancy and writing a book. There are real similarities here -- or at least I have found that to be the case. Consider the following:

1) You start off starry-eyed, not really knowing what you're getting into. It can't be all that hard since so many other people have done it you tell yourself smugly.

2) You can easily become cloistered, and hence slovenly in your personal grooming.

3) You are in danger of becoming a bore; of answering every kindly meant And how are you doing today? with a tiresomely detailed response, forgetting that the world around you is not desirous of a blow-by-blow description of every tiny new development.

4) Housework becomes all too easy to neglect.

5) You are dependent on the expertise of others to help you achieve your goal. Only those with uncommon fortitude can go through this entirely on their own.

6) You start losing sleep at night wondering if everything will turn out okay.

7) You know that there are no guarantees that everything will turn out okay, but what can you do?

8) The further along you go, the more impossible it is to contemplate termination.

9) You wonder why you went down this road in the first place. To leave something of yourself behind? To show the world what you can do? Because in a weak moment you gave in? Because your friends and family kept telling you it was a great thing to do?

Sitting there in the coffee shop, I thought all these things and more, but of course I kept it all to myself. It's not always easy, but the Eavesdroppers' Code of Honor must always be rigorously observed.


Carole said...

I think blogging is a very incognito way of eavesdropping. My favorite thing I learned--and I am a little disappointed in myself that this is my favorite thing--is how old Kim was when he lost his virginity. I don't know that info about my own boys. AND I DON'T WANT TO KNOW. Anyway, back to your post.

I love your rules for eavesdropping and have only broken the rules about interrupting once or twice. But sometimes a person is downright lying about someone else and it infuriates me.

My oldest son was born on a military base. This is something akin to socialized medicine. You don't have to pay much, but you don't necessarily get treatment when you need it and you don't necessarily get the cream of the crop in the medical profession. I had been in hard labor for 36 hours(back before the trendy epidurals of today)when the podiatrist that was looking after me went off duty. An obstritician came on duty, noticed my son was breach, quickly turned him and voila, my son was born. I was nearly dead. My son was nearly dead, but I have to a matter of weeks, I forgot the pain. However, I've also forgotten the number of rejections I've gotten from agents and publishers for my first book so perhaps it's just a memory problem for me.

Sue Millard said...

This is a hoot. You neglect to mention that most embarrassing moment of all Eavesdropping - when you are the one eavesdropped on and the eavesdropper corrects you. i can still remember the scorching blushes brought to my face on the couple of occasions this has happened to me ...

And it's our duty not to mislead the young ladies (or their partners) who are considering either giving birth or writing a turgid "blockbuster". Either production is fraught with difficulties and may just as easily end in remorse as delight.

Kim Ayres said...

Where would blogging be without eavesdropping?

Although I nearly splurted my tea over the laptop at Carole's favourite thing she's learned.


Merry Jelinek said...

You forget the pain... the lying bastards. My mother told me that, she also told me it's tolerable and that you should relax because yelling only makes you clench muscles which makes it hurt worse... I yelled. Don't care, I did. Mind you, my third was 9pounds 12 ounces and even my obg said, "ouch"

And no, I didn't forget what it felt like, if I was inclined I could dredge up the exact force of a contraction accompanied by the nausea (yeah, they don't tell you about that ahead of time and they often leave out why it is exactly the hospital won't allow you solid food once you're in labor - bless their thoughtful hearts)

Now, the question is, is it worth it? And yes, it undoubtedly is... it's one day, two if you're very unlucky, I can put up with anything for a day when the payoff is as good as my three, they're priceless.

On the eavesdropper front, I do it often and unashamed. I actually had a class in college about researching fiction which recommended this form of people watching, and I think it's good for a laugh and a look at how others interact. I have on occasion broken that cardinal rule and responded... only when they're talking about me - this has actually happened and it's always fun to get the red faced stammering response by someone caught in gossip.

Kara said...

I've heard the same thing about tattoos. That no one can get just one. Over time, the memory of the pain lessons. Well, I'll tell you one and only tattoo effing HURT and it is my one and only for that reason.

Except that last week I started getting mooney over the prospect of getting another. It's madness. I blame chocolate.

Of course the pain isn't comparable to child birth...but the insanity is.

Carole said...

Kim, I know this is Mary's blog but I just want you to know that if I would have known how to link posts in the comment section I would have linked the 101 things about you so others could have enjoyed it also.

Sorry Mary. I'll behave now.

Brian said...

I have never been pregnant, so I can't offer an opinion. Rather glad I missed out , actually.

Re publishing : I published my own stuff with Lulu , (available as a free download -- not making any money ! ) as a record for my offspring

Linking eavesdropping and pregnancy :

A fat man overhears a comment that he looks pregnant . Turning to the commenting person he says : Yes , to an elephant -- want to see its trunk ?

A fair put-dpwn I think


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Blogging is not quite the same as eavesdropping unless you've unwittingly blundered onto one of those weird private blogs. For me, blogging is like eavesdropping with the approval of the eavesdropped-upon. When you are really eavesdropping, you get the feeling that what you are hearing isn't necessarily for public consumption.

Tell me you didn't really have a podiatrist attending at your labor. That is a joke, isn't it? The 36 hours of hard labor you had to go through were no joke, though! 36 hours? Dear God. I'm not sure my midwives could have taken it; I'm pretty sure I scarred one for life as it was.

The truth is, I've broken the eavesdropping rules once or twice myself. In Japan, I used to eavesdrop quite unintentionally all the time: people spoke Japanese without realizing I understood. Sometimes it went over my head, but when I did understand, I had a lot of trouble keeping it in -- especially when what I overheard was about me or the people I was with. I could never resist the urge to let people know I understood what they were saying.

As for the rejection letters, though, like you I tend to forget them pretty fast. Some of my more recent ones have been longer and almost encouraging. Those are the ones I want to remember.

Sue -- Now I'm dying to find out what you were saying when you were corrected! Too bad I can't eavesdrop on you and find out that way.

Whenever I meet pregnant women, I am always torn between answering them truthfully when they ask The Question and telling them that one forgets the pain. Who wants to hear how agonizing labor is going to be, after all? And yet, I remember that in the throes of my labor, I would have liked to find all those women who told me childbirth "isn't that bad" and scream "Oh yes, it bloody well is!"

Kim -- It's great to meet other eavesdroppers; for so long I've been rather embarrassed to admit to this habit. And I really do love reading those '100 things about me' posts. One I've always wanted to start is '100 things people have said about me.' But even my eavesdropping skills aren't up to that one.

Merry -- A few people told me that about yelling too. Oddly enough, though, I found that I could not do it. One of my midwives had been to the U.K. for training and was full of trendy ideas. She told me to swear. Normally, I can swear just fine, but I found that I could not do it during labor. I was shocked at some of the dopey words I came up with: I think "Oh gosh" was just about the worst of it. And you are right: the nausea and vomiting were a nasty surprise.

I got to talking to one of the young midwives after my second child was born and she told me that she'd been put off the idea of ever having children herself. Poor thing: I can easily see why. During labor, I kept remembering that great line from Shel Silverstein's 'A Boy Named Sue:' 'Slipping and a-sliding in the mud, the blood, and the beer.' There was no mud, and sadly, no beer, but that just sums up the whole magical birthing experience for me.

But yes, it's worth it! And you get some great stories to tell, too.

Kara -- Years ago, I inadvertantly tattooed myself when I was on the telephone with my mother and happened to be angrily gesturing, holding a pen in my hand. As I 'made my point,' my hand came down with the pen -- and I made another point, on my thigh. I still have a black mark there today. It hurt like hell, and I've never been tempted to try for a more extensive one.

Carole -- I can show you how to link!! I can do this now! Just ask me some time. As long as it isn't HTML coding, I can link with the best of them. (Modest little smile, stiff little curtsy.)

Brian -- Good for the fat man, and I'd like to think his reaction would discourage such rude remarks of a personal nature. I used to get obnoxious comments made about my height (I am a mere 5'6" but this is seen as unreasonably tall for a female in Japan) and I always amused myself by thinking up pithy but firm come-backs. Nothing as good as that elephant-trunk comment, though...

Gorilla Bananas said...

A book is not an end in itself. A lot of them lie on shelves gathering dust, or get pulped when they don't sell. Children never stay on shelves and cannot legally be pulped.

A Paperback Writer said...

Mslexia magazine once did an entire article on how producing a book was like producing a child. They left the issue of labor pains alone, however -- wisely, I'm sure.
One thing about the book, though: it is a heck of a lot easier to get out of writing a book if you decide it's been a mistake....
Oh, and I've never been pregnant, but my mother (43 hours of labor with my older brother, 17 with me) NEVER claimed that you forget the pain. And she never lied about it, either. Somehow I just really don't regret missing out on all that.....

Now, about eavesdropping: I feel no guilt whatsoever. As a teacher, it's an expected part of my job. That's how we find out all kinds of stuff: fights, thefts, abuse, etc. I'm especially expected to do this as much as possible in the halls and such, since I am one of only 4 adults in the building who can speak Spanish, and many of the students use Spanish with their friends.
Since it is such a habit at school, I never even worry about it elsewhere. If I want to listen, I do. No guilt. Especially if the talkers are loud anyway. (Hey, if I want something to stay private, I don't talk about it loudly in a public place. Duh.)

Ello said...

OK this was great because I am a chronic eavesdropper! I think all writers are, that's how we get the good stuff!
Have you been to or They are full of stuff people overhear on the streets or in the office.

Eryl Shields said...

I am, too, an eavesdropper and I think Ello is right (I am going to rush over to those sites right after finishing this!): if we are going to write 'real' characters we need to know how other people interact and the only way to do this is to eavesdrop. I have notebooks full of conversations that I've recorded in cafes around the country. Yes, I shamelessly write down what people are saying, wearing and doing right in front of them. I find the details of other people's lives utterly fascinating and record it all constantly. I did that even before I ever thought of writing.

As for the chilbirth thing, I still haven't forgotten the pain and that could be why I only had one child.

Mary Witzl said...

GB -- Oh, the differences between children and books are many, but producing both can be utterly compelling and endlessly fascinating, especially -- and perhaps sometimes only -- to the producer.

APW -- Before I had kids, a friend who had only recently become a mother assured me that having a baby was the most wonderful and important thing a woman could ever do. Now I'm a mother, and although my kids are delightful and I can't imagine NOT having them, I can assure you that becoming a mother hasn't been the most wonderful or important thing I've ever done, and I would never tell my daughters or any other woman that it was. I do think that having children makes you a more well-rounded person, but then you can get that through teaching them, too, and miss out on all the agony of labor, stretch marks, sleepless nights, and the lion's share of adolescent angst (believe me: I've taught them and I've mothered them, and whatever crap they give you, it probably pales in comparison to what they dish out to mom and dad).

And your mother went through 43 hours of labor? I get white hairs just imagining that.

As for the eavesdropping, I'm thrilled that I belong to such a big and interesting club. From now on I will eavesdrop with much less shame and far more vigor. Might even invest in one of those tape recorders.

Ello -- I love the way everyone is encouraging me in my eavesdropping habit! I wrote that post with some embarrassment, anticipating a volley of 'How dare you?' comments. Instead, not only are people supportive and sympathetic, but they offer me useful pointers.

Eryl -- This just gets better and better. We ought to start a club: Society of Ethical Eavesdroppers (SEE). We could have our own notebooks and pencils -- maybe even auditory aids! Tee-shirts wouldn't be a good idea though. You'd still want to do it incognito.

Brian said...

There is in Oz a huge increase in the people who sport electronic ears and tongues -- the mobile phone ownership is staggeringly high.

Thus eavesdropping is almost mandatory as train travellers for instance carry on the most intimate conversations at the top of their voices .Mobiles have replaced the irritating tinny ching a ching sound of walkman radios


Anonymous said...

Heh, I love eavesdropping and being eavesdropped. I have twice made eavesdroppers laugh out loud, feeling most triumphant in my conversation.

I can't wait to read your book!

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I love eaves dropping. I love it when they fall on people who voted for George Bush twice.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- Mobile phones have taken much of the fun out of eavesdropping! They make it all so ridiculously easy that I don't count the stuff you hear through public phone conversations as the genuine article. I feel like a pickpocket might if people stuffed her pockets full of money: indignant that I can no longer ply my skill.

Riley -- I am impressed that you like being eavesdropped on! While I can't say that I dislike it, if it is going on I would usually rather be unaware of it. I blame having lived in the U.K., which has made me less brazen. A few weeks back in the States would straighten me back out.

And I'm not just returning the favor when I say that I want to read YOUR book. If I eavesdropped on your conversations, I'd give myself away straight off.

Sam -- Ooh, don't get me started! The odd thing is, where are all those people? When I worked in Tokyo, none of the Americans in my office voted for GWB -- and we all voted. No one among my circle of acquaintances voted for him, and none of my relatives did either (though I didn't question one branch of the family too closely, fearing the worst). When we came here to Scotland, in my line of work I met dozens of Americans from all over the States and I can only remember ONE couple who admitted to voting for him -- once. The rest all gratifyingly frothed at the mouth at the mere mention of his name.

And by the way, I'm using that line from now on.

Charlie said...

I'm late to the Ball, but like the other men here, I cannot relate to the pain of labor and childbirth.

Martha is none too fond of mammograms: She relates it to getting her chesticles slammed in the car door.

But I'm off subject, aren't I.

I would like to add a #10 to your comparison between pregnancy and writing:

#10. Don't you dare speak to me, touch me, or relate to me in any other way when I'm writing—you cad.

Erica Ridley said...

LOL. What a great and hilarious post! =)

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Wish I'd thought of your number ten -- it's perfect! When I was four months pregnant with our first kid and in the throes of truly terrible morning sickness, my husband made the mistake of mentioning the next baby he hoped we would have. He still remembers my reaction with fear and awe.

The thing about mammograms is you feel so weird being painfully anchored to a monstrous great hunk of cold, deadly machinery. The plates are clamped on two soft, sensitive and tender pieces of anatomy, and it just doesn't seem right. Give Martha a hug for me and tell her I'll be thinking of her the next time I'm getting mauled and crushed.

Erica -- Thank you, and aw, shucks.

Carolie said...

As always, a great post, Mary! I have to admit to eavesdropping (just on those who speak aloud in public)...but I am afraid I don't follow your rules.

As a child of the American South, it's not just common, but expected, that if one has something to add ("She's right about that fresh flounder -- my husband loves it, and he hates fish!") or something kind to say ("I'm sure they're a handful when they're screaming in the store like this, but the smart ones always are.") or a warning ("I bought that brand last week, and fell apart in just one wash!"), or even a gentle correction ("I hate to tell you, honey, but you can too get pregnant doing that, no matter what he says to you.") one jumps right in.

This happens in the line at the grocery store, in the waiting room at the doctor's office, while standing curbside, waiting for the traffic light to change, etc. In the South, if you're going to have a conversation, out loud, in public, you couldn't possibly be that badly brought you must be intending to involve everyone around you! When I worked in Cubicle Land, aka Corporate America, I was always astonished at how many people assumed waist-high cubicle walls somehow created a soundproof bubble -- as I listened to my coworker three cubicles over telling her doctor that she needed to refill her birth control before her vacation. *shudder*

I try to keep my mouth shut, but sometimes, the southernness just bubbles to the top. This evening, my husband and I enjoyed one of the best meals I think I've ever had, at the InterContinental Hotel in Hong Kong. An elderly American couple was seated at the table beside us, and I could hear they were having difficulties understanding their waiter's accented (but perfect) English. It was obvious to me that he was explaining that a certain dish was extremely spicy, and it was equally obvious to me that they didn't understand him, and were making polite mouth noises to cover their noncomprehension.

To my husband's mortification, I leaned over and said "Ma'am, that one's five-alarm hot...just to let you know." (I seem to suddenly revert to a southern accent at such times...don't ask me why!)

Luckily, they were very kind, thanked me profusely for my help, and we had a lovely short conversation before each couple went back to their meals.

I haven't always been so lucky, and have gotten lots of odd looks since leaving the South, at my impulse to have conversations with total strangers.

As for labor pains, my mother always claimed "it's a beautiful pain." I cry bullshit, having seen a friend during a difficult labor, and let me tell you, Linda Blair had NOTHING on this woman. But something must make some women forget, or at least stop caring so much, because three days later, as she gazed radiantly into her new baby's face, she told me "we can't wait to start on number two!"

I don't think writing a novel would be quite the same thing...

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie, this is just priceless. You should take this and make a blog posting out of it RIGHT NOW! Honestly, I can hardly stop laughing!

My mother was from Kentucky, but her family had migrated there from Virginia ages before, and they were all firmly Southern in terms of manners and accents, if not politics. I do know what you mean. When our aunts and uncles from Kentucky and Florida came to visit us, we used to cringe in embarrassment as they engaged all our neighbors and all sorts of people -- even those who never gave us the time of day -- in long, drawn out conversations. They could get away with this because they were Southern.

I don't know whether this eventually affected me, but I now do this myself and have happily intruded into the conversations of others, much to the horror and sometimes outrage of my family. You ought to see the way people react here in the U.K. Recently when we went to a concert, I put my bag on the seat next to me as the concert was about to begin and the seat was still empty. When a couple hastily came in seconds before the performance began, I remarked cheerfully to the woman, "I was saving your place for you!" Honestly, I might as well have farted for the reaction I got. She was obviously stunned by my familiarity; my husband, too, froze in horror. I'd have loved to give that lady 20 minutes with my Uncle Fred and Aunt Mamie.

Your comment about Linda Blair almost made me ruin my keyboard. Some day I will share my last labor story with you, but I'll have to wait until I know for certain that you haven't just eaten. And I'm not going to air that one in a public place, either! But boy oh boy, have I done that and been there. I can never get over those TV births -- all the immaculate, beautiful mothers and their light glaze of sweat, a few grimaces, a groan or two, and a flawlessly perfect baby is produced. And not a drop of blood or touch of slime in sight.