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Writing Birth, Giving Birth, and the Internet

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If you’re trying to figure out how to do something you’ve never done, you seek advice, right? Some of that advice is bound to come from the internet.

And if you’ve ever sought advice on the internet, you know some of that advice is bound to be terrible.

For writers, that’s a big danger. But you have to start somewhere. When I put out a call for topics on Twitter recently, I got more requests than I would have guessed for advice on how to write scenes of labor and childbirth. Curious, I then went in search of existing advice on the topic: and wow, is there some pretty bad stuff out there.

  • “Start with the first contraction.” Well, you could, but how long is that scene going to be?
  • “Share the perspective of other people in the room.” Do you spend a lot of time sharing the perspective of other people in the room during other types of scenes?
  • “The waters can break before or during birth.” Or, believe it or not, they can break and re-seal. Or they might not “break” at all. Or a doctor or midwife might rupture them. So many things that sound authoritative aren’t so clear-cut.

Even if you’ve experienced giving birth to a child personally, as I have, it’s a pretty daunting subject to write about. One, it’s hard to describe. Two, it’s different for everyone. And three, it rarely appears in fiction – at least partly because of points one and two.

But if the story calls for it—if you’ve decided you need to incorporate that perspective—how do you even start?

For me, because I had my own experience, I could start with that. Early in the drafting of my new novel Scorpica, because the book is set in a matriarchal fantasy world called the Five Queendoms, I was obsessed with including five of everything. So I was going to kick off the book with five birth scenes.

I was already four birth scenes in when I reconsidered the wisdom of that plan, and only two of the scenes remain in the finished version of Scorpica. But writing that variety was a great exercise. I took special care to make each of them different, drawing on a different part of my experience for each one, and still, they were all engaging, detailed scenes of how a mother might give birth. Because, again, this is an event that can unfold in an unlimited number of ways.

For that reason, if you don’t have your own experience to start from, I’m going to give a potentially controversial bit of advice: start from someone else’s experience. Like birth itself, writing about birth is different for everyone. There’s no secret, no formula, no plan you can follow to make it all work out. You can start with one person’s experience, preferably one that’s close to the experience you’d like your character to have, and go from there.

Depending on what type of scene you’re trying to write, writing about things you haven’t personally experienced can be either 1) a terrible, fraught idea or 2) exactly what fiction is made of. In the case of birth, because the experience varies so much, I wouldn’t say that someone who hasn’t experienced it shouldn’t write about it. But I would caution you to get your advice about what childbirth is like from someone who’s been there, someone you know and trust, if at all possible. Get a beta reader who will tell you the truth about whether what you write is ringing true.

Just like giving birth, writing about birth works best when you’ve got flexibility, support, and trust.

Q: Would you ever write a childbirth scene in your fiction? Have you already written one?



About Greer Macallister

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister earned her MFA in creative writing from American University. Her historical novels have been named Book of the Month, Indie Next, LibraryReads, Target Book Club, and Amazon Best Book of the Month picks and optioned for film and television. Her upcoming book, SCORPICA (as G.R. Macallister), is the first in the Five Queendoms series and her epic fantasy debut. A regular contributor to Writer Unboxed and the Chicago Review of Books, she lives with her family in Washington, DC. www.greermacallister.com

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