Years ago, I was talking with my sister-in-law about my predicament with respect to my first novel's status. Multiple agents, dozens of submissions, half a decade of gestation, no book contract, and the only emotion I felt at that point was that it was born and died without getting to laugh and cry with the world. It was essentially a stillborn. Water began flowing from my eyes in a pathetic sweep, but sadly, we were at a nail salon at the time, so the entire store was now privy to my emotions.
My sister-in-law's eyes widened. "Never say that in public," she told me. "It's okay to feel that way and say it privately, but think about the people who actually have suffered from watching their own babies born dead."
I felt chastised, and rightly so. Who was I to make such an atrocious and utterly insensitive comment? I wanted to become a parent, too, and couldn't even bear the thought, the overwhelming, psychologically consuming, terminal injury that would accompany such a tragedy. Stillbirth was close to the worst thing any individual could experience, and here I was, pathetically so, comparing it to my first novel not selling. I had been crying already from my confession, and then out came more tears after I realized what I had admitted. I wanted to wipe the tears from my cheeks, but couldn't. (Writer's note: recall the comical venue for said socially inappropriate confession and the inability to use one's fingers to wipe away the excess moisture.)
She was not wrong in thinking that my baseless metaphor would throw grenades into their mourning homes. But there was no other emotion I could convey to express the pain I felt from watching my baby also born, but without the breath to live beyond my laptop. And isn't that the point, after all? Metaphor is, well, metaphor. It connects two different elements so that they are, well, relatable.
All artists look at their creations -- be they manuscripts, canvases, film canisters, or musical scores -- as their babies, and society does not object. This metaphor is never insulting, nor is it entirely false or original, for that matter. These babies may not have been born in a hospital, but they are as close as possible to becoming a living being that was gestated for often far longer than nine months, created from the parent's genetic materials and personality, skills, years of development, and identity.
So what happens when that baby never sees the light of day, apart from the artist's own hard drive or easel or piano or projector? Has that baby been born or is it, much to public chagrin, an artistic pariah? If we as a society collectively accept our artists calling their creations their babies, then we must also accept all of the ramifications of it, extending that metaphor to the good, the bad, and at times, the embarrassingly wrong, and look at that failure, for lack of a better term, as stillborn creations.
When writers -- if they do so -- talk about their stillborn novels to the outside world, they are likely to hear one of the two following responses. "So-and-so took fifteen years to sell her first novel," or "[Insert famous novelist]'s second novel was the first one sold, didn't you know? So there's still hope." These responses are truly pure-hearted injections by beloved members of your inner circle -- a circle that contains members who may or may not be writers. The one thing they can offer is the story that they heard on NPR once that told the tale of the fifty-year old first-time novelist whose book was rejected over a hundred times before finding an independent publisher. Or they will likely tell you another story they heard from their mother, who also heard it on NPR a year earlier, about J.K. Rowling and the delayed revolution of Harry Potter, even though nothing you've written has any resemblance to fantasy or children's literature or books that could be turned into theme parks.
This sentiment has its cousins in multiple fields. An academic friend who has spent years working on her dissertation was less-than-thrilled when I asked her how the manuscript was coming along. I realized, quite quickly, that it was analogous to the dissatisfaction I felt when people would ask me when my novel was going to be published. At the time, it was simply a reminder that she hadn't finished writing it and I hadn't yet secured a book contract.
So, on we move to the next projects. We must continue writing as it is a part of us, just as a parent must continue being a parent. But like all losses, the death needs to be mourned. Without burial, though, how can a writer move on? Perhaps by trying to conceive another child? After years with the first novel, I switched gears, picked up a new job (errrr, a career in law), while continuing to write, and found inspiration in the most unlikely of literary places: death row. I treated this new novel quite differently than my first "practice novel." I learned from my mistakes. I learned from my premature submissions to agents purely because I'd hoped to publish before I was 30. I learned from my desire to overwrite from my MFA. I learned to take the time to get the manuscript right, and meticulously research agents through slush piles, contacts, conferences, and similar writers. And that second novel indeed found a heartbeat.
While I was working on that novel, which eventually became The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, I still mourned my first manuscript, and continued sharing this sadness with friends - in and out of literary circles. While not everyone shared the same sentiments artistically, they related in perspective of loss and suppressed expression. In fact, a friend who is both a writer and academic in public health once spoke to me of the taboo subject matter of the miscarriage, and as a result, I can only imagine the viral connection to social discussion when detailing the even more emotionally macabre topic of the stillborn. The loss of human life carries with it no greater tragedy and can be healed only through time and communication. So, too, is its lesser and completely metaphorical counterpart in the loss of an artistic ambition. More conception will abound in creative and physical bodies, and on people will continue to create. But the losses must be mourned in order to properly move forward.
When I told this to another friend who is not a writer, but was a new mother, she responded quite differently than my sister-in-law. In fact, she took one look at me and wanted to both yell and laugh simultaneously -- not for trivializing conception and motherhood, nor for the conceit of minimizing the pain of parents who experience the corporal pain in reality. Rather, she wanted to refocus my comparison.
"Your manuscript is not stillborn," she said to me. "It's in-vitro. You conceived it, and now it's just a fertilized embryo...waiting."
Perhaps she's right. It's still my baby. It's not dead. It's just waiting to find the right time and the right nurses and doctors to carry it home. Until that happens, I continue to conceive and create. And sometimes, sometimes, that NPR story you heard from your mother's best friend actually happens, your second book becomes your debut, and your editor will call your published work your book baby.