Finding Theme-o

I received this email a couple weeks ago from friend/mentor/favorite author Jim Dodge:

“I’ve been thinking about how to start stories viz our recent conversation.  And while it may be more germane to novels because of the time/psyche investment, I think it’s crucial to consider what are your stories to tell, because that’s what finally bears the print of necessity I find in most good writing.  Maybe that only means what are the conflicts that animate or anguish you.

“Our exchange made me consider the actual starting points for what I’ve written, and oddly enough–perhaps my training as a poet–almost invariably it was an image that haunted or provoked my imagination.  Contemplate those images that haunt/provoke your imagination, look for any conflict that informs them (invariably present in those that haunt and provoke), and then begin that “what if . . .” process of embodying them in characters in time/space.”

This process of writing and rewriting personal statements, statements of purpose, goal statements, teaching statements, critical statements, personal statements of purpose, autobiographical sketches, and generally just having to explain over and over again why I want to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree has forced me to get very serious about my intention as a writer. It’s not enough to simply feel it in me bones; I need to apply cool reason and come up with an intellectual framework. And that framework above all else must correspond with my own anima and the spirit that moves me.

Last night I went for pizza with Angie. We talked a lot about her work. Not her job, mind you, but the work of midwifery itself. I asked her about the things that she enjoys about it,  the things that frustrate her, and the challenges that overlap the two. She came to the profession instinctually, but practices it intellectually. Yet she doesn’t intellectualize birth—or rather, she does, but the way she approaches birth is different from the way a new mother intellectualizes birth. I am curious about the relationship of mothers to birth versus midwives to birth. We went back and forth, with me asking questions from different angles, trying to find out what the nature of that dynamic is, and what constitutes the greatest conflict for both the mother and the midwife. For the first-time mother, there’s invariably an intellectual process of preparation for birth as well as the obvious emotional and physical processes.

It seems to be cultural: women from the U.S. tend to prepare for birth by creating for themselves an illusion of control. Some of the preparations may be quite helpful in reality, but overall there’s a tendency—especially among middle- to upper-class white women, to think that they can control the quality of birth experience they have. And certainly abstention from negative-impact activities is a good thing. But the fact of the matter is, a birth will be what it will be, it’s a natural phenomenon that is wholly independent of the intellect.

“Any monkey can do it,” Angie says, referring to the catching of babies (usually in the context of explaining to bashful fathers that they may catch their baby when it pops out, if they so wish). So really, without going into too many details of our conversation, what it boils down to is this: the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Many young mothers-to-be are on a forty week collision course with reality: the ultimate wake-up call.

For Angie though, this conflict is secondary. Meaning: it doesn’t take up as much of her worries as, say, office politics. She wishes this weren’t so—no one wants to rate workplace drama number one on their worry list—but it is true. Which is NOT to say that her office environment is overly dramatic, or that it’s more political or stressful than any other. It means only that, among stressors on the job, birth itself is secondary. Yes, it’s sometimes a life-and-death scenario, and yes, she takes it very seriously. But it’s an intellectual process that she has studied for, practiced, and can do practically in her sleep (and please: any midwives reading this, no jokes about late-night call shifts and doing this in one’s sleep). Birth may provide its own conflicts of varying intensity—whether to start a woman on PIT, deciding whether or when to induce, and knowing when it’s time to call in a doc, for example—as well as the continual struggle of providing the best care for patients who may be resistant for one reason or another.

Yet for Angie these struggles rate lower on the general impact scale then simple office drama (vacation time, pay, who’s got whose back, etc). She intellectualizes birth only insofar as she sees it every day and can apply a broader perspective. For that reason, she might come into conflict with a mother who is absorbed by her preparations—reading the right books, eating the right foods, going to the right birthing classes—but who hasn’t made allowances for what comes after. Postnatal care is really important, but not really in this culture. Angie says she sometimes wishes she could change the system to increase postnatal care visits, or find a way to convince expecting mothers to pay less attention to the birth itself—it’ll happen how it happens—and more attention on the postpartum health care of herself and the baby.

And that is True: a woman who is trying to apply reason to pregnancy and birth as a way of exerting control where there really is little or none, is probably in need of the cool-headed advice of her midwife. But it’s also true that mothers are human, and also subject to the deeply worn synaptic grooves of their culture. The fears are real fears. They are animal fears in the same way that birth is an animal experience. So what Angie is perhaps expecting (and I don’t mean to belittle her stance—it too is valid and reasonable, and her arguments merit strong consideration by the body politic) is itself an intellectual response. Even as she acknowledges that birth is birth is birth, and will happen however it happens, her insistence that mothers should recognize this and modify their behaviors accordingly belies the fact that fear is fear is fear, and will make people do batshit crazy things no matter what their better angels tell them.

Why does this interest me? I thought about this last night, and today. I’ve always been interested in the nature of human thought and intellect. Man is a rational being, but man is also an animal—it doesn’t get more banal a statement than that, people. But I fancy myself a smart person, with reasonable emotional intelligence. I was raised by smart people. They knew they were creatures as much as computers, as much as angels. Sometimes they overthink things. We all do. Sometimes they underthink things. I do that too. So what is it about smart people that can objectify and intellectualize their own animal behavior? Is that what makes man civilized? What sets him apart? What makes him angelic? Is it Steinbeck’s timshel—thou mayest, the root of free will—that vaults us into some new category, that introduces morality and ethics, that causes wars and art? Or is the intellect a more Vonnegutian thing: something [God] gave us to pass the time, fart around and whack off? Are all intellectual pursuits no more than mental masturbation? And why—why why why why why why—are smart people—aware people—so different, and often so troubled?

That’s why the topic of birth—and mothers’ and midwives’ relationship to it—is interesting. And, looking at other things I’ve written—and, perhaps more importantly, the characters and stories I have in mind to write—that’s what informs all of the stories I’ve got cooking. It’s about people we love getting fixed on ideas rather than feelings. It’s the emotional struggle between the brain, which knows a lot and thinks it knows about the heart, and the heart itself, which only knows itself if it is very lucky, but which is a very strong muscle indeed. That’s the conflict that animates me. That’s the necessity I need in my writing.

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