See The Sections: A How-To Guide To Giving Birth
By Amy Barnes
I give birth to my first words when I’m in kindergarten, three letter words that rhyme about baby kittens and mittens. My teacher pushpins the wobbly words with their crayon illustrations to a bulletin board with other stories.
My high school creative writing teachers pat my almost-grown-up word children on their heads and help me carry them around like the fragile egg babies our sex-ed teacher hands out, each baby wrapped in fabric, suspended and dependent on high school hands and balance.
My college creative writing teacher forces me to give birth to stories and poetry in front of my classmates. I start out happy with this plan even though it is horrifying to be nearly naked in a circle of strangers. I announce that I will be pregnant with a book of words by the time I’m twenty-five. We’re all expected to pop out words in the drafty state university maternity ward, perfect ones in poetry voice wearing black turtlenecks and beanies while our peers snap their fingers and this man with prestigious book children but no real children, crushes our creative dreams into bits of eggshell paper shards in the asbestos-roofed classroom. I feel sliced open, writing from my gut soon feels impossible and I change my major and sew myself up with angry red x’s that burn as the only letters I can write.
As I brush my crushed creative dreams into a dustpan, I decide there will be no more literary babies. The door has closed. My mind is no longer fertile. It is a hard thing to decide at twenty-two. Friends and family ask if I’m sure and I resolutely declare this is my decision. I get book birth announcements on occasion and attend showers at bookstores, perching on a folding chair listening to them read with no child in my lap.
I am not as resolute with the idea of having human children. It takes me a little longer to find a co-writer and I attend more showers, childless. Before my own children are born, I watch for a foot or a hand to imprint on my belly from the inside. I touch these babies from the outside, a hand sliding down my swollen belly to read their progress, protecting them in public.
There are nearly 4 years between each of my two children because I am deemed fragile, high risk. The doctors give me images of them both, with words imprinted on the sonogram poetry – dates and places and times. He eventually cuts me open and children emerge. Words on medical charts and social security cards record the titles for these new stories, these new paragraphs of prose and child that I helped write. I give birth exposed again, more angry red x’s emblazoned across my gut and rows of medical students snapping their fingers as my children arrive because I’m paralyzed from the neck down and can’t celebrate myself.
In the wee hours with wee ones, I read about a woman who has carried a fossilized baby in her belly for decades. She goes to doctors asking why there is no human child, why is her belly swollen like there is one? The doctors have no answers and she eventually stops going. The stone baby is finally removed and she’s relieved of her physical pain, but is still in anguish because she never was able to have a child of her own. It is too late when the words finally come. I am sad for her but I also understand a little. I carry stories, multitudes of them in my own gut for nearly the same amount of time. It feels like it will be too late for me too. The wait feels as long in both instances, creation and creativity. I read news stories about clocks and watches frozen at the precise moment natural disasters hit. When I give birth to each of my children, my husband photographs the clock hands at the precise moment they are born. The practice becomes a wonderful way of marking birth time.
I do write down words as my human children grow up. Childhood milestones in baby books. Report cards and permission slips signed. These are easy words to write. Yes. No. Names. Vocabulary words. Input on college essays. I read other people’s words aloud to my human children, stories about animals that talk and walk and historical dolls that go on adventures and giant folding cars that have matching plastic figurines. I help them write rhymes and book reports and essays and stories.
And yet, I still feel the arms and elbows, knees and toes of my own stories bent in my belly, lost in my brain, calcified in the moment like a woman forced to carry a fossilized baby in her gut for decades. They’re waiting with stiff smiles and eyeballs for me to pull them back out and stroller them around to editors and readers that will pinch their cheeks and call them adorable and want to post them on a digital wall or on printed pages.
But, it’s still too soon. I touch the stories from the outside on occasion to make sure they’re still there even though I know they are. I jot down notes. I feel hope creeping at some point but I fail at creating even two black lines. The fictional words don’t come. They can’t come. I try to force them out by becoming a word surrogate. I ghost write for others. I write articles on how to parent, how to decorate, how to eat, how to travel, how to cook, how to give birth and ironically – how to write. There’s a steady stream of word children that I am paid to create. They’re my babies but they belong to someone else, ironically-titled parent publishing companies.
One day, my husband comes across a spider in the basement. He is frightened by her. She is scared of him. As he jumps back, she releases thousands of spider babies possibly with the instructions to run, babies, run but who knows for sure because spiders only whisper words to other spiders.
I look inside for a story to share. Not premature. It has a full birthweight and feels like it’s thriving. Nearly one thousand words. It arrives all messy and red-faced into a room of people. Some point and stare and tell me it’s an ugly baby in the way that strangers and friends and family do, with the best intentions of course. That’s a baby. That’s a story. They say. I take their comments to heart and put a pink bonnet on this new child to hide her flaws a little but then another person comments on a cute ear and her long fingers and how there’s a slant rhyme in line twelve that really works and another one loves the nature metaphor and another cries because they once had a child with the same flaw that became beautiful with a little tweaking, and I toss off the silly hat.
I carry this essay that you’re reading around in my gut too. Not for three decades. Not even for ten months. I feel its edges and elbows for three months. I give birth to it privately. On Google Docs where no one will judge it. I fiddle with its arms and legs and hair for a while longer, trying on various things before I roll it out for people to read. It’s hard work giving birth. Literary maternity leave is a misnomer. In the same three months, both of my children will leave for college. By the time my next book is born, the human children I birthed will scatter with 40,000 other college children that I didn’t create.
I watch a TV sit-com where the characters discuss their first child being like a first pancake – a little wonky, more for practice. My first book in 2021 wasn’t a practice pancake, neither was the one in 2022. I say that now with conviction. And yet, I still have enormous doubts, even when cradling each one in my hand. For marketing purposes but also born from that doubt, I put my first book in a casserole pan and punned that I was giving birth to it out of the oven. I was asked in an interview recently why three books in three years? I felt a little like a woman asked how she handles having three kids under three. Or a fossilized one. It’s complicated and it’s personal; I don’t know that I gave the best answer but it was the answer on that day. Built-up stories? Trying to prove myself? Trying to get a perfect pancake? Finally had enough undistracted time? It may be the most simplistic of answers for a woman with many eggs and many words: I have two children. I have three books.
In a twist of literary fate, I am helping to birth other people’s stories and books now. And yet, I still feel like the woman with fossil babies in her gut because there are some stories that will never be released. I’m also a mother with living creative children and a spider word mother who tells her creative little babies to run, babies, run, go to the page, go to the books. I tell my human children run, babies, go to college. But I’m not whispering in a spider voice or a woman-dismissed-because-there’s-a-stone-baby-in-her-gut voice. I’m speaking up. On the page. In books. At the professor who crushed my words. At the circles of writers who closed their eyes when I gave birth. At the red x’s I sewed on my own gut to hide the words, but mark the spot.
The birth announcements have been printed. It’s time. My words have arrived.
Amy Barnes is the author of three short fiction collections: AMBROTYPES published by word west, Mother Figures at ELJ, Editions and CHILD CRAFT, from Belle Point Press. Her words have appeared in a wide range of publications including: The Citron Review, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, Nurture Lit, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, Apartment Therapy, Southern Living, Motherly, Romper, Allrecipes and many others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021 and 2022, and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively.