The other day I was telling a friend that the process of publishing a book is a bit like being pregnant – it has all the ups and downs of wild euphoria, tearfulness, terror – and complete adrenal exhaustion. Today I signed off the final proofs of my new poetry/art book with the printer – and now it’s out of my hands. It feels like someone has taken the baby away to the nursery at the end of a long labour – now they are going to clean it up and present it back to me squeaky clean and shiny. I suppose the hardest thing about the process was not actually the time and the hard work – but the secret fear that every first time mother has – will I actually love this baby when it appears? Will it be ugly? Will I be the only one who loves it?
You may laugh at my neurosis, but I promise you that it’s a feeling shared by everyone who produces something creative (child, book, song, work of art). Because the thing is this – every artist (even those who do it just “for myself” – I think you’re lying!) has a secret compulsion to share. The creative work has a life of its own – it can’t be kept in a box like Skinner’s child – the perfect environment where it doesn’t have to interact with the world of criticism and applause. Like the baby in the womb, there comes a time when it wants out.
I think my poems have always been inside me but not necessarily in a healthy way. When I was training as an educational psychologist I assessed a severely retarded child in a community clinic on whose file was written the medical diagnosis: cysticercosis. That was in the days before Google, so I had to look it up in a fat tome in the medical school library where I discovered that it referred to tapeworm larvae which had crossed the blood-brain barrier, causing brain damage. Years later I wrote a poem of the same name:
This poem has been inside me forever
feeding on my gut.
I need to extract it piece by piece,
assemble it on a page,
(check that none is missing)
lest it migrate and drive me mad,
like a tapeworm in the brain.
Don’t worry – I didn’t put that one in the book (bit gruesome!) – but it does express the feeling I had that the poems were dangerous thoughts that might drive me mad if I didn’t get them out of my system (there’s a fair bit of madness in my family so it wasn’t a completely irrational thought! Not to mention all my literary heroes who went completely mental or suicidal.)
So the poems were there – it was just a matter of having to control them. The art on the other hand was a pure gift. I did art at school like any kid – 40 years ago. My O-Level art teacher said I had talent but because I couldn’t paint I didn’t really take him seriously. In recent years I have been attracted to mixed-media, particularly the more abstract in style, but I could never find the time or the money to attend a course. Then a friend invited me to a collage workshop and I discovered the delights of tearing and sticking and scraping and dripping. I felt like I was back in kindergarten. And with the childish glee of enjoying the creative process I also recovered the childish desire to show-and-tell. I realised, too, that the art had the power to “dress up” the poetry decently enough to appear in public.
So the baby is in the nursery. Coming out to play soon. Trust it will find happy playmates.