How Writing Fiction Is Like Being a Mom

Mother and daughter writing letter to Santa Claus
Mother and daughter writing letter to Santa Claus

Writing, it has been said, is like giving birth. A man must have come up with that. I've been a mom for over 20 years, and an aspiring author for half that time, and I can tell you: Writing and publishing demand a different skill set than labor and delivery. As I've nurtured my little creations along, however, I discovered at least a dozen things that mothering and writing fiction have in common:

  • These characters show up and you just love 'em: They're in your heart and head and you obsessively think about who they are, what they're up to, and how things will turn out for them. As my mentor and friend Laura Munson wrote, "You know that your characters are real when you find yourself praying for them at 4:00 a.m."

  • They fill a hole you didn't even know was there: You thought your life was full before they came along, and now you can't remember when they weren't around.
  • They don't do what you tell them to do: You may think because you've got the pen or car keys in hand that you're in charge of the story. But, they won't go where they don't want to go, so you have a choice: fight it and shut 'em down, or listen to what they have to say.
  • If you're lucky, they'll at least listen to you: Some fiction writers have conversations with their characters. Really listening to our kids demonstrates our love no matter what the outcome is. Don't over direct and suffocate them.
  • It takes hard work every day: Motherhood -- and writing -- ain't for sissies. There are the sweet, breakthrough moments of inspiration or mastering the bicycle. But, most days are filled with the hard work of first drafts and runny noses.
  • If you don't pay attention, it'll slip away -- fast: Inspiration is fleeting. Grab a notebook and write it down, or it's gone. Same with kids. One day, you're holding hands; the next, they're sighing and rolling their eyes. I love my young women, and miss my little girls.
  • Play. Pause. Rewind. Repeat: The endless loop of regrets -- the face-first stumble on the playground, the stern look that greeted a mud pie. Eject that disc and pop in the home movies. Don't judge the mom behind the camera; think about how you'll tell her story.
  • Others will advise; listen to your intuition: Writing in someone else's voice will only sound like a cheap imitation. Follow your gut with the kids. They know the real thing.
  • Your characters will delight you: A child's laughter is the music of life. Expect to be surprised by your charges in the flesh and on the page. They see things differently -- let them show you something new.
  • There's always a blank page, a new day, a do-over: Your characters and kids are resilient. They'll teach you about forgiveness, letting go, doing your best, and that that is enough.
  • You won't rest until it's resolved: We don't like it one damn bit when our kids or characters are in the middle ground, learning some lesson, living the question, with questionable answers.
  • And then you let it go: Because there's only so much you can do, and you've invested so much time and energy and heart and encouragement and hard work into these people. Trust them to figure it out. And if you're lucky, they'll let you be part of the story's end.
  • Bonus: One Way Novelists are NOT Like Moms
    Novelists get a rough draft, a delete key, editors, and deadlines. Moms craft a stream-of-consciousness final edition every day. Giving birth is only the beginning.