WRITING LIFE: Book Midwifery by Diane Zinna

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For the past three years, I’ve been a developmental editor for memoirs and novels. A client-friend has taken to calling me her book’s “midwife.” I love that. I am not her book’s creator. My job is not to help her write the book I would write, but to meet her where she is and help her make her book the best version of what she intended. I am someone who has been there before, who can help her see what I see. I make the process a little easier, feel less lonesome and confounding. Like a midwife, I suppose, all the books I’ve ever sat with during the laboring hours can help me to see things.

Like how close she often is to really being done.

I often see this before the writer can herself. I can see her themes weaving like threads of a tapestry, where the book’s structure and pace make a heartbeat, when what the book is really about rises up to meet the author and me unexpectedly, when resurrected details show the book has started dreaming of itself.

This is the time when a writer can benefit from someone telling them just how close they are to being done. I can see the book crowning. But maybe the writer is too close to the material, or worrying about it being accepted by readers, or feeling the press of new, wildly different ideas. Maybe it’s just the various demands of being a mom and wife and human. Any one of those reasons might make her suck it back up inside to protect it from the world where those worries and issues live.

I do see things. From my position, seated and clean while my book clients sweat and agonize, I can tell when things are going wrong. I know how far they can stretch, and I know when things need to be cut, perhaps further than they would want. (I’m sorry.) Soft: it will make things move more easily.

But I can also see, from this position, the way a writer is glowing. The way she is still dedicated, or not, or needing to take a rest. I know when the final push is near. She may be wondering if the anguish will continue forever, but I can see the shoulders of the book. I wish there was a mirror that would reach far enough for them to see it for themselves.

A birthing writer will be angry with me sometimes. She’ll tell me to stop saying she can do it, stop with the encouragement. She only wants to know what she’s doing wrong. She wants me colder or harder. There are doctors like that, but I’m not like that. I will tell you and continue to tell you that you are capable, that this is possible, that women (people) do this every day—that you will come to a point in the pushing that it feels good to push and then there will come relief. I want you to know that can happen. That’s the kind of midwifery I’m doing here.

Sometimes she doesn’t want a stitch of criticism. She tells me she is doing fine. But from where I’m sitting, I can see her whole writerly vagina, and I can tell when she is distracted, or unnecessarily changing position, or trying to push before her time.

And I’m good at assessing if her ideas are not yet dilated. Sometimes her questions show how little she still knows about her own capabilities, and that’s okay. Someday, when the time is right, she’ll know everything, and then she’ll be the woman trying to hold back advice from other someday-soon moms at the playground.

Often, I’m the first to hold her after she’s been born into the world. That requires trust from you, and it’s an honor for me. Someday, maybe we’ll share a knowing look when she’s grown and done what she’s meant to do, and we’ll dream together about her long tail.

Did I mean to say tail? Yes. Because this is no baby. You are birthing a dragon with a voice like fire, never-before-seen eyes like an angel’s, razor-sharp talons—and enormous wings. When she finally emerges, I know those wings will look strange and scrunched, but when they spread and dry, they will be warm and veined through with your blood inside of them. Its feet will bear your footprints, its hands are yours, and the crown something miraculous and new and yours. It’s already all there. It just needs unfurling, some time in the sun to dry, a moment to itself so that it can know itself.

But I can see it coming.

Meet the Contributor
Diane Zinna is the author of the novel The All-Night Sun (Random House, 2020). Her craft book on the art of telling our hardest stories, Letting Grief Speak: Writing Portals for Life After Loss, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2024. She mentors writers through her “Book in a Year” classes and has led a free grief writing class called Grief Writing Sundays since the start of the pandemic. Meet her there or online at: www.dianezinna.com.

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