How I wrote a non-fiction book

Last Wednesday was the day: my book Kinderen krijgen is optioneel (‘Having children is optional’) came out. A hardcover with linen binding and neon pink printing ink on the inside—it was prettier than I hoped. I received pictures of tall stacks of books in bookstores and have already received some positive feedback. I’ve worked so hard for this!

But you might be wondering how someone, known primarily as an illustrator, suddenly wrote a non-fiction book about desired childlessness (or ‘childfree, as they call it). Well, this is how it came about.

Before I became an illustrator

When I was young, I really wanted to tell stories, but I was three years old and hadn’t learned to write yet. So, I started drawing my stories. I drew a lot, all the time. By the time I was nine, I had drawn so much that I had become good at it; people encouraged me to do it even more. Meanwhile, I still really liked to write, but I increasingly did so for myself. I made a lot of comics and made the drawings to go with them. That balance between text and image has always attracted me.

Writing has always been my safe haven, the place where I felt at home. I have been writing blogs since 2001 (anyone remember Livejournal and Blogspot?), but it did not immediately occur to me that writing could become my profession. With drawing, it was different: I graduated from art school and became a graphic designer, only to start working as an illustrator a few years later. In 2012, I changed sails a bit and went to Cambridge to do a summer course dedicated entirely to writing and illustrating a children’s book. I took further courses in writing, but illustration prevailed each time.

Spring 2016: where is that baby fever?!

I had been working as an illustrator for Flemish magazine Charlie for a while when, in 2016, I asked them if I could write an article for them about something I had been working on for a long time: I didn’t have a desire to have children. I was 31, and although everyone always told me that it ‘would come eventually’ and that I had to’meet the right man’, the smell of baby shampoo and chubby little arms could not persuade me to put my uterus to work. The editors thought it was a good topic—those sleepy ovaries of mine.

After I wrote the article and handed it in to the editors, they warned me, “Be careful, because there could be a lot of negative reactions to it.” When it went online, I prepared myself for criticism from total strangers who would never say what they thought to my face but would, from behind their keyboards, tell me I was useless. It wouldn’t be the first time, to be fair.
That criticism never came. I was overwhelmed by understanding messages and received responses from dozens of women thanking me for giving them a voice. Apparently, I was not the only one who did not have a desire to have children!

The topic landed well, but so did my writing style. I was asked more often to write articles, for example, for Flow Magazine about travelling alone and burnout. Shortly after publishing the article in Charlie, a publisher asked me if I wanted to write a book about not wanting children, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. I could write articles, but a whole book? I didn’t know if I could. And although I had never felt I wanted to be a mother, I was also only 31. I didn’t want to completely rule out never wanting to be a mother yet. After all, people said that baby fever could hit anytime.

Fall 2021: now I am ready!

By now, I was 36, and I felt in my whole body that it was ready to take the step. My head too reassured me that I could do it, and my dear partner stood fully behind me.
I stepped into the building and was asked to sit in the chair opposite her. Nerves fluttered through my body—of enthusiasm but also “shit, can I do this?” We discussed how I thought I was going to do this and when I wanted to do it.
An hour later, I walked out again, and a happy publisher waved me goodbye. I was going to write a book about how not all women want to be mothers.

Between the 2016 article and that conversation with the publisher in 2021, I had read a lot about why not all women have a desire to have children. I particularly noticed that there were few Dutch-language books on the subject. In America, a new book was coming out every year, and although I found these books interesting, I missed humour and the personal element. I wanted to approach my book from a different angle: a combination of my personal story combined with scientific research, other people’s stories, and with humour. And with lots of illustrations, to make the transition from illustrator to author a bit easier.

Spring 2022: burned out

Initially, the book was supposed to come out in 2022, but burnout put a stop to that. I could barely make sentences; typing emails was out of the question, so writing an entire book? out of the question. Still, I tried, but that first draft was, well, lousy.
When I told the publisher I wasn’t going to make it, they were very understanding, but I was very disappointed. We had already announced the book in the offer leaflet (a brochure of new books that every publisher sends to bookshops to buy), and when I commit to something, I always do it. And quite honestly, I was also a bit worried that another publisher would take my idea and run with it (which happened). I felt we were at a turning point to demolish a taboo, but my health took precedence.

Spring 2023: again, with help this time.

There I was at my keyboard again, and immediately I noticed a difference: I was kinder and softer. Not only for myself but also for the book. I threw away the entire first version and started again from scratch.
In the meantime, I learned that I don’t always have to do everything by myself (I often think I do), so I hired an editor, Leonie. I got to know Leonie because we read each other’s newsletters. I immediately knew we were on the same wavelength and asked if she wanted to have coffee with me. After a pleasant afternoon during which she told me that she was also childfree, I asked her if she might like to help with my book. Fortunately, she said ‘yes’.

Writing a book is totally different from writing an article. It requires a different approach, one I am not yet familiar with. Leonie, as editor, made sure there was a clear thread in my story, bringing my 75,000 words down to about 38,000 (once I start telling stories, I go wild).
It felt like I wasn’t doing it alone, and I needed that more than I thought. After all, writing a book can be quite lonely; you’re just milling around in your own mind, as if you’re conducting a monologue with no listeners. It’s easy to lapse into endless drivel, but Leonie simply crossed out what wasn’t relevant. She made sure I stayed sharp.

Fall 2023:

The final stages of the process were stressful. The manuscript was now with the publisher, and for a few weeks I heard nothing. For a while, I thought they didn’t dare tell me they didn’t like it, and the book wouldn’t come out. The deadline was creeping closer, and I was nervous.
After a few weeks, I heard it was approved and that I had to start making illustrations quickly; otherwise, we wouldn’t make it. I made them in record time, in about a week.
The book went to the printer, and it was out of my hands. Now the book is in shops, and somewhere it feels like it is no longer mine. For years, I carried this book very close to me, and it was only mine. Then it also belonged to Leonie too, then to the publisher, and now it belongs to the readers. I can only hope it finds the right readers.

The other day, I read the book again. On the one hand, the text felt familiar, but I could also look at it with fresh eyes. I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: pride. That feeling is not very familiar to me, because I am very critical of myself. Of course, there are tonnes of things that could be better, but what is there now is good. I am proud because it is so close to me, and I did not have to make many concessions. The publisher gave me all the space I needed to tell my story, and I am extremely grateful to them for that.

Labelling myself: illustrator or writer?

To promote the book, I gave several interviews. The articles almost always read ‘illustrator and writer’. I felt in my underbelly that it was no longer quite right. Especially not for a book of 38,000 words and 50 illustrations.
An illustrator is someone who, usually on commission, creates an image (illustration) to accompany a supplied text. Although I still illustrate other people’s texts, increasingly, my own text is the reason I draw. I wouldn’t say I am an ‘illustrator’ in my main profession because I write a lot of comic scripts, articles, and books and make autonomous work as an artist. Summed up, illustration is a smaller part of my daily work.

At the moment, I don’t feel the need to put a label on myself for a while. I understand that people like to pigeonhole you, but I am giving myself some space (I wrote about that in my last newsletter) to redefine where I am going.
After all these years of working on commission and making what others asked of me, I am giving myself the freedom to see what I want to make myself. I don’t yet know exactly which sticker fits that, but for now, I don’t care.

Kinderen krijgen is optioneel

Waarom niet alle vrouwen moeder willen worden

Although I’m hoping for an English translation of the book, for now it’s only available in Dutch.

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