Jeannine Atkins's Blog
September 20, 2014
I found a bit of poetry in the basement of my in-laws’ old house, which I helped clean a bit this morning: literally, an anthology my sister-in-law set aside for me, and figuratively, in the sawdust of a beloved workbench, with remnants of toys and decorations my father-in-law made for children and grandchildren. But the air outside was warm and clear, and around noon, I dusted myself off and drove past fields of pumpkins and sunflowers to the Amherst Poetry Festival. Rubber ducks with bits of Emily Dickinson poems floated in a fountain by a park where you could look at journals and books published by local small and university presses.
I bought a copy of The Common, but said no thanks to the quite spectacular cupcake I was offered. I passed by a tent where I might have gotten a Tarot reading with Emily Dickinson themed cards, and said hello to Karen Skolfield , author of frost in the low areas, one of the most riveting new collections I’ve read in a while. She was running a tent where children wrote poems based on pictures of paintings or put together their own small books: hamsters and dinosaurs seemed to be a popular theme.
Outside the Emily Dickinson homestead, I heard Martin Espada read. Then I went into the parlor to listen in on a bit of the Poetry Marathon, when volunteers spend part of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday reading all 1789 of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I knew my friend Burleigh Muten, author of Miss Emily, had read the day before, so I was surprised and happy to see her, though I’m sure at some point she must have left this house where she researched, found inspiration, and sometimes teaches children to write poetry.
Burleigh smiled, handed me a thick paperback collection, pointed out the number they were on — 829, I think — then took her place back in the circle of folding chairs. It felt rather church-like with the open books on laps, sometimes with fingers gently marking places, and a mission to keep poetry in the parlor’s air. All those different voices speaking Dickinson words, some with their quirky capitalizations. All those dashes. With poems following poems, I couldn’t comprehend much, but the reverence was good to behold.
September 16, 2014
Of all the elements of writing a novel, I probably talk least about point of view, shoving it behind considerations of character, setting, and my long hunts for plot. On the surface it seems a simple choice of three: writing using “I,” or the seldom-used “you,” or taking the more distant view of third person, which then offers its own choices about how much the narrator knows. I know people who’ve revised whole novels by changing the point of view, which becomes much more than switching pronouns and tenses. We’re always wondering what slips by a character, why she notices what she does, and whose words to believe. How does point of view become part of the story, as we consider how much the teller is the tale?
Poems also offer lots of chances to play with point of view in terms of where the narrator stands or crouches or leaps. Part of poetry’s delight can be the way they make readers crawl below the earth or through clouds. When teaching poetry to children, I sometimes ask them to stand on rocks and reach, or bend down and look from between their legs, or drop to hands and knees and investigate.
I got to do my own similar exercises last night, when nature-loving Jody at Pure Yoga decided to hold our evening class on Mount Sugarloaf. We hiked from the bottom, but my husband drove up a bit later and took a few pictures. Sometimes my nose was nestled next to grass. Then we’d flip over, and feel tucked in by sky. Doing the warrior pose shortly before sundown, I saw our shadows cross. Below was the busy road and the slower river, the fields and more mountains offering one story. Another one was close to our mats. Who might tell a story starting close to the sky?
September 10, 2014
All kinds of things can keep us from writing. Our busy minds remind us that we have to do this or that. We’re too busy, too stressed, too rattled, too hungry, and never mind that our room is too chilly, messy, or noisy. We can blame any old thing, some with good reason, others with less justice.
The problem is that we can get into the habit of blame. So that when we sit down and words stick instead of flowing, we blame ourselves. Oh, those words come easy. We’re deluded, not smart enough, lazy, blocked, unimaginative. This list could compete in length with the list about reasons for not writing. But you get the point. Nonsense comes up.
I’m returning to a novel I began then put down to tend to some shorter works, and it wasn’t with eagerness that I reopened the file, but fear in all its disguises. I waded in, got used to the water. I fretted and frittered time along the way. But with the messy file opened, I stopped having much time for my mind, which can churn up excuses and blame with abandon. The story slowly started to make its little calls for attention. I wrote a sentence I liked and cheered up.
That’s what we have to do. Itch and sigh and maybe find a view of flowers, as a reminder of the need to be kind to ourselves. At some point we’ll get to one sentence that looks like it belongs in a book. Then, hour by hour, day by day, write a chapter around that.
September 4, 2014
“How’s your writing going?” my husband asked last night. “I mean I know you’re working on several things, but how’s that book about the paper-maker?”
“It’s finally starting to look like a book. I don’t know that it will be one anyone will want, but it’s coming together.”
“Well, no one can know whether it’s something they want to read until it looks like a book. So that’s something.”
I get it. My job is to write, not make the big judgments about who might be the readers. I’m focusing on all the little judgments and leaps along the way. I did more researching, writing, daydreaming, and cutting, before I drove to the state forest where seven people were on the beach. Four people sat in chairs reading books. On a blanket, one woman read while another watched a baby slap an orange shovel. She said, “Don’t eat sand. Okay, open your mouth.”
I saw three brown ducks and one kayak. I went for a swim,
came home to my table and got back to work.
I’ve written poems before. Still,
I’m astonished when clouds open
to blue sky, and meandering
sentences ask me to break
them into lines.
September 2, 2014
Fall is filled with new chances. I’m finishing up a picture book manuscript about a poet in Tang Dynasty China. I’ve still got the four chapters of a new novel I wrote about a month ago, but they are a denser four chapters, the weaving more certain. And sketches of chapters to come, with magic. I sent out some manuscripts, though people speak of publishers vacationing through much of August. Apparently I am a person of stubborn hope.
This afternoon I left the Chengdu Mountains and Brocade River to go for a post Labor Day swim. The beach was quiet, with a few ducks, some mothers holding babies in the shade, and children intent on digging. “Let’s make a tunnel to the lake,” one boy told another. They began. Others amiably filled a toy bulldozer to make a volcano. I swam past some brown ducks and made bubbles with my strokes, such as I thought might have appeared in China’s Brocade River over a thousand years ago.
On the way home I stopped at a farm stand to buy peaches and a mix of Paula Reds and Ginger Golds.
July 28, 2014
I like seeing the sketches made before a finished painting, often with lively strokes from a particular hand. I’m thinking of my new and evolving manuscript like a sketch, one no one should judge from its disarray, and only one person, me, looking into it for its promise. I began this novel with a person who made me curious, much as I begin my poems based on people from history, but in this case the setting called me almost as much. Just as the memory of a place can carry us back into a sense of what once happened there, putting a place on a page can push a novelist toward what can happen there. Writing about the house and land where my protagonist lives gave me clues to who she’ll be. I sketched out the attic, the basement, the size of windows, and what was on the refrigerator door, getting to know the schedules and interests of the family. (And you may want to check out Gail Gauthier’s refrigerator at Original Content: I love how hearing about my all-words-refrigerator inspired her to clean off her real fridge and face her characters’ passions every time she opens its door for a cool drink. But we may want to run interference if she starts stocking the shelves for her characters.)
While my protagonist’s name keeps changing – steady now for nine days, a sign that maybe I know her – her age has remained twelve. I can see her clothes, and I found a notebook with a dolphin on the cover where I let her write her thoughts. So to speak, as we writers say, meaning I’m not crazy. And she may or may not be a poet. We’re still experimenting. And if she is, will her poems stay secret? I expect this notebook will make me keep the book first person, as there’s a lot of voice, but because that’s appealing to me, but less to the powers who want to sell books, I write “action” at the top of every other page or so, to remember to keep moving forward, and at some point soon I’d better worry about plot. I’m both the writer and teacher, giving myself directions I might give my students, asking of scenes: Why does this matter? How does it set up new questions? Could the scene be bigger or smaller? What does this have to do with what she wants and fears most? Can I make those wants and fears happen to stir up drama?
In other words, I’m making a mess, though I’d rather think of it as a swathe of colors, shapes to be explored. While laying down color, I keep in mind both positive and negative space, the object and the shapes around it. Each mark informs the next, though I rub out parts that were a path but no longer needed. And shine up what is likely to stay. Counting words is fine in the spirit of generating material, if not so much to satisfy our desire to move along, to get closer to being done. Personally, I don’t count words that come and go, but I’m satisfied to some sentences slowly look steadier.
Part of me wants everything to stay in place – hey, I worked for these words – while a wiser part knows that the shuffling in and out of sight is a sign of growth. I must create and let go, sometimes in one day, sometimes a week, sometimes within a breath. Mistakes aren’t just something writers must tolerate, but the necessary ground. I create descriptions I know must be cut and conversations thinned for the right line or two. What I’m doing here is not writing the final book, which should have a dynamic beginning, but playing with setting, motivation, and relationships, learning about character and theme, in order to later write clear and gripping first pages. I’m creating attics or basements I can plunder for symbols, which may be guides to themes.
In sketching on the canvas, I’ve gone to the four corners, though of course my work is linear. I have folders of bits of scenes, including one of the ending. I’ve been one of those who tend to write my way toward an ending, a fan of the adage, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader,” though I quote it only with disclaimers, for everyone has their own right way of getting to an end, and an outlined novel can prickle with surprise. And now, back to laying down a lot of paint to be scraped away, which leaves plenty of canvas where I can start again, and again. There’s a girl with an obsession. There’s an attic with a view of the woods. And a puzzling noise.
July 16, 2014
In the summer my view is less from the window seat and more from the porch. I’m so taken with the big views and sometimes-sticky air that I stay out even though it’s cooler inside. And my dog and cat are so committed to my company that they stick with me, the dog huffing under the table and the cat melting on top. A little heat-induced laziness is a good way to start writing a new manuscript, for there’s a slim line between that and patience, which is what I most need as I make mistake after mistake. Or should I say set out one not-quite-workable plan after another? I’ve only been at this a week or two, and have changed the title maybe ten times. That’s all right. Starting out means spilling not sweeping. I won’t know the main theme or plot until I’m finished, but for now, the ever-changing titles are just guides. The characters names switch, too, until I find ones that fit. I’ve written a few good lines of dialogue and lots of bad ones. It all looks rather like this chalkboard I saw getting iced coffee in an Amherst bagel shop.
Sometimes we writers like to show off our stockpiles of bad early drafts just to prove we’re doing something here. I’ve done that, just as I recently made my daughter and husband admire my piles of weeds. I was doing something in the garden! But those early drafts aren’t about proving that we weren’t only poking around on the computer or that our job is easy just because we can do it with bare feet propped up near the cat, listening to crickets. Those whirling lines, mismatched plots, and characters that come and go are essential to finding characters and plots meant to stay.
Coming with all my thoughts of what a good book should look like, it’s hard to throw things around, making the biggest possible mess. But this is what it takes for me. There aren’t shortcuts to the clean orderly end. I never mind questions about whether I’m doing something wrong. Of course I am, and that’s just right. What I’ll keep will likely be the setting, where most of my work begins. I like being lavish with the senses, though I’ll have much to trim. That’s not my worry now, but to stockpile details that may not only make readers feel as if they’re there, but also suggest something about the characters and the situation. Details that do more than one thing are not only those I’ll look to save when I revise, but I keep an eye out for them as I start. There’s always another story, and to find a revelatory one, we have to set out the furniture or build the forest. Then characters may confide in us, objects unfold into metaphors that hint at other layers.
I wrote about ten pages of plane trip and backstory. Gone now. I wrote six pages of driving from the airport. Deleted. We’re starting on the porch, as we should, though tomorrow I might put everyone right in the attic. It’s like pulling the rug out from under my own feet, but I learned a lot about the family in the plane and rental car. I don’t stick with writing first chapters either, but imagine myself in the middle and at the end. I take a far view – check out the weather – then zoom in, and read the cereal boxes on the kitchen table. Smells and sounds may give me the first clues about what to develop. So while I imagine a summer night, I see children riding bikes, playing Mother, May I? and Red Light, Green Light, jumping rope, and then … down my memories of evening games I hear the calls of one with risks that cross with another idea. I follow this scene, letting details swell and shrink. I can look under or behind them, setting up my own treasure hunt. Creating places where secrets may lurk.
July 7, 2014
For the past year or two, I’ve been working with a map, though one I made myself. I outlined the forests and paths of the manuscript I just finished, and erased old lines and drew new ones. Still, I had something to work from, and a dream to get it right. Now I have to think of blank paper not as a dare, but an invitation, and I tell myself: when I’m ready. My writer-self doesn’t like to be pushed. She performs better with loopholes and sweet talk than threats.
The blank page will call if I don’t panic. I keep the lined but otherwise empty paper by my elbow, but the porch isn’t church. It’s okay if I fiddle with the straw in my ice tea, flip through a magazine, stare into the green, even check my e-mail, though I’m better off now sticking with paper and my barely-decipherable handwriting than a laptop. I can fold over the corners of paper. I can stick my pen through paper. Watch it curl in the heat. Its everyday look evokes unscheduled summer days. But if the laptop with its built-in diversions calls, I’m not going to raise a fuss. If I take time off for poetry, I may come back with a gift for my work instead of outrage at some scandal, but let’s not go crazy separating bad from good habits, setting too many rules.
I’m trying to hold out just one admonition for the characters and place starting to form. I’m telling myself that this book won’t be drawn from history. I love stacks of books, but want a vacation from the nonfiction section, partly to catch up on reading poetry and novels, immersing rather than skimming surfaces, which is part of my research method: waiting to be caught by a concrete noun. A friend recently lured me to walk down the street of Old Deerfield, scanning the historic village map for a century that pleased us, but I’m off the clock, here as company for Deb, who is a weaver as well as a writer, and is open to something that might bring those selves together. We smelled the roses in my photo, and then the sawdust inside a recreation of an old joiner’s shop.
Finishing my manuscript was fun, even if there were no fireworks. More and more I let myself listen to the whispers of a few new ideas. Foolish, full of holes, overdone, not my style, or are they? I’m trying not to assess at this point. Maybe some history will sneak in after all, for there is an old house, and the mom looks like she might be a paleontologist, and what’s life without looking back? I was thinking no magic as I’ve tried and failed at it before. But could I try harder? I don’t feel obliged, but admire books in which magic weaves through realism. We will see. What great words to have as a job description. I feel my luck, I feel my trepidation.
Pushing out the judge-in-me isn’t just about having a better time. It’s vital to creation. To weigh ideas at this point would be like cutting down all the trees in a forest because none had painted signs showing a way out. I don’t know which dead old branch or falling leaf I’ll need. Maybe there’s not a theme in the brush, but a way toward one. I keep looking and walking, getting over stubbed toes, and grateful for the occasional blue bird.
It’s a thrill, or do I mean terror, to begin. At least there’s a lot of hope. I make folders with titles that keep changing, put in and toss out flotsam, while looking more closely at other bits. And writing a page is writing a page, whether it’s first, last, or in the middle. So it’s best to celebrate wherever I am in the process, at least with a smile, a tip of ice tea at the cat, when I’m, say, pleased with an image. Or a bit of dialogue, or the rhythm of a sentence. Or even that I spelled rhythm right the first time, which has taken a lot of years.
July 4, 2014
I like novels in verse for lots of reasons, and one is the way that many good ones take readers into corners of our diverse world. If, like me, you’re eagerly waiting for Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming to come out next month, in the meantime you can be moved by these two new wonderfully written novels for teens.
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman follows the dreams and setbacks of Veda, a dancer who loses her leg in an accident early in the book, and must adapt to using a prosthetic. The novel is divided into nicely titled poems, while keeping the pace of a fast-moving but elegant dance. I liked the themes of resilience, a bit of romance, art, and spirituality (and art as spirituality), all weaving in and out of what many will find a familiar and beautifully unfamiliar world. A Time to Dance is framed with poems about the Temple of the Dancing God. Both poems refer to costumes and feet sculpted from bronze or carved in stone. There are sounds of cymbals and scents of white jasmine, but in the final poem, there’s a stronger emphasis on the inner life. The music of applause has deepened, and the fears and hopes of a young dancer have turned to acceptance and joy.
Walking (caminar means “to walk” in Spanish) keeps the plot moving in a new verse novel, which is more like a collection of poems in that most, though usually short, have a completeness of their own. Caminar by Skila Brown is set in Guatemala in 1981and tells the story of Carlos. The first poem sets the place, comparing where he lives to a hand. The particular fingers and thumb named here are important throughout, as Carlos walks, meets people, changes his mind, faces violence, and climbs the mountain we see on that first page to warn others about the soldiers who invaded his village. The beginning poems also set up trees, animals, and “nahuales,” or animal spirit protectors, which appear throughout.
The book covers a lot of time and the leaps between poems makes such time-passing graceful, and also suits the themes of courage and coming of age. How each poem appears on the page is given a lot of thought, with patterns of words sometimes mimicking sounds. Some conversations seem to zigzag, while others are broken or speckled over the page so we get a sense of many talking at once. Some shape poems look scattered like ammunition, or at a moment of terror rely on a single word.
Both books use lyrical language to show hardships faced, bringing together beauty, pain, and courage. Highly recommended!
For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Heidi at my juicy little universe.
July 2, 2014
For a moment I breathe deeply and feel like I’m very clean, as if just out of a shower on a hot day, before I start to get sticky again. There’s no fanfare on the porch, no parades, cheers, or party. Just the heavy-breathing dog, the cat curled into a sleep so dense you’d think I’d popped him in a steamer. The table is as quiet and cake-less as it was yesterday. Finishing a book is like the stillness of summer morning, the heat just starting to thicken, the birdsong at slow speed. Or the stillness of darkness, with fireflies winking here and there. I look at an empty yellow pad with affection. What should I write on it? Chapter one? That seems like a good idea. But I’m not in a hurry.
My work got easier toward the end, fixing fixes, tending to fine touches that will attract notice or not, though there were times when the sense that I was inching toward the end disappeared and my calm turned to freaking out. I read through it all again, until the problems seemed few enough that I knew another pass through only meant I was stalling. I had fun printing out a copy that I’m finally not going to scribble all over. I queried someone who’s not a friend or husband, who may or may not offer an overview of her reactions, but whose primary role is to decide whether this is something that can be published successfully, which is a gentler term for money-making. My focus has been on whether the work is as good as I can make it, which is different, though I hope it might be both.
So what now? There’s a thin line, if there’s a line at all, between finishing one thing and beginning another. But I’m trying to mark it, even as I rely on the satisfaction of completing a work to ease me into a new start. For a while, I’ll complete two essays, take some looks at two picture books put away, try to blog a little more. I want to write poems that are whole in themselves. I meant the ones I wrote in Finding Wonders each to hold their own ground, but I also had to keep narratives threading through dozens of poems. I’d like to be bit firmer about first and last lines.
Imagination likes a vacation, even a short or pretend one. I get to put my feet on the porch table and read slim volumes of poems. But some of the best poetry breaks up our concentration. It makes us dream or think, and doesn’t mind when we pause in the middle of a page, put down the paperback mid-stanza. Poetry is kind, maybe even ever so quietly claps, glad to inspire. I find myself dreaming, which leads to note-taking.
Ideas flutter like pale moths beating the screens. There’s an old house in the woods. Secrets. Fear of night. And a bit of a tone, a desire to work with shorter sentences, stay in middle reader territory. But who knows? I pour myself lemonade. I consider a swim.