Jeannine Atkins's Blog
August 3, 2017
From the split-then-pieced-together (im)possible in the title, ruin and becoming whole were themes through (Im)Possible Dreams: Simmons Summer Children’s Literature Institute. Books break as we read, leaving us perhaps with a few lines or images we’ll remember.
Metaphor, which derives from Greek, meaning “to carry across,” may suggest what’s unfinished before two unlikely things are brought together. And collage is an art of the broken, with artists arranging torn or cut-up paper or fabric and tiny discarded objects. When artists put old things together in new ways, they leave traces of the edges, suggesting how something might have come together another way at another time.
Often what’s small speaks most personally and powerfully to us. Collage artists may use scraps to tell us about the whole world. At the Simmons Institute, someone asked Melissa Sweet how she chose from old documents, tree bark, buttons, ribbons, and much more to illustrate her extraordinary books, including Some Writer! her biography of E.B. White, and the page below from A River of Words, a biography of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant. Melissa replied that as she creates a collage she considers, “What’s the minimum you need to create a rhythm.”
I also look for what’s essential in a poem, writing far and wide, then trimming and trimming again. Collage is an art made with scissors, though mine look more like a thick pencil line or the delete button. For poetry I write a lot then cut what sometimes seems even more. The power comes from compression, as well as what’s put side by side, in the juxtaposition of small things.
Perhaps fragments from the past move us, as if the world or history left if not all we want, at least some small things we need. During a lunch break, I walked over to the Museum of Fine Arts wanting to see two particular paintings and grab lunch in the cafeteria. At the door I ran into a new friend, someone I’d met the day before, who made me change course after telling me about a Chinese vase saved for centuries, then painted over to be saved during the cultural revolution, when many artworks were destroyed. Like Jennifer Stoner, I was moved by this vase in the exhibit “I Must Tell You What I Saw: Objects of Witness and Resistance.” And also this mold used to make sticks of chalk from ground limestone. Some of those who worked making chalk were among the many killed in the Armenian Genocide, but surviving family members brought this tray to America as a symbol of the ordinary and precious that was lost and saved.
Sometimes a sole object that’s left behind seems to whisper. Sometimes, if we wait and look from another angle, it speaks: Remember me. Remember us. Many stories start from here, behind or by edges. Listen.
August 2, 2017
It’s good to be on the porch writing, wishing for a breeze, but filled with thoughts brought home from the Simmons Summer Children’s Literature Institute. On Thursday night, Ekua Holmes answered thoughtful questions posed by Callie Crossley about her mixed media artwork. Ekua spoke about how she valued the community growing up in Roxbury, and her grandmother’s drawer with scissors and junk mail. She told us how before illustrating a picture book, she reads the manuscript many times, “finding new ways to look at the words.”
Ekua spoke about how chose the best images to stand next to poems for the collection Out of Wonder, and for a picture book biography, researches beyond the manuscript to make a book that “takes you past the headlines of a life.” Here’s a picture from Carole Boston Weatherford’s lyrical picture book biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, Voice of Freedom.
Ekua Holmes said, “Story telling is not a singular act. There is a element of divinity in the stories we tell.” And she told us she loves sunflowers because of all the possibilities in the many seeds. I’m so happy she illustrated the cover of Stone Mirrors.
Another highlight for me was a conversation among author Candace Fleming, illustrator Eric Rohman, and editor Neal Porter about the eight years it took to make the award-winning picture book Giant Squid. Respect was a word that Ekua Holmes used a lot in her talk, and was wonderful to see the respect this author, illustrator, and editor held for each other but most of all the book and its readers, wanting to give the very best.
Giant Squid is a book about what we don’t know, and rather than offering facts, the object is to get readers to want to go find out more. “I’m not doing this so kids can write reports. I’m adding my voice to the conversation about the topic.” Candace Fleming said. And “All good picture books have a musicality, a pace, a beat, a rhythm that goes along with the mood we’re trying to impart.”
Julie Berry and Tim Wynn-Jones also spoke to the mess, mystery, and plain old time often involved in the process of making an excellent book. Every detail counts, and Julie mentioned the need to not focus just on a main character, but all. “A book is only as good as its secondary characters, just as a play needs ensembles. … Every character should have the specificity, oddity, and honesty of reality.” Both spoke of the need to keep going when one feels lost, for answers can be found in what you’ve written. “What are the images that stay with you? … When you’re writing well … trust those passages to find the key to the story,” Tim Wynne-Jones said.
My talk was about the gaps we find in history, which I try to fill in, though not completely, with poetry. Often these are like the gaps and rough edges that we find in collage. That art celebrates uncertainty, fringes, fragments and inheritance that doesn’t dictate what can be taken or left behind. Collage often creates tension between what’s given and what’s chosen. Truth can be found in ragged lines rather than lines moving straight toward achievements, in what blurs, like memory. Jade, the main character of Piecing Me Together, a recent novel by Renée Watson says of her art: “I am ripping and cutting. Gluing and pasting. Rearranging reality, redefining, disguising. I am taking ugly and making beautiful.”
After a summer blogging break — busy gently wrestling poems into place, swimming, and dog-walking — I plan to write more about the value of what’s broken tomorrow or Friday.
May 29, 2017
I’ve been reading these collected interviews, letters, and essays which address the Italian writer’s choice to be anonymous, her native city of Naples, and writing truths about women’s lives as mothers, daughters, and friends. Frantumaglia is a word her mother, a dressmaker, used to describe contradictory sensations, a jumble of fragments that depressed her, made her dizzy or her mouth taste like iron. Later, Elena Ferrante made the word her own. “The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.” It’s often accompanied by a sense of loss, or the fear of it, and disorder that comes before words.
Yasemin Çonger asks if she writes in a state of frantumalglia. She replies, “I have to start from an orderly place. I have to feel safe. But I also know that every book becomes in my eyes worth writing only when the order that has allowed me to begin shatters and the writing flows, and puts me, above all, at risk.”
Elena Ferrante returns often to theme of risk and breaking through a false sense of order. “A story has to push beyond your very capacity to write it, you have to fear at every line that you won’t make it.”
She mentions that finding the right tone can lead her through the rest of the work. “I describe common experiences, common wounds, and my biggest worry – not the only one – is to find a tone in writing that can remove, layer by layer, the gauze that binds the wound and reach the true story of the wound.”
For her, what’s tangled is most true. She means to break past stereotypes and conventions that follow a strict order. This applies not only to the subjects of her novels, but her writing style. Often when talking about writing, I mention the need for sloppiness and great forgiveness of oneself in early drafts. Care in fixing comes later. But while reading about her method I realized that for many the writing process isn’t just moving from writing without restraint to imposing some will and order. Rather, what we write down in a sort of flurry gives us clues about what to save, discard, and explore. At this stage of revision, we’re not just an expert coming in to clean up. Rather, we may be more reader than writing, scanning for clues in what’s on the page.
Elena Ferrante says: “In general the most urgent question for a writer may seem to be what experiences do I know I can be the voice of, what do I feel able to narrate? But it’s not so. The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for all the things I know? …. without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges. …. Literary truth is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it. It is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.”
For more of her thoughts on writing, you can read this interview in The Paris Review.
April 28, 2017
The New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference last weekend was wonderful. I gave three workshops and was on a panel, so I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to attend other offerings, and was too preoccupied with what was coming and going to take many pictures. But talking about verse novels, poetic forms, and the intersections of history and imagination reminded me of what I know and can strive for, so I’m writing with a bit more conviction this week.
I was also happy to stand before my friends to acknowledge the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor for middle grade/young reader books for Finding Wonders. Here’s how I began my talk:
I’m so grateful and happy for this honor, for as we read in Charlottes Web, “It is deeply satisfying to win a prize in front of a lot of people. But of course the medal Wilbur wins at the fair is not the point of the novel, which is about friendship, the seasons, and writing — to save a life. We writers are Charlotte, and illustrators, for that spinner was an artist, too. We spend a lot of time looking for the right word – maybe asking for help from our friends. Other writers have always been my first readers. After giving the members of my critique group my manuscript, I wait through those first sentences, which are kind, thoughtful, and usually sooner rather than later contain “but” … I grit my teeth, grumble in the car driving home, but I listen, and go on because the friends who find flaws also say we must and we can.
And in a workshop about how imagination can shape the past.
It was fun to meet old friends like Nancy Castaldo.
And meet new ones. I look forward to reading Leah Henderson’s first novel, One Shadow on the Wall, which comes out from Atheneum in June!
Writing is sometimes fun and sometimes tough. Sometimes the subjects pull you in, and sometimes you feel itchy and lonely. Always, I’m grateful for our community!
April 21, 2017
So many thanks to Sylvia Vardell for rounding up poets to celebrate the genre, Janet Wong for suggesting poetry to slip into summer reading, and my publisher, Simon and Schuster, for sending me to the Texas Library Association convention. I loved meeting poets whose work I love, and librarians, a few of whom, when I handed them my postcard, said, “Oh, I know you.” Meaning that maybe they catalogued some my work. But, yes, I say that, too about authors. The physical presence is a bonus.
Signing books meant the swiftest of conversations, but hearing about girls who loved science, and those who might need to know about Edmonia Lewis, was a thrill.
It was pure joy to hear people reading our work. At the Poetry Roundup, here is Janet Wong, Amalia Ortiz, Janice N. Harrington, Tamera Will Wissinger, K.A. Holt, me, Helen Frost, Allan Wolf, and Sylvia Vardell.
Occasionally I got to glimpse the San Antonio skyline.
Lots of good words came and went, but I’ll try to remember answering the question, “What are you doing these days?”
“I’m writing something that’s probably impossible.”
“That sounds like what you’re supposed to do.”
April 18, 2017
I guess the surprise would have been if I loved A Quiet Passion, the movie about Emily Dickinson as played by Cynthia Nixon. All readers have their own views of who the poet was, since part of the beauty of her poems are how wide open they are to interpretation, and many accounts of her life are shaped in part by speculation. There were parts of the movie I liked, but it seemed stilted, neither a narrative nor a documentary but trying to be a play, and I felt as if the effort was to show the opposite of the upbeat Emily we find in The Belle of Amherst. Surely, there was a woman between that often-cheery one and the embittered woman shown in A Quiet Passion.
Emily Dickinson’s life was hard in many ways, and I’m sure there were times when she was sad and angry. She was often ill, and of course pain leaves a hard mark. But I don’t believe resentment was the major arc or mood. She must have sometimes been lonely, but the film never shows her enjoying the garden or conservatory her father had built for her. We don’t see her listening to birds or children, or chatting with the servants. She was intelligent, and understood that staying in her father’s house meant she’d have to give up much, but what she kept was her freedom to write.
We do see her at her desk, but only in the younger woman do we really see the passion she had for language. She wrote about 1800 of poems, and I have to think she felt proud and satisfied with the wonders she created, satisfied with expressions from her soul.
After we left the theater, I talked with my friend Ann, a retired first grade teacher, about what I thought was missing in the movie.
“I remember you telling me long ago about how you wrote as child, at recess, and outside, and in bed,” Ann said. “That you felt you had to write. After that I noticed more how some kids walked around with books. Some held toys. And some carried pencil and paper and just wanted to be writing. I tried not to get in their way.”
What we don’t see in the movie is the Emily Dickinson who wrote on the backs of envelopes, corners of newspapers, or chocolate wrappers in the kitchen or in the garden, tucking scraps of paper into the pocket of her white dress, and sometimes reciting aloud.
Dan Chiassan writes in The New Yorker: “She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it… In the 1850 national census, Dickinson listed her occupation as “keeping house”; the scraps might have kept her as she did so. … the “still—Volcano—Life” she describes as ever churning under her daily rounds.”
April 4, 2017
Sometimes it’s good to read about issues other writers face, and how they find ways out. There are no tricks, no clear path, and rules have limits, which award winning author John Casey discusses in essays with origins as craft talk given at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. He quotes Edward Gibbons, when at the beginning of volume 7 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he recounts some treatises on strategy, but notes, “The discipline of a soldier is formed by exercise rather than by study; the battles won by lessons of tactics may be numbered with the epic poems created from the rules of criticism.”
We should learn rules, but realize that turning them around may yield much the same. In the first chapter, John Casey takes on some tried and sometimes true writing advice and notes what most works for him. For instance, he examines the good of writing what one knows, but its trap of nostalgia. He mentions that his major work as a writing teacher is not to correct work, but to show students what you see in it. He reports a story that Katherine Anne Porter taught simply by reading students back their work to them. He speaks of being a student in the MFA program at Iowa in the 1960’s, when a requirement for writers was to take a course in another art: learn an instrument, take a life drawing class, or work on a soundless movie. He thinks part of the reason for this was to learn to isolate the elements of the art, in a way that can be hard to do with writing, which may feel too familiar. Metaphors of process can be drawn from other arts.
I particularly liked the chapter in Beyond the First Draft called “Things,” which considers how setting plays a part in plot and how to decide what should be revealed when. A novel set in the past may include habits or work unfamiliar to most, so decisions must be made about when explanations or exposition is given. We might think to give it at the outset, but John Casey advises best to wait until it matters most. He offers the case on instruction on rock climbing given at Outward Bound Schools. Often the instructor says little until someone is halfway up a cliff. “At that point, most people are all ears.”
February 24, 2017
Other than tasks related to snow and shovel or leash and dog, for the past week or two, I’ve been fairly free to write. Being immersed is great, except when it’s not. A lot of time for writing means a lot of time tripping over obstacles and insecurities, not to mention some boredom facing the page. I love my characters, but they don’t keep me entertained every minute. I’ve devoted a lot of the past two years to my present work, which not a soul has seen. Most of the research is done, I’ve written a pretty complete draft, and the structure seems steady, so I’m at the point where I’m taking out words, which puts me in mild panic: What will I have left? So much is messy. Can any of this really turn into poems?
Trust the process, I tell myself, which is tough when the process is long. The process is easier to trust when there’s gliding. But chopping is what needs to be done, so I breathe. I think of my yoga teacher telling us, while we stand swaying one leg, like trees in the wind, that wobbling is work, too. Wobbling can make us stronger.
I wrote that I tell myself to trust the process, but those words seemed to drift into my fidgety and snarly self. No one stepped forth to lecture. I’m not sure they’re words I’ve ever said aloud, though they’re familiar. I could mock the idea of trust, call it hokey, swat it aside, but it’s wiser to bow my head and put out my hands as if someone tiptoed in with a hot cup of tea.
It’s one thing to admire the writing process from a distance, say one we call the end. But when you’ve just spent days building a small monster you have to cut down, it’s hard to be mellow. Writing is a motion with rhythm. While we sometimes need drive, the work isn’t going to happen all at one speed. Self forgiveness is as important as discipline. I can imagine a beautiful goal, but I have to wade through lots of doubt and wrong turns to get close.For all the years I’ve been writing, I can forget that for every good sentence I have to write half a dozen bad ones, and another eight that are mediocre. In no particular order.Sometimes we must let up, and welcome – so patiently! – the thoughts that come in the silences we leave.
I grew up thinking of trust as a steady force or light, but trust can be bumpy. Trust is there as we tip the balance between setting high standards and forgiving our lapses, finding a place between shiny possibilities and what we can manage with words. The math is simple. The more time we spend writing, the more time we spend messing up. I’ll stick with Trust the process as my motto, my mantra, my companion, and remember that neither trust nor writing is ever easy for long. It’s okay. Complaining is part of the process, too, and helpful — so, my writer friends, feel free to share your own struggles in the comments. We moan a bit and go on into the work which we’re so privileged and sometimes even happy to do.
February 14, 2017
Nature can heal. Sometimes we need a break from information coming at us, or the practical needs of life. In the foreword to Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animal with animals. … One way to stop seeing trees, or river, or hills only as ‘natural resources,’ is to class them as fellow beings – kinfolk.”
“Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both sense of the of the word ‘for.’… So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.”
February 7, 2017
I can remember back when the Internet could first enter our home and news of the world became available for me to glimpse near the keyboard. I was used to those rows of letters as a quiet place where I could be close to the people I was writing about. The pictures shimmering above it came from my mind. I resisted trading in my typewriter and having that intimate world and the one beyond my walls come together, but gave in. Much good has come of that. Being in touch with people far away eases the loneliness of writing. But it’s also a big distraction. Like many people these days, I’m finding it hard to keep myself from checking in to see what new disaster for the earth or its inhabitants we need to contend with not only this day, but this morning. Some days it seems bad news come around every few hours.
I want to be informed, but I also have books to write. I struggle to keep the focus we practice in yoga to keep us balanced, even though I’m a wobbly tree. And sometimes I go out to talk about books. This weekend I launched Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis with a room filled with wonderful people at The Odyssey Bookshop. Many thanks to Ann, Joan, and everyone who came! It was a privilege to talk about a girl who in 1863 had a hard time finding a place in a school where she was admitted, but not entirely welcomed, who faced prejudice and survived violence to move to Rome and spend months and years hammering out faces and bodies from broken stone. She took her pain and carved out something beautiful.
My book is written, but Edmonia Lewis stays with me as a presence near my laptop. She watches as I call forth another amazing and overlooked woman. I find some focus here, not exactly meditating, not exactly channeling, but I wouldn’t call it plain old writing either, as I softly call these women and gently try to briefly enter their spirits, as if they were gauzy clothing. Perhaps particularly with Edmonia Lewis, a novel in verse meant for teenagers and up, readers will find disturbing scenes, but I hope they join this amazing sculptor as she finds ways to both accept and transcend what she was given. We may have been taught to see joy and pain as opposites, but often they come together. Much needs to be broken before we can know what’s whole.
Edmonia Lewis split stone, then filed and polished, aiming for an ideal. Ekua Holmes, who illustrated the cover of Stone Mirrors, worked in collage, putting torn paper together to make something lovely. Poets work with broken lines, perhaps for emphasis or the power of pause or what poet Jane Hirshfield calls “a little Sabbath.” Writing can make something new from what was neglected or broken. In a New Yorker article called “Poetry in a Time of Protest,” Edwidge Danticat writes, “Trump’s speech was dark, rancorous, unnuanced. Afterward, I wanted to fall into a poet’s carefully crafted, insightful, and at times elegiac words.” I love the gaps and stretch of nuance, the way they invite our own answers. I don’t know if poetry or other sorts of beauty can save us, but we need its reminder of better places, and the tender effort of moving toward shine and hope.