Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 30, 2014

Metaphors by the Road

“Walking is often the encountering of the world of things, not only ‘out there,’ but for some odd reason ‘in here,’ as each step releases examples and thingamajigs – apples and wheelbarrows, plots and transitions … Altogether thinking with things is so much richer than without them.” – Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk

My daily trips around the neighborhood are usually inspired by my dog, who lies patiently until I head near the door, then scrambles up, all panting and glee. “Walk! Walk! Walk!” I follow, as Martha Ronk suggests, thinking about apples and plots, while my companion sniffs bushes, or lifts his nose to any canine or human passerby who seems to admire him.


In her collection of poems and some elegant prose, Martha Ronk explores the sense of life we may find in things we call inanimate. As children, we read poems about flowers that sing and trees that dance; many of us believed that toys came alive at night. We’re eventually taught to drop this notion, and call it pretending or personification, leaving talking stars to poetry, which we’re told not to trust too much. But some of us quietly read not just words, but things, and expressions, and things we find along our way. The world is full of clues about its, or should we say her or his, meaning. Birds, frogs, snails, or rocks can hint at good ways to be. Things turn into something else, just as early in the month, flowers bloomed on milkweed, which is now yellow with pods that will soon burst to release silky puffs that many children see as beds for elves. Why not?


Metaphors often begin by finding some meaning hidden in the tangible, then pointing out a link between something small and seen and something grand and invisible. They’re reminders of how two different things may meet and both change, like people whose happiness grows bigger as they turn to friends. Sometimes we use “as” or “like” to forge the link, like a button. These similes may feel snug, while metaphors give us more of a spin.


A leaf or plant doesn’t mean just one thing, but bristles with all aspects of maybe. The world, like a sentence, isn’t a puzzle. Still, who believes that the world is something we’re supposed to entirely understand? We’re lucky to live where magic and science mingle, like asters, goldenrod, and milkweed. And if science and magic aren’t always crazy about each other, surely they at least get along.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 26, 2014

Happy Imperfection

My husband has been enjoying taking pottery classes with Tiffany Hilton, and I recently visited her studio for an open house to watch them spin clay into something useful and beautiful. I admired many cups, teapots, plates, and bowls on Tiffany’s shelves, like those in the photo below, but she humbly said, “I always see some little thing that I could have done differently that makes me want to make the next piece.”


Beauty is like that. It can almost always be different. We have to learn to see both what’s graceful in our work, and the way it could take another shape. We can learn to see the gap between what is and what could be and not be bothered by our choice, but move forward. Experiment some more.

In the introduction to Ask Me: 100 Essential PoemsKim Stafford quotes his father as saying, “I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.” William Stafford wrote every day before dawn and published fifty books in his lifetime. In “You Reading This, Be Ready,” he wrote: “What can anyone give you greater than now, /starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?” His poems are beloved for what he saw, which might be so common that people can and did say, “I could write that.” And he encouraged everyone to write what they saw, too, which might always be changing. So we keep going, trying and beautifully failing to get it right.


And here’s Peter’s work from the evening: twelve bowls to be glazed, fired, then filled with soup to benefit the Amherst Survival Center.

09-19-14 twelve bowls made at TIffany's request for charity thing2 crop sm

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Laura Purdie Salas, at Writing the World for Kids.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 23, 2014

This, That, and Transitions

I’m not entirely ready to say good-bye to summer, but the calendar turned, my yoga teacher said that the planets did something or other at about 10:29 last night, challah is being savored in some homes, and my socks and fingerless gloves are out. The apples are crisp and roadsides colorful with purple asters and pumpkins lolling in fields or lined up at farm stands. I’ve spent much of late summer tending to small things. I researched (i.e. read with a quick page-flipping beat) a lot for a short picture book set in ancient China. I researched-read more for a still-smaller poem. I pulled together an essay about history I started a year or two ago. I steeled myself and wrote queries about manuscripts sitting too long. I gasped at an editorial email I received without a “but” in the praise, and now I’m waiting for a phone date to discuss this, while busy with semi-denial and don’t-jinx-this thoughts, though trying, as always, to keep hope in a steady place.

Now it’s time to go back to my novel, where I spent warm days circling back and through five chapters. The weave of those chapters has gotten sturdier. I know the setting, the characters, the problem and a bunch of other stray things, and I do mean stray. As I opened my folder again, I sighed, in that good way, as if I were about to pull up warm covers. Or walking into the Jones Library with plenty of money in the meter. Then I started to think about all the other things I could do. Never mind errands, but I did have an idea for another essay, which shouldn’t take me a year. And I have another picture book that needs just a bit of work. Where was the resistance to a novel whose characters I like coming from?

Some stalling comes when stepping back into a big project. And really, who likes transitions? Even heading somewhere great, we may feel we’re leaving a comfortable place. Just the thought of change can leave me feeling tired. Even the idea of pleasure can get in the way. Some of us don’t wear a favorite sweater because we don’t want to spill something on it. We may not open the pricey ice cream because that means it will soon be gone. We put off calling friends, or don’t see an enticing movie because of the small effort to pick up the phone or get in a car. We miss enjoying fall because our mind turns to March ice.

This is age, laziness, fear, and sticking with habits. I have to turn my manuscript back to habit. Sometimes it’s good to take it slow, but while I often choose a gentle pace, in this case I’m all for the just jumping into the water. Whip open that notebook. Getting in slowly gives me too much time for nagging fears and a sense of worthlessness to rise, and honestly who needs those? Moving straight into a project, otherwise known as the big unknown, can be one reason why people like classes or workshops with prompts, when the instructor gives a few words and perhaps sets a stopwatch or alarm clock. You can burst past the pesky quibbles and rush into something that might or might not be great, but will be something. Yay for something over nothing. Give yourself a cheer.


I’m not quite able to set an alarm on my desk and murmur ready-set-go, but I do have my tricks. One part of me has to give the other a push, which I do by asking myself to organize those stray things. Putting them in folders develops some new ideas. The clutter grows, but that’s what is supposed to happen now. Lines sweep out in every direction, there for me to pluck and trim, and I find myself immersed again. Lo and behold, peeking from under a new sentence, there’s my excitement or her dowdier but important sister, commitment. My work again becomes the warm blanket, the stroll into the library where I’ll see shiny new books and old friends. I’ll take my tea hot now with spices. And admire the Monarch butterflies stopping on asters as they fly south.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 20, 2014

Amherst Poetry Festival

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.

burleigh1 tweaked

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.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 16, 2014

Choosing a Point of View

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.

09-15-14 Jeannine (in pink) doing yoga class on top of Mt. Sugarloaf3 crop

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?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 10, 2014

Why We Don’t Write

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.



Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 5, 2014

A Long Way to Line Breaks

“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.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | 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. 


Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 28, 2014

Still Beginning

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.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 16, 2014

First Drafts: Embracing Messiness

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.


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