Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 24, 2017

Trusting the (Bumpy) Writing Process

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.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 14, 2017

Animals, Trees, and Stones

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.”




Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 7, 2017

Broken and Whole

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.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 3, 2017

Inspiration in Winter  


The poets got to the woods before me.


My dog chewed on sticks while I took the photos. We were both happy.

This afternoon I’ll back cookies for the launch of Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis tomorrow, Feb. 4 at 4 p.m. at The Odyssey Bookshop.

Thank you to The Daily Hampshire Gazette for the kind review.

I’m also delighted for the interview about Stone Mirrors and the creative process over at Today’s Little Ditty, with pictures of Edmonia Lewis’s artwork and a long-ago photo of me with my sister and our beloved Grandmère. I offer an exercise in using personification, something I explored for this book, and there’s a chance to win a copy of Stone Mirrors.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 26, 2017

Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis

Book Page is one of my favorite places to add to my reading list, so it was a thrill to see their review of Stone Mirrors. And interesting to note I wrote four score poems. I hadn’t counted.


I’m also thankful for other reviews, including from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Written with sensitivity and grace, this compelling title of injustice and vindication will leave readers pondering the complicated relationship between pain and art.” And at Book Links, I talk about one of my biggest surprises while writing, in a piece that includes other poets with diverse work coming out this year.

I’ll have more to say about Stone Mirrors at its launch at the wonderful Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA Saturday February 4 at 4 p.m. I’ll talk about the ways I blend history and imagination and show slides of Edmonia Lewis’s work.


And friends near Boston — where Edmonia became a sculptor –I’m excited to also be reading, talking about the inspirations of anger and love, and slide-showing at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA on Sunday March 12 at 3:00 p.m.

It’s good to spend some time with people of the past who’ve struggled and triumphed. But there are books, and there’s the world, which seems to change every day now, sometimes every hour. I was inspired seeing pictures of loved ones at the Women’s March, resisting and rising and refusing to be pushed backwards. I expect I’ll be on the street sometime, but right now I most need to bend over my work at home. One of many things I felt in November is that the women in history I write about matter as much now as they did long ago. The struggles of women and others who are treated with disrespect are far from over.

We’ve heard that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Though it seems that even those who faithfully study the past may repeat it, too.. As I wrote about Edmonia Lewis making her way as the first person of color to achieve international recognition of a sculptor, I know that women still must fight to earn places in universities, galleries, and museums. Just a few years ago the intrepid researchers who call themselves the Guerilla Girls found that only about 4 percent of paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art were done by women. (Recently the Metropolitan added two works by Edmonia Lewis – steps! And hurrah for the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, which owns eight of her works. Here is one of her tributes to Minnehaha and her father.


The Death of Cleopatra was seen by enormous crowds at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. It still amazes, but I like the way it’s displayed (bottom left) in an accessible way with other sculptures, even as it towers over some.


The Smithsonian Museum of American Art keeps some of their works in storage in clear cases rather than being shut away, so you can view them. Edmonia Lewis’s bust is of Anna Quincy Waterstone on the right.


But back to exclusion, which happens not just in art, but in science. While US Census Bureau statistics show a rise from 1970 when women in STEM fields was about 7 % to 23% in 1990, that’s pretty much where it’s leveled out for the past decades. As I discover girls and women who matter, and who I come to love, I can’t let them be. So I work word by word, fiercely, trying to show some of history that’s essentially been kicked aside.


I’m honored that Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science was included in some lovely lists celebrating 2016 books. Finding Wonders was named a Bulletin Blue Ribbon, CCBC Choices 2017, Booklist Lasting Connections, and one of the Best Poetry and Novels in Verse at the Nerdy Book Club. Many thanks to all of those who keep pushing forward books that might change lives – and their readers!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 15, 2016

Loving People of the Past

During the last class of my writing for children course, the students shared bear-shaped chocolates and wonderful final projects, and I answered some questions about what may come next. For twelve weeks we focused on craft, but now we squinted at what they might do with their work. I tried to sound casual about the time that publishing might take, but I’m afraid some were counting years with some alarm. I shifted the focus to what they could do to withstand rejection, which almost every writer experiences. Read Art and Fear and most importantly, stay in touch with each other, and form a writing group or pair up with partners. It’s important, I said, to meet in person or online partly to critique, but also to share the process of what happens when sending, or avoiding sending, writing into the world. Doubt can creep in, and it’s wise to have friends to help put uncertainty in its proper place. When you can’t rustle up your own confidence, good friends can remind you of your worth.

We can use a thin skin to write, but may want a thickening skin to publish. I did not mention that I started sending out Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, the book that’s coming out next month, so long ago that it was printed on computers that are historic and made its way through the post office, rather than in attachments. I was writing in an era of different dogs and a daughter still living under our roof, first in prose then in verse, draft after draft after draft. There were lots of revision and rejections before it landed on the desk of the right person at the right publishing house at the right time. What remained constant was my love for its subject – and that’s something I mentioned more than once to my students, too: write about people, real or imaginary, who you crave as company for a long time.


We don’t need to count the months or years of work, but to stay true to the fictional or real or in-between people who matter. Edmonia Lewis’s courage called to me when I read about her life and art fifteen or twenty years ago. In l862, she attended co-educational classes in Oberlin, where students of color could earn degrees for the first time, though perhaps not made entirely welcome. Some of what happened to Edmonia Lewis in one dormitory seemed close to the kinds of discrimination and violence sadly still familiar today. With enormous determination, she grieved, fought, and moved past horrific acts to become a sculptor famous in her time. She was forgotten for decades, but brought back to attention largely by feminist and black art historians in the 1970’s. Now her work is displayed in museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which currently displays busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Smithsonian, which holds eight marble sculptures, including Dying Cleopatra.


There are gaps in the historical record, making her life seem a good subject for verse, since I could start with research and use empathy to fill in lost scenes. Poetry reminds us that questions are often as powerful as answers. I honor the word Maybe as much as fact. Writing about women I believe should be better known gives me a drive – I mean to get to the work and get it right – that I hope also propels a narrative. And there’s a deepening because of all the time it takes, going back again and again, that creates some lyric in the work, the imagery and rhythms. 

I studied Edmonia Lewis’s statues, asking what might have compelled her to choose her subjects. Some reflected the sculptor’s background and drive for social justice, and her best known works of Hagar and Cleopatra are powerful women who faced exile or its threat. Since Edmonia Lewis left little and conflicting records about her childhood with Ojibwe aunts in upstate New York, I researched the sorts of homes they might have lived in, the food they likely ate, and how they might have struggled to make their way. I read about the ways Oberlin College, its preparatory school, and the community dealt with integrated classes, and what it was like to live as a free person of color in Ohio during the Civil War, then afterward, in Boston and Rome. I read about the complexities of being biracial and the damage that racism wreaks. There’s a round of research, respect for a life and time that’s different, but never entirely so, and remembering feelings we might have in common.

At last I got my author copies! Here I show it with flap copy I got to write as a poem.


I’m grateful for starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, which says, “How this brave, driven young woman overcame prejudice and trauma to pursue her artistic calling to the highest level . . . is a story that warrants such artful retelling.” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books writes: “Written with sensitivity and grace, this compelling title of injustice and vindication will leave readers pondering the complicated relationship between pain and art.” Stone Mirrors is not an easy read, but I hope Edmonia Lewis will  show readers one amazing way of moving forward. Knowing history can make us stronger.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 5, 2016

Finding the End of a Book

I’m the sort of writer who lets lots of words, ideas, and pages sprawl, then sweeps a great deal aside to find a center. I often quote E.L. Doctorow on how writing is like driving in the dark: you just need to see just as far ahead as your headlights. But I add that I don’t generally drive without knowing where I’m going. For the novel I just completed, even while I was writing sloppy or exploratory drafts of early chapters, I was writing a similar messy draft of the ending. I had a vision, and while the particulars changed, the characters and general action of the last scene stayed the same up to my last draft.

But like the perfect beginning, endings are hard. Writing poems is good practice for how to open a door and how to shut it — or should you leave it a little ajar? My students just wrote picture books with interesting characters and reasonably steady arcs, but some endings left me feeling “Oh.” instead of “Ohhhhhh.”

How do we reach a good ending? The answer seems partly tied up to the depth of what’s happened along the way. Some good picture books can move along on one idea, but I think most of the best have layers, and we get a sense of them coming together on the final page or two.


Author Jill Esbaum recently pointed some of us toward an interesting article about how the megahit Frozen left the small audience at an early screening wiggling and clearing their throats. People cheered for the characters, humor, and some songs, but something was off. Discussions ensued about how to find and fix it. Could what was lacking be hidden in an ending that fell flat? Apparently the two sisters in the early version of the film had clashed throughout, though neither gave anyone much to root for, and at the end the change was about a lesson learned that didn’t evolve from their relationship. You can read the article to see how the writers explored layers in themselves, asking themselves their own hard questions about sisterhood, kindness, and the hazards of perfectionism to create more believable characters and an unforgettable conclusion.

The way to the good ending may be through writing lots of drafts, perhaps adding a new layer with each one, including those we take away. I just read an essay by Arthur Miller in which the playwright said that all anyone needed to know about tragedy is the story of Jesus. He noted that had the great man’s life just ended on the cross, it wouldn’t be so much. What makes it powerful is Jesus then asking God why he’d been forsaken. Miller points out that not only do we need that line of dialogue, but we need just that single line. Had Jesus gone on to say other things he thought and felt, it would have been too much.

How do we know what to put in and leave out? The best way I know is by trying lots of combinations. And asking, again and again, have I said yet what I really really want to say?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 25, 2016

Poetry Panels at NCTE

My day at the NCTE convention, bracketed by an evening and early morning hours, was bright with hopeful words and some happy hugs. On Saturday morning, I entered a room overflowing with people who wanted to hear ideas from some wise poets and teachers about Writing to Change the World. Irene Latham spoke about writing from the heart, which for her sometimes means, like the quilt-makers she admires, starting with images instead of words. I was deeply touched by her conversation about the courage we need to make mistakes bound to happen as we foster connections across divides. Sometimes fumbling is better than silence, she reminded us.


Amy Ludwig Van Derwater, who loves handing out poems, said, “When we write poems or read poems we connect and change,” and gently guided us through the process. Laura Shovan spoke about the need to trust oneself and others, and generously shared ways to make that happen by deepening conversations and writing. Tara Smith spoke of the value of poetry for becoming citizens of the world. She gave beautiful examples of the ways her students “unpack poems and lyrics” and “pull big ideas from small texts.” Margaret Simon spoke of her students as generally having been protected, and said that poetry, which can speak on different levels, can show some dangers, so they’ll have choices about how to act when their world becomes bigger and less safe.

All put an emphasis on hope, with Irene speaking about the deep history of racial clashing in her home of Alabama, but how that state also has a history of overcoming violence and misunderstanding, too. Margarita Engle said, “When two cultures meet they clash or they get married.” She mentioned that a deep bond might not be possible, but that we must at least try to seek ways to get along. “For every tyrant, we can find a nonviolent freedom leader.”


In another panel organized by Sylvia Vardell, Margarita Engle, Janet Wong, Patricia Hruby Powell, and I talked about verse novels and performing poetry. Since I’m more of a face-to-page person than performer, I thanked Sylvia for pushing me out of my comfort zone. It’s a small zone. Then I quoted Octavio Paz: “The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation, participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it.” Patricia Hruby Powell gave some background about the real people behind her verse novel, Loving Vs. Virginia. Margarita Engle also offered a look behind the people of her newest book, Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words. Sylvia Vardell arranged our works to be read in different voices by volunteers, and she and Janet Wong introduced us to the diverse group of young people in You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book. Sylvia and Janet make us laugh, think, and be glad we’re part of the warm world of poets for young people they do so much to nourish.


For a panel on the Magic and Wonders of Poetry, Leslie Bullion spoke about poetry and (juicy) science, with slides showing some fascinating creatures in gorgeous habitats. I spoke about ways that poetry and biography work happily together, boiling down research that takes a few years to a six minute summary. Nikki Grimes described the “Golden Shovel” method she used for the poems in her forthcoming One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. Like Nikki, Marilyn Singer recited poems with verve, and explained the genesis of the reverso technique she used in Mirror Mirror and Echo Echo, but I’m still in awe of those poems that gives different stories depending on where the reader begins.  r

Every writer and teacher inspired me in some way, during talks or in corridors or at tables. It was great to meet people from Simon and Schuster, who were so kind to support me to attend and so lovely in person. And let’s not forget the strangers, or, should we call them the people I’d not yet met. A few said some words to me that felt so generous and sustaining, and that I mean to hold close when times get tough.

Poetry reminds us that we may never know who our spoken or written words touch, but that every one matters. Poetry means connecting, and I’m grateful for the chance to do that in some interviews about researching and writing Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. Sylvia Vardell asked great questions and offers suggestions for ways to use the book in classes in the current Book Links.



In Finding Wonder in the Process, Doraine Bennett interviewed me about writing and research.

And Jules Danielson, lover of poetry and picture books (and other good things) asked more questions about how I select subjects and use metaphors for Kirkus Reviews.

Wishing you all a weekend with pie, books, dogs, family, memories, and all kinds of joy. For more Poetry Friday, please visit Carol’s Corner.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 3, 2016


Many of us are nervous about the election, watching too much news and eating too much stale candy corn. Happily, lots of trees are yellow and many days are warm. When our walk yesterday was postponed, my dog rested his big head on the windowsill and gazed out, reminding me that the world beyond my computer is waiting. And so we walked, breathing the slightly burnt scent of dried leaves. And one of us took a dip.


Sometimes I wait for a peaceful time to write. And sometimes I remember that peace comes when I write. I recently had a conversation with a woman who’s starting out as a writer and looking for answers about whether she has what it takes to add to books that children will want to read. Of course there isn’t an answer – you knew I’d say that, right? And isn’t that annoying. But the way toward writing a good book, or any book, is pretty much through the dark. We can’t know if anyone, at least beyond a few trusted friends – and they are a most excellent start – will want to read what we write. To keep going, we have to lean on our own desire to put the right words in the right order.

For me that has meant years, and I mean a lot of years, of writing without being published. Now Finding Wonders is just out and Stone Mirrors will be published in January. I couldn’t be more grateful. But back at my laptop, it’s still just me following a vague vision in my mind, trying to make the pieces clearer, and maybe even shine. Eventually the person I’m writing about joins me on the window seat, then on my walks. Her choosing to appear is my assurance, the only kind I might get for a long while, that what’s under my hands is slowly on its way to becoming a book.

But sometimes I leave my laptop and not just with dog treats in my pocket. Earlier this week, I was lucky to work with some of the high school students who rode busses and vans to Greenfield Community College to listen to, write, and read some poetry. The program was sponsored by the Massachusetts Poetry Organization as part of their mission to bring more poetry into communities. Yay!

I’m thrilled to have an essay in the current issue of The Horn Book called Saving Sisters: Sisterhood in Little Women, The Hunger Games, and Frozen.


And so happy that my first two reviews for Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, coming out in January, have stars! I lived with this book for about fifteen years, writing lots of drafts and collecting lots of rejections. Kirkus Reviews writes: “Atkins’ compressed verse evokes both the racial realities of the time, including violence, and the artistic process: A fascinating, tantalizing glimpse.” And Booklist says, “How this brave, driven young woman overcame prejudice and trauma to pursue her artistic calling to the highest level … is a story that warrants such artful retelling.”

It’s a good feeling to know the girls and women I’ve come to love are loved by others. And so I return to another woman who’s been part of history all along, but it’s time for her to step out of the shadows.

I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years, and this one moves straight to my most-recommended shelf, which only has room for books with strong (and often funny) voices, such as we find from Anne Lamott, Steven King, and Nancy Willard. Right on the first page, we’re in a coffee shop where people bend over laptops or narrow-lined notebooks, and “a woman with messy gray hair who’s at risk of spilling her coffee down your neck” as she strains to see your work.

Alice Mattison tells us that The Kite and the String is not for beginners who should just write. She has in mind people who’ve written seriously, whether or not published, “people who earn a living and manage friendships and love, who look after children or frail parents, or who are slowed by their own ill health.” And she makes excellent company. She tells us how she began writing poetry in the basement by the washing machine, publishing very little for years, and created habits that work for her. “I’ve been lucky but also fierce. Selfish. I learned to protect my writing time.” She writes that she wants to do other things besides write, and she does, but has learned to put writing ahead of other worthy considerations at times “even though we can’t be sure that what we write will be worth reading. It’s a gamble we have to make.”


Invention is at the core, which means, “We need the courage to waste time, even though we have so little of it.” We may work with and from intense feelings – and she suggests daring to find them is part of what takes time – and then shaping scenes using common sense and an awareness of how books are structured. “I needed abandon and control – a kite that takes off into the wind, … a string that lets if fly, but not so far it gets lost.”

I love what she has to say about writing stories or even novels not just as events that come to mind but as figures a speech. A novel may be an extended metaphor, or by using hyperbole, become a fantasy, for instance. She writes about the need for trouble in fiction, for authors to step back from protecting our characters. That baby crawling toward the broken honey jar? Don’t snatch her up. And we need to step thoroughly into each character, becoming them more than writing about them. But we’re also not to get stuck in their feelings, but write action, for “focusing too intently on psychology makes writers look back, not forward. … the expression of psychological complexity through – primarily – a series of actions is what makes fiction work. Characters do things.”

Decades of writing and reading stories, novels, and poems have taught her much, and she greets us as a practical and astonishingly generous companion. For instance, re finding critique partners, she suggests not just to stay away from readers who make you want to quit, but if asked about seeing new work: “If you can’t bear to say “Never!” … say, ‘Hmmm… I don’t really know.’ Then glace at your phone as if checking your calendar and shake your head slowly, in bafflement at your own unpredictable habits.” And she returns to that kite and string. “Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your own work.”

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