Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 29, 2017

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante

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.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 28, 2017

Joy at the NE-SCBWI Conference

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.

I enjoyed being on a panel called Lying About History with Burleigh Muten and Jane Yolen, moderated by Heidi Stemple.


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!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 21, 2017

Poetry at TLA

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.

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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.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 18, 2017

Emily Dickinson and A Quiet Passion

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.”


Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 4, 2017

Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey

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.”

beyond the first draft pbk layout 2.indd

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.”

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!

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