Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 31, 2010

Listening for the Song

I’m working, as usual, on a manuscript inspired by and dependent upon history, so I’ve collected lots of facts and sorted them into what’s interesting, what gets in the way, what’s interesting but gets in the way, and what order will make sense to readers. Then I pare down, keeping to some chronology, orderly as someone laying bricks. And when I get facts lined up, they seem to have bricks’ weight.

I remind myself then that the point isn’t the walkway, but making a place to look at the sky. Bricks and mortar are necessary, but for a book that wants song as well as a story, there comes a time to put down the tools and call in the ghosts, or if you prefer to call them imagination. It’s time to play with the broken bits of bricks, slosh around the mortar, and let colors or textures remind me of one moment I can hold up to another.

Holding up the broken pieces can take a long time. We might sift through hundreds before finding the right one. They get heavy. They look stupid. The whole project starts looking stupid. This is a time when doubt creeps in, away from the steady brick laying, when I can get nostalgic even for boredom. When we’re purposefully looking to the side, not on the lookout. When we wonder what’s taking us so long, and by the way, why haven’t we heard from that editor about our last piece.

But what might make everything come alive usually comes from rubble, past the ghosts and lack of hope. Perhaps a slight or temporary break from realism or an offbeat angle makes you and everyone else see something in a new way. An impossibly placed ear of a dog. An out of character remark. The odd sound of a window or sunset at the wrong time of day. Look. Then look away.

For the roundup of Poetry Friday posts, please visit Carol’s Corner. 

And happy new year!



  1. I love this post so much.

  2. Look. Then look away.
    Happy New Year, Jeannine! You teach me so much by your example.

  3. I think it is fate that I turned on my computer and found this post awaiting me. I’m starting a new project as well — one that is dependent on research (a first for me). I am struggling with how much research is enough to make the story feel authentic, and when is it just time to write. I’m taking this post as a sign….it’s time to write…

  4. LOVE this line: “there comes a time to put down the tools and call in the ghosts” – so true!

  5. Insightful post. Thanks!

  6. What a great post! (Especially as I’m standing around with blocks, feeling stupid in my revision–that’s a great image). Happy New Year to you, too!

  7. Thanks, Cindy. Have a happy new year!

  8. Melodye, what a sweet thing to say. Best wishes for your new year, too!

  9. Laurie, I’m happy to stand in for fate and send signs, though it sounds like this was just a nudge: you know you’re ready to write. Research is always there and you can come back to it, but I find it can be not only useful, but you feel it when you’re using it to procrastinate. Write, stumble, get things messy. It’s a whole new year! Good luck!

  10. Thank you for stopping by!

  11. Thanks, Barbara, and have a new year of peace and good writing!

  12. Throw down those bricks, Rose! Look around in the crumble and chips! And have a great new year!

  13. from Laura @AuthorAmok
    Hi, Jeannine. My friend Ann Bracken wrote an essay for our upcoming Maryland Writers poetry anthology on this subject. She says that poet David Whyte calls it the half-turn of the face — looking at things a bit askew and finding poetry there.
    Have a wonderful New Year, my friend!

  14. “I remind myself then that the point isn’t the walkway, but making a place to look at the sky.”
    Thank you.
    Wishing you a wonderful 2011 filled with love, laughter, and just the right amount of bricks, mortar, and song.

  15. “Making a place to look at the sky and holding up the broken pieces…”
    Oh my.
    This goes right along with what I have been reading of late, of the importance in my life to learn to be still.

  16. “I remind myself then that the point isn’t the walkway, but making a place to look at the sky.” These words, for me, today, are about the work I do as a classroom teacher in this Age of Testing. The Test wants the smooth walkway…I want kids to look up at the sky.
    (great picture of the real-not-metaphorical sky, btw!!)

  17. Re: from Laura @AuthorAmok
    Oh, I’ll have to read that essay! Thanks, Laura.
    And I hope you have a wonderful year of poetry, books, and children.

  18. Thank you dear Tracy! Sending those good wishes right back to you.

  19. Now that your house is so beautiful, is it back to more words in 2011? Readers are waiting to see what comes out of your stillness.

  20. Mary Lee what an amazing balancing act I’m sure you achieve with many lucky children. We all thank you for that. Best wishes for another year of reading!

  21. It is back to more words, indeed. If I can get past the giant mountain of self-doubt that appears to have taken up residence in my life.
    Thank you for the kind thoughts.

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