Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 27, 2012

What Really Matters

I recently read a novel in manuscript and found so much that was good: the characters, the plot, the sentences. But I felt something small but essential missing. A crack in the purpose of the journey. I told my friend that I liked the places her character went to, but I wasn’t deep-down sure why was it being taken.

A few weeks later, she wrote me back to tell me that she figured out the missing essence. Her answer was simple, but it gave me chills. I know now her characters may lift off the page.

The feelings that bring a character alive can sometimes be right in front of us. Or under our skin. Speaking recently to a group about BORROWED NAMES, I was asked why I chose the title. I explained how Sarah Breedlove, who grew up calling the white women she worked for Ma’am while they called her Sarah, claimed the name Madam before the name she took when married. Rose Wilder Lane also changed her last name when she married, and she kept it after divorce. Marie Curie, who hated publicity about her personal life and knew the radium she studied might be endangering her health, wanted to keep her name out of newspapers, so when going to hospitals registered under her mother’s or sister’s name.  There was a lot of hiding, changing and borrowing, but a listener in the audience pointed out, “And you borrowed your own feelings and put them into the women.”

Yes, we borrow from our characters, and take from our selves, when writing poetry or fiction. Sometimes a feeling missing from our work is right in front of us, clear as a shadow, and perhaps also that inexact. But some of what makes us grieve, hurt, or celebrate does and can go into the writing to deepen, elevate, or point a way through a story that’s never just one person’s story, but the reader’s, the writer’s, and those imagined on the page.




  1. Oh, thank you, this came at just the right time.

    • I’m happy I said something you need to hear, Jen. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. Oh, boy. I hadn’t put it together about Sarah Breedlove and Madam. Talk about chills.

  3. And you borrowed your own feelings and put them into the women.

    Chills right there for me, Jeannine. It sounds so simple, but it’s some of the most delicate and demanding work we do.

    • I can still see the woman who said that to me. Trying to create webs as we pass threads back and forth, not just tangles.

  4. “The feelings that bring a character alive can sometimes be right in front of us.” I like this, and the paragraph that follows. It’s really something important to ponder. I have enjoyed your posts a lot!

  5. Linda, thank you for your kind and reading and comments!

  6. I love this, Jeannine. Yesterday, I was reading through my last year’s poetry diary. Mostly total dreck. But some poems in there hit me in the face and I have to go back and DO something with them. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize what we’ve put into something until we really have some distance from it. I know this isn’t exactly what your post is about (sorry), but the thing your listener said made me think of this. How we borrow and don’t even realize the power we’re infusing our writing with. Of course, sometimes it’s just crap:>) I’ve added this new feed to my Reader. Someday, I will figure out how to catch up on blogs more…

    • Laura, I think that’s an excellent way to proceed: reading through the old, and what stands out and maybe even knocks you over, there’s something to work with. I’m a big believer in putting things aside and finding clarity comes with time. Then it’s a matter of taking those shiny things and handling them delicately, as Amy says above, finding a place for them in a poem.

      I smiled when you wrote and apologized that this isn’t exactly what my post is about. I don’t know what it’s about either. Just glad it helped with your thinking!

      And I’m sending many wishes for strength and peace to you and your family over these hard days.

  7. “The feelings that bring a character alive can sometimes be right in front of us. Or under our skin.”
    Thank you for this post, Jeannine! I am working on some revision and trying to find that small essential. and I love what your audience woman pointed out about borrowing.
    I’m going to do some digging and borrowing today.

    • Susan, I hope you had good luck with digging and borrowing!

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