Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 6, 2013

Writing through Hesitations to Certainty (Or Close Enough)

I don’t think many writers would suggest this is a profession for the timid. We’ve got to set up sentences and stand by them. We may look as if we’re the sort of people who can’t be pushed around, but we have to be off the ground before we find sure footing, maybe off track to appreciate the one we finally make. Inspiration makes as many traps as footholds. While I shuttle between excitement and fear about a new path, my muse gets distracted, craving too much salt or sugar. It’s hard to settle down.

In The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo writes, “To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance – not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next word you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there.” We follow the mind’s inclinations, even when they first seem random, trust change to reveal connections that seem permanent.

While a sentence may look like it stood as long as a mountain, and never have been written any other way, we can remember the sprawling or skimpy strands of words, the rehearsals with syntax, that went into its making. A sentence may look as inevitable as the shape of a life does when looking back, but look deeper, and we recall the mire of opportunities, setbacks, decisions, and whims that went into its making. We take one sure step, the next tentative, but within that hesitation we may find our best prizes. We first imagine, then impose.

Maybe we look particularly arrogant when we slip through the details of history to bring back a voice from the past. I do such work with what I consider humility, feeling respect for what I find and a sense that this work carries a great chance of error.  But when has it not been so? I loved reading this from poet Eleanor Wilner: “I am in the habit of saying, when people wonder about the chutzpah of revising biblical stories, that they should imagine the chutzpah it took to write them in the first place.” Before paper and screens, stories were passed along by mouths, and literary sorts would step in with their own renditions of, say, a girl who lost her glass slipper or animals lining up two by two before an ark. Sources that seem certain to some are a puzzle to others. Scholars still unwind strands of what has been published as the Bible, the Torah, the Old Testament and other titles, trying to figure out who first wrote down what from a panoply of sources. Stories about Adam, Eve, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and others have long inspired poets and fiction writers, including those in the present day such as Sena Naslund, Anita Diamant, and Alicia Ostriker. Some see ancient stories as invitations, not lectures, a beginning and a place to stand together, not an end or spot to sit alone. And for me, history holds a similar poetry, presenting holes and questions as much as facts. History bends, depending on where one stands when looking. I try to leave pictures of how something once leaned toward me or whispered, what was pure chance, a narrow escape, a glance at just the right time, and make a frame with a hint that it could crack.



  1. You are beyond amazing, your every post a gift.

  2. Love this! I approach historical figures with a great sense of responsibility. If I am to write about them or [gasp!] speak in what I perceive is their voice, I need to make damn well sure I have done my homework! I have to be able to lay down a logical case that will make the reader believe this voice is authentic. Yet all that laying down of logic must be done indirectly so as not to step out and slap the reader who merely wishes to read a good story.

    Jeannine, be sure and read my post on http://www.louisamayalcottismypassion which will post Sunday morning. I have a surprise to share. 🙂 I bet you already know what it is …

    • I agree to approach with a great sense of responsibility and do tons of homework, and think we do have to be ready to forgive ourselves as we forgive others because history shows us things do get left out, and visions change over time.

      One of my favorite novelists for children, Katherine Paterson, said something to the effect that a historical fiction writer can know she’s done when the history no longer shows.

      I will be sure to read your post. I smiled at the teaser at the end of the current one, with its lovely review of an event I wish I’d heard. But I am terrible at guessing! Looking forward to it.

  3. My sentences here are pretty flimsy, but I am thrilled you mentioned a writer I don’t know–Richard Hugo. His book is at the top of my list. And that quote about being nice? Hilarious and so true!

    I am actually working on a straight-forward nonfiction book for young kids–in my research are holes (the good kind) that bring up questions of ethics and values. My sentences in that text will be simple and sturdy, but I hope the little gaps, the ones that make kids question, shine through.

    • If there’s anyone who’s triggered by towns, or old houses and neglected yards, that person is you. Especially the first two essays in this slim book are so full of wisdom that I had to restrain myself from quoting a sentence from each paragraph. It’s a book I enjoy going back to, and he mentions inspiration from what’s half-known. I’ll look forward to reading your book myself. Sounds like prose like a fence in which we get to peer between the slats.

  4. Beautiful post Jeannine! xo

  5. I sure hope this is going into your book on writing/how to write/the writing life. It’s such a wonderful gift.

    • Thanks for remembering that I’m working on such a thing, Kelly. It gets pushed back, but I’m at it again. And thanks also for the kind words. I do mean to include some of this, though not the quotes, as I don’t want to worry about rights, which I don’t worry, perhaps wrongly, about here, for I assume the links give proper credit. I do love to think people will enjoy books that have meant a lot to me, and offering a smidge is a way I hope to tease them forward.

      I’m glad you’re back at your blog in 2013, offering so many delicious bites of words.

  6. So many delicious thoughts here, savory and sweet. I’m going to bookmark this page so I can enjoy it again (and again…).

    Think about coming to our yoga & writing retreat next spring…Maybe you’d like to lead a writing session (or several)? xoxo

    • Thank you, Melodye. And your retreat sounds lovely — we shall be in touch!

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