Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 24, 2013

Tugs that Carry Writers Through

Even if we don’t make claims about fairy dust or lightning bolts, the word inspiration may conjure something swift, flashy, and strong enough to push us toward paper. My books have begun with some aha-moments, but ideas –small, vital, and unspectacular-looking as seeds — seem minor within the scale of the work. What matters more is whether my intrigue turns into a sense of responsibility, a term I’m using not with its sense of chore, but more like that of a parent who may rue sleepless nights, but delights in a small child’s goofy smile or fuzzy hair. The connection deepens as one question gets answered, while more come up. A scene or image seems to reflect another, toppling both into motion. That’s when I know I have a book.

But I don’t always get that complicated pleasure. Some months ago I’d set aside a novel I was working on to revise another. Now that I’ve finished that and hit a “send” button, I can return to my set-aside book. But it hasn’t been calling me these past weeks, and it didn’t hum when I picked it up. There’s no tug to keep me at my desk with a sense that this is a story to be written and I’m the one to do that.

My life has changed some since I began the novel, my interests shifted. I began wanting the challenge of writing something different for me, and attempted the sort of fantasy I admire in the course I teach. Tucking some magic amid scenes set in everyday places was a goal that also came from having had books in a form I thought I did best being turned down. I wanted to write something that might sell, which isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t mean I can count on a sense of personal connection between me and a subject. I missed that. As a friend pointed out yesterday, I spend a lot of time at my desk and it’s natural to want the people I find there to be welcoming. Karen said, “You don’t write magic because you find the ordinary world to be magical.”

Those kind words soothe my sense of letting go of about a hundred pages. I’m also comforted by having had a new tug enter my life this past week, a pull back to science, biography, and poetry, three words that won’t make many editors’ heart go pitter-pat.  But it’s my own heart that keeps me alive.

Is a promise of connection between author and subject necessary for a good book? Do readers need to find traces of the creator in books or art, sometimes put in deliberately, sometimes not, but perhaps as inevitable as the shapes of sentences or the habitual angle and pressure of a painter’s brushstrokes? I don’t know, but I think it’s necessary for me. As I work on a good day (which still doesn’t mean it’s one without sighs and over-checking e-mail), the tug between me and my newborn creation fades in and out, but what’s lovely is when the tug eventually seems less from my side and more from words I set on my screen. Is this like a potter paying attention to the feel of clay under his hands, the force of a spin that his feet pumping the wheel have set in motion? Is it like a singer struggling to make her voice match the music she means it to be? Maybe some paintings aren’t complete until just the right trace of the artist’s eyes and hands blend with the subject. That sense of being with work that speaks to me as much as I speak to it may be the transformation William Butler Yeats imagined when he wrote “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

For Poetry Friday posts please visit Jama, (where you’ll also find a recipe for delicious-looking mango bread).




  1. Oh, how I know that feeling, that the book I was so excited about, took feverish notes, did research, character sketches, wrote scenes, has somehow left me. Sometimes a book that I’ve set aside becomes quite different when I pick it up again–and needed to be. But what do we do with those books that don’t make it? Box them up? A writer, John O’Hara maybe, said once, If a book is dead then let it stay dead. But I still keep all the notes and excited journal entries. Maybe one day . . .

    • Yes, there is always the “maybe one day.” I don’t save a lot of drafts, thinking if there’s a future scholar they can just know, hey, it didn’t come out right at first. But a novel-that-might-be… you never know when or if wings will sprout, so it’s staying where it is for now.

  2. What wise words from Karen! I’ve always been in awe of how you see the world and what magic you find in seemingly ordinary things, the immense resonance from small objects and intimate moments (real or imagined).

    I think a sense of personal connection to your subject and love of chosen genre is crucial to creating something wholly original that is worth reading. As you say, sometimes these identifying elements are not placed there consciously — but we all leave handprints and heartprints on everything we do, like it or not. This could be the difference between very competent writing and brilliant writing. Strangely enough, sometimes the writing we love most is not what others love most. And there enters the ongoing test of commitment: loving the process, loving writing for the sake of writing and not the selling of it.

    So happy to hear you’re feeling a familiar pull back to those genres/subjects that truly feed your mind and spirit. Science-biography-poetry = all so brilliantly enmeshed in Borrowed Names. I still sigh over the sheer beauty of it. ♥

    • Jama, you brought tears to my eyes. Readers and writers like you, as well as those characters that meet me on the page, keep me going. Thank you so very, very much.

  3. Yay for Karen! Boy, do I know this struggle, this question. I sometimes wonder if it is a facet of the Internet, of hearing so much about other people’s journeys and–in what may be a natural response–focusing on the success stories. I do love the Internet, but I’ve caught myself doing more comparisons than I maybe used to do. Maybe it’s because the people we communicate with “out there” feel so much more like friends, more like us, than the authors I used to know nothing about EXCEPT what they put on their book jackets. Which, again, is something I love and value about the Internet.

    Either way, I’m glad you found your way back in and that the tug from the story is starting to catch you again.

    I hope it helps that there are many of us out here who do LOVE the books you loved to write.

    • I am very lucky to have a friend like Karen, and also one like you, Becky, sharing the struggle. I’ve never expected a huge audience, but these days it feels harder to publish for the very valued few for whom your words might mean something. Thank you for being one of those special people and know I always wish you courage in sticking to your important path.

  4. “But it’s my own heart that keeps me alive.” Exquisite.

  5. I agree with Sarah about that line of this graceful post, and I was also struck by “what’s lovely is when the tug eventually seems less from my side and more from words I set on my screen.” Also, Jama’s “Strangely enough, sometimes the writing we love most is not what others love most.” Lots of food for thought. It reminds me of Liz’s questions about why we do what we do. Maybe she should be directed to this post!

    • I’m pleased you found food for thought here! Writing this I felt my tone was a bit melancholy, for I was saying goodbye to something I’d spent time with, but as I’ve spoken about my project to people, both they and I have heard the lilt in my voice. I feel connected. I’ll keep on. Best wishes for your work from the heart.

  6. I’ve been working on a project that has so little likelihood of sale. I just have to turn my head, avert my eyes from that side of the equation, because I truly am finding joy in it. And I have needed that joy in the process after several years of work for hire manuscripts. Yes, the heart is what keeps us alive. I’m glad to know you are following yours.

    • Dori, that news makes my heart sing. I love your wisdom and am going to lean on your wisdom. We do need joy, and honestly, the women I want to write about are ones who followed their passions, often without many cheering them on. I’m honored to send cheers your way, and appreciate yours. Thank you.

  7. “But it’s my own heart that keeps me alive.”

    This quote speaks to me, too!

    • I’m so glad. That was the line I almost deleted!

  8. Inspiring…what I needed today. Thanks!

    • I’m so glad. Thank you for letting me know, and good luck!

  9. Dear Jeannine, I’ve been thinking of this lovely post since I read it the other day. There is so much to mull over here, but I particularly love what your wise friend Karen said: “You don’t write magic because you find the ordinary world to be magical.”
    And isn’t it funny I came across this quote by Eden Phillpotts this morning: “The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” It made me nod and say, that’s right, Jeannine’s wits and senses are finely honed to the universe around her and she shares it all beautifully. 🙂
    thanks for all your inspiration, dear friend. xoxo

  10. I’m touched, Lorraine. Thank you for the sweet thought. I do my best to pay attention, though mess up, of course, and it often takes longer than I’d wish to see what’s before my eyes. But I’m glad to share this goal with dear you. Hope you are being gentle to yourself during this time of loss.

  11. Hi Jeannine: I’ve stockpiled your posts to read on the perfect morning (which is this one) and my strong pull now is to fervently wish that these will be compiled into a lovely book, small and precious, that I can have near me when I need the words you write to propel me into the deeper places.
    Please oh please oh please?

    • Thank you for the kind plea, which I’m taking as a nudge. I’ve been working on this but set it aside for the current pull. I’m sure enough of it now to let it sit while I finish up putting together a book on writing, maybe 90% done. Searching writers like you get me motivated, so thank you!

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