Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 21, 2013

Words and the World

When I started writing in college, I was lucky that a more experienced writer I shyly showed work to told me that the process of finding words for what I felt and saw was more important than getting them in print. This wasn’t something I heard in my fiction workshops or at the literary magazine where I had a work-study job. Writing seemed like a path in which you got better, then won the prize of publication. Or you didn’t, and might quietly disappear, though looking back I can see evidence that such a path was going to be a lot more twisted. I took the words about process being more important than publication to heart because I needed them. Like many a timid person, writing was a way to give shape to what I witnessed.

My process then, as it remains, was to write down ragged rows of words or images. It takes me some time to get to sentences, so it was clear that writing would be layering and un-layering, and I wasn’t tempted to show early drafts. And I felt toward myself as I did toward those drafts. One day this might be presentable, but it wouldn’t be wicked soon.

Since UMass was and is part of a five college system, I could take a writing class at Amherst College, which had just opened to female students. The instructor was a novelist I admired, and she liked the stories I submitted enough so that she took me aside and suggested she submit one to a slick magazine whose editor she knew, this being back when women’s magazines published fiction. I can kind of remember the stiffness as my jaw opened, and I said, “No, thanks.” I kind of remember her jaw sort of falling.

Sometimes I’ve looked back and wanted to give that student a kick, and say, “Were you crazy?” She might have handled the invitation with more grace, but mostly I stick by her. Maybe my writing career would have gotten a quicker start. Or maybe something would have happened to make me step back. I don’t know. But there was some wisdom in protecting the sense that the story my professor liked wasn’t quite finished, and neither was I, ready to take my ground as a published writer.

Many of us have heard how the path may matters more than the product. In a recent interview in The Writer’s Almanac, Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver says, “Write for whatever holy thing you believe in … The main thing is to know that your craving to write is the big thing and will continue, and is more valuable than the finished poem.” And my friend Deb recently blogged in Reflections on a Life in Motion about the place of the critic within her life as both book reviewer and creative writer. “So maybe everybody is better than me. Who cares? I can still try and delight in the trying. That is something no one can take away: the decision to try.”

So does publishing matter? Yes, I think so, when we’re ready. It completes the circle of shaping what we know by sharing it with the world, or a tiny part of it. The idea of publishing asks us to finish what we began, which is almost always a good idea, if only so we can find a new, if related obsession. We hope most gardeners enjoy getting their hands into dirt, but we don’t expect them to be satisfied without some good vegetables or colorful perennials, though we will also listen to their woes dealing with uncooperative weather or critters. Most of us who tout the goodness of the work itself do so with a conviction that that’s the part we can somewhat control. How something will or won’t be received can’t be entirely in our hands.

There’s a time to mull and forgive, and a time to think about how others might see what we’re doing and get down to deciding if what’s under our hands is really good enough. There’s a time to let the prose be mushy or thick and a time to get serious about the texture. No one needs to measure on a first draft, but there comes a time to get out the measuring tape, even if we wave it around more than we hold it straight. There comes a time to say, “This is as good as it can be,” and publish. In my next blog, I’ll write about how it felt to enter the self-publishing waters with VIEWS FROM A WINDOW SEAT: THOUGHTS ON WRITING AND LIFE.


  1. Wonderful message, Jeannine – the joy is in the making. And when to let it go is something we feel in our bones. Thank you!

    • Yes, I was looking for a way to say that, how we feel it in our bones. We may not always be right, but we find that out, too. What else do we have but our bones, or as trustworthy?

  2. Oh, I love this Jeannine. Graceful, thoughtful and complete. Please print it out and pass out to all your writing students on the first day. It is essential information.

    • Thanks for the inspiration! And I hope I do convey this to my writing students, though maybe it’s more in the form of a stutter or reminders, “We don’t have to think about this now…”

  3. Finding joy, or at the very least, satisfaction, in the process really is the best feeling, though like first love it isn’t always easy to hold onto.

    • Yes, like love, sometimes you have to pull it back out and blow on the coals, or go to your friends for reminders.

  4. What a wise mentor that was! And what a wise writer you were – and are. Love those words from Mary Oliver and Debra Paulson, too: the craving to write and the willingness to try…

    • My mentor was wise; sadly, she learned the lesson she passed on the hard way, but I got to benefit. We all get bruised by it all now and then, and great to have helpful people, or at least their words, to pull us up and brush off the dirt now and then. Sending you warm wishes as you labor!

  5. I love this! Now, if you’ll excuse me while I get offline and get out the measuring tape. Revisions await…

    • There’s nothing nicer than to say or write something that sends people back to their computers and measuring tape — I’m fond of the carpenter variety, that makes a satisfactory snap when you send it back to its little case.

  6. I love how you listened to your own powerful wisdom even as a young inexperienced writer. And in that listening, you have found your deep and unwavering strength, and that is what so clearly shines forth in your writing. Thank you for sharing that with us.

    • What a beautiful thing to say, Lorraine. Thank you! I think of myself as a rather stumbling young writer, but I guess I did manage to figure out a few things as I lurched down various paths.

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