Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 30, 2015

Furnishing our own Forests

When we’re young, the world beyond our home may seem like a forest, with dark and twisting paths. We may feel a tug between wanting to hide in a warm house and exploring a place where we sense silence isn’t the end of a story, but a promise of more. Some of us become writers, creating rough drafts full of something like trees of varied types and sizes, and tramping down paths between them, too. Or we may make a rough draft that’s as full of stuff as an attic. We sketch out dust, boxes, and folderol; maybe pumpkins, thimbles, spindles, glass slippers, gold rings, and mirrors. Like someone wandering through a fairy tale, it may take us a while to recognize what matters.

Knowing what to keep comes after creating forests or filling dark corners. When I assign writing prompts to students, I tell them to keep moving their pens. Beginning is not the time to be smart. A rough draft is a place to throw or store everything. It’s only when we step back through what we spun that we might glimpse an objective correlative, a small treasure that will make us plunge to something deeper. We can’t look back too early. Judgment can wait. We have to keep writing, collecting, creating a story whose meaning we can’t yet fathom, whose ending we can’t yet see. We have to believe it’s there as we keep going, perhaps with a faith we had in ourselves as children – ready to set into the forest without a lot of questions, secure that we’d find our way home even after encounters with treacherous mothers, ne’er-do-well fathers, jealous siblings, rapscallions, witches, thieves, liars, and those who know how to spin straw to gold.


I’ve just finished a not-really-rough draft, but a draft no one but me has seen of a novel meant for children about nine to twelve years old. It’s the first novel I’ve written with magical elements in it, and the first one I’ve written all the way through without another reader. Every book calls for its own method, but I think the magic in my novel and my protectiveness may be connected. I’m used to early readers pointing out flaws, but I wanted my magic to be pretty solid before anyone pokes around. I needed to keep believing in the history-infused magic all the way through, as I conjured and changed its rules.

Finding a way between once upon a time and happily-ever-after, whether that looks like a wedding or just a shoe that fits, is different for novelists who plot things out. I can’t tell you much about that. I like how Grace Paley said that we write what we know to discover what we don’t know. I’m going through my manuscript another time before it heads to my writing group, checking the seams between the real world and another one. I’m surprised by some of what comes from my mind and hand, then have to think about how to plant those surprises for readers who I hope will follow me. I check that secrets are well planted, and kick up more dirt that may hold more surprises. Readers will want to find their own ways in and out of secrets, though some of what matters to me won’t matter to others. Some will care about the three bowls of soup, Some won’t like the apple or the breadcrumbs. Who will obsess about the red hooded cape, the gold cap, or the glass shoes?

The tellers can’t always know where magic that seems like truth to readers will be found. We write what we see and hear, keeping it simple, finding the courage not to point or show too many tracks. Most people want to trek through the forest without a field guide. As writers, we’ve got to accept that they may miss some things we hoped they’d see. No one really wants to go through an organized attic, with the boxes labeled. It’s the mystery that first drew us and readers want that, too. Children like fairy tales for what isn’t explained, and we can like that as adults, too. Most of us have figured out that there’s a lot that can’t be answered, even if we once bought the idea that there was a line between not knowing and knowing, and this matched childhood and being grown up.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to get the balance of secrets and revelations right in my work, but I’m on it, kicking rotting logs for signs of life, making new patches of trees, and burning down others.



  1. I’m thrilled you’ve found a new rabbit trail in the woods and have written a book for younger middle-grade with magical elements. I wish I was a member of your writing group (for lots of reasons!) so I could be among the first to hear it first.

    • We would have so much fun being in a writing group! I’m so glad every time you post a blog and I can glimpse what’s going on. Thanks for your belief in my unknown!

  2. I love wending my way through your words, Jeannine, and discovering new ways to think about the writing process. I am always reassured by your take on our craft – that it’s an organic process, there is a magic to it, too, I suppose. So intrigued by the thought of this new book! How exciting!

    • Thank you for all those kind words, Tara!

  3. Excellent post, Jeannine. As per usual. Looking forward to your new book, and to this magical one, too.

  4. Thank you for your steady support, Kelly! It means a lot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: