Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 18, 2016

Reaching For, Failing to Grasp, the Perfect Book

A few nights ago I met a friend for soup, sandwiches, and an amazing lemon crepe before we headed to a poetry reading. “How is your writing going?” I asked Naila, who replied that her novel had a plot and plenty of words but some music was lacking. She said she felt stuck, remembering other peoples’ great novels that seemed to have sung and stuck with her.

The next night I picked up In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, which is about learning to write in Italian, a language she didn’t grow up with, and how that meant accepting imperfection. She quotes Carlos Fuentes: “It’s extremely useful to know that there are certain heights one will never be able to reach.” Jhumpa Lahiri writes about working in a language she’ll never get right, managing the anxiety that creates, and how awareness of impossibility is part of the creative impulse because it makes you marvel, which is one reason we write books. She talks about this in an NPR interview, too. “It’s an ideal that I’m moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn’t that the point of creativity, to keep searching?”


Now I’m reading Katherine Towler’s lovely The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, which is partly an account of the last years of a poet who was her neighbor and an account of her own writing process, which means moving between solitude and company, rare satisfaction with her work and trying again. Katherine Towler tells of often looking out a pond that changes with the tides, and is beautiful whether it’s water or mud flats. Early in the book, the poet of the title, Robert Dunn, asks her, as I asked Naila, “How is your writing going?” And when she expresses frustration with how long it takes, though she knows herself as a slow writer, he counsels that whatever the writer tries or wants, the writing takes its own time.


Work in progress can seem like that tidal pond, coming and going, but it can be hard for us to see it as beautiful in all its guises, as Katherine Towler saw the mud and water. She calls the process of writing a novel “a step forward and a step back, rewriting the same scenes over and over until I made myself believe them.” Finding a place between where we are and where we want to be, between anxiety and marveling: that is our task.




  1. This blog speaks to what I’m feeling during this very long re-write of my ghost story. Getting a book written is such a long process;getting it published and out there is another long process altogether.

    • Yes, we need patience and stamina as much as creative sparks. I know you have both, and it inspires me. Glad you found something here to help keeping going, as I so often find in your words, Pat.

  2. I’ve been reading, but not commenting much, Jeannine. I always love that you share something good to know about writing. Today, these books sound lovely, too.

    • Thanks for reading and the kind words, Linda. Hope you are seeing more signs of spring.

  3. Oh, Jeannine, you’ve totally hit the mark with this one – the mark being my current state of endless revision and accidental but welcome insight. Thank you, thank you! I marvel at how much you read and am so grateful that you share it.

    • Sarah, I’m glad something struck you here. I feel I don’t read enough with TBR piles scattered all around, but don’t get much into the world of novels when I’m teaching. But the nonfiction offers a nice change.

  4. I, too, marvel at how much you read – and I delight in these writerly connections you make for us: soothing and wise.

    • Tara, glad you found something here. Now that the reading part of our semester is over, I’m starting PAX and maybe I’ll get to CRENSHAW — a student included both in an interesting paper on animals, real and imaginary, in children’s literature.

  5. That tidal pool of ebb and flow. I’m in an ebb period and worry that the flow won’t happen again. Thanks for validating the process of living as a writer.

    • Margaret, I have so much faith your flow will happen soon. But I understand how when within an ebb it can feel so long. It’s hard to see the big picture of how that time is necessary. Meanwhile, you are giving so much to others — I hope you feel the waves over your feet soon!

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