Category Archives: Jeannine Atkins
The Poetry Friday Anthology was the dream child of Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, who have compiled other great collections. In their introduction, they advocate reading poetry first and foremost for pleasure, but also point out ways that reading poetry fulfills the Common Core standards for kindergarten through grade 5. Each poem is accompanied by five discussion questions, which relate to language arts skills, personal experiences, or comparisons to other poems. I love how easy this makes it for teachers to add poetry the day, providing enough poems for five minutes on each Friday of the school year. These poems are written by dozens of well-known poets, and many are full of humor and enchanting twists, providing ways for students to bond over the language, the topics, and some original silliness. You can see samples on the Poetry Friday Blog.
I’m happy to have two poems included. Here’s one followed by a picture of an inspiration (which Peter took when we were walking a few days ago).
Good Dog! Bad Dog!
Good dog never wakes us up.
Yip! Bad dog jumps on the bed.
Good dog shakes for a biscuit.
Bad dog snitches jam and bread.
Good dog chews dog toys.
Bad dog chews the chair.
Good dog comes when called.
Bad dog doesn’t care.
Good dog snuggles by my feet.
Bad dog steals my heart.
No, that’s our good dog!
Some days we can’t tell them apart.
Copyright © 2012 Jeannine Atkins. All rights reserved.
For Poetry Friday links, please visit Irene Latham at Live Your Poem, where she’s featuring a collaborative zoo poem (I wrote a goat couplet) to celebrate her new novel. which has a zoo setting: Don’t Feed the Boy.
I spent part of this morning moving some books from piles to shelves, while some were bagged for the next library book sale. But the aloe is still leaning over under the weight of its thick, prickly self, waiting to be repotted. The garden is still waiting for me to appear with clippers and rake. I won’t mention housework. After finishing my novel, I did tend to some chores, but I’m trying to make myself available to the muse, too. And she likes to find me on the window seat, looking unproductive.
There’s a silence before a new work comes that can feel prickly, no matter how I longed for it was while hunching over a hefty stack of pages. There’s been a goal in mind, a sense of how I want this big thing to look. Now my novel has reached that state. Peter has almost finished kindly combing it for errant letters, missing articles, apostrophes doled out too randomly, the occasional if that should be it, or she’s that need a name. He’s put gentle question marks beside too flighty poetic flights. He makes me smile with his sweet manners on my pages: It might be more clear if you had a verb in that sentence. Um, yes. And I’m glad for his occasional praise. “This may be the best description of a color I ever read.” Yay! Anyway, I think we’ll have finished tidying by tomorrow, when I expect the drama of hitting Send. And already I’ve set blank paper before me, which needs to get filled one page at a time.
Empty paper can bring up panic, which I’m trying to ride out with deep breaths, when I’m tending to shallow ones, and a still bottom, when I feel wiggly. The aloe and dried plants can wait just a little longer, while I mull my way to and through false starts, dead ends, ideas not quite interesting enough. I’ve written a lot of notes about a girl and a place and their particular powers, but I’ve kept myself from opening that file. And my stillness (well, a few more books were re-shelfed) is paying off a bit. I’m catching a few birds that may or may not be important. An older sister. An aunt. Rocks and a clay-bottomed river. These are enough to begin with. I scribble around them, as if they might mean something.
Time will tell, so that’s what I’m trying to give the process. Saying no to the new yarn, the ever-so-attractive unread books, the sack of flour and cranberries, the spade. I’ll get to them, but for now, I’m trying to be as quiet as the paper and the patient, sprawl of roses that I promise to cut back before winter.
Finishing is a good verb, even if it’s imprecise. It can scoop in a lot of time, and usually implies a circle, though one hopes they get quicker with each round. Maybe you can guess from my plans for the next few weeks what I finished?
Get a new toothbrush. Bake. (Apple cake or pumpkin chocolate chip cake?) Hang out with my husband. Clean the house. Tend to the garden. (i.e, wrestle with sumac and bittersweet.) Read poetry. Write poetry. Read books not set in the nineteenth century. Climb October Mountain. Blog more (it’s sad that I’m writing from a file I’ve named spring 2012). Mull over and wade into new projects. Wait. Try not to obsessively check email. Savor the yellow and orange leaves before they’re gone. Remind myself not to write another 500 manuscript-page novel (which I think is about the right length for this historical novel for adults).
Which is what I finished, until, you know, I start getting pulled into again. Peter is kindly using his eagle eyes to go over my draft, but I hope to send it to my agent next week. And in a spirit of celebration, I broke away for a trip to see my daughter. We spent a weekend in Santa Barbara by the beautiful sea, and returned to her home. where we ate good food with great people. Em’s friend Jesus took this picture of us with some lovely fall flowers he brought us, with a light L.A. laugh around that word “fall.” Now I’m back to fall in Massachusetts, which means serious scarves and fingerless gloves. With a few picture books on my mind.
The first day of the writing course I teach at Simmons at the Carle, it seemed clear that most students would need little coaxing to reveal their heartfelt concerns. But in the writing journals submitted to me, some confided that they found personal writing hard. Someone (not a student) asked why I chose to begin with memoirs, taking a look at Roxaboxen and an excerpt from Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, and doing some exercises that ask writers to look back. Many of us begin from personal history, even if we don’t end there. Memory can provide and fill in, though it shouldn’t limit our choices or dictate fiction’s structure. And when we write about anything whatsoever, we tap into our mind, and what’s there is there. It’s best if we can welcome it all in early drafts, rather than trying to swat away some memories. It’s too early to decide what’s a nuisance and what’s a gift.
During the first week, I ask students to read Charlotte’s Web and The Watson’s Go to Birmingham –1963 for a thousand good reasons, but today I thought of the novels we start the course with in terms of the lives of the writers behind them. E. B. White wrote of often feeling safest hiding out in the horse barn when he was a child, and later in life, he lived on a small farm in Maine. Details he cherished certainly add to the novel’s setting and mood. Maybe E.B. White was also Charlotte: but he wasn’t afraid to make changes, such as human to spider, as well as writing about what he knew. And while Christopher Paul Curtis shares a birth year, childhood home, and family circumstances with Kenny in The Watson’s Go to Birmingham –1963, maybe it’s in places that the truth veers where the novel is most moving.
This week, we’re reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles . Some key events in the first novel were inspired by a tragedy suffered by Paterson’s son, to whom the novel is dedicated. And my friend Jo Knowles has written on her blog jbknowles about drawing on some childhood experiences for See You at Harry’s. I chose to start the course reading good novels for readers about ages 7 to 14, and thought there was some diversity with pigs, spiders, and humans, and more boy characters than I always naturally select. But I suppose putting together a syllabus, like writing, draws from the subconscious as well as more academic intent. Now I realize that not only do all four books draw from the personal, but all touch on death in various ways. And our class had already discussed the lizard grave in Roxaboxen (a student mention a teacher who glued those pages together), and the darkness that deepens as we read through Goodnight, Moon.
I believe writing calls for courage to face everything that moves into our minds and hands. Old feelings and new fantasies, grief and hope, the real, imagination, and truth. The mind doesn’t necessarily draw clear distinctions between the personal and imagination, but leaves lines for the organizing mind to draw later. Creative writing is not for the faint-hearted, and I should add maybe not either for those calling on courage to face other challenges. So we start out, all windows and doors open, and with an expectation of kindness from everyone around the table.
This week I went to the Concord Museum to see some of the photographs Annie Liebovitz took for her new book, Pilgrimage, which is a record of some of her inspirations, a looking back and inward, perhaps more reflective than the portraits of rock stars or other extravagantly dressed people she’s put on the pages of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, or Vogue. As I turned from the stairs, my attention was caught by a photograph of a dress that Marian Anderson wore in concert. The photograph is as long as a dress, a slash of red silk through terracotta, gold, bronze, and cream fabric that stretches across four pages in the big book of these photographs, with some text, such as the short story of how Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR excluded her from a concert hall.
Some photographs were taken at Louisa May Alcott’s home, across the street, including a trio of dolls on a toy sofa and gods and goddesses May Alcott drew on her bedroom walls. Places shown are often from a famous person’s childhood, death, or archives, such as stacks of trunks that belonged to Martha Graham. Some are from midlife: we see both Elvis Presley’s childhood home, and a TV with a screen he shattered with his gun; we see the door that made Georgia O’Keefe choose her New Mexico home and tray of homemade pastels. Annie Oakley’s boots and a cardboard heart with a bullet hole are given their own alcove.
Most of the people and places represented in the show are from the United States, though I liked ones representing artist Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. The River Ouse, the site of the writer’s suicide, was so blue, both eerily calm and menacing. Lines of waves’ shadows seemed echoed in the photograph of the top of her bare, ink-stained wooden desk. Throughout the gallery, I had a sense of how getting closer to an object can turn around a view of history, and a pilgrimage of moving forward by stepping into the past. I loved the book, and I’m happy I made it to the show, which is there until September 27, for what I believe is the only New England display of this work.
I also looked around the museum, and was particularly taken by the room devoted to Thoreau, maybe especially after looking at Annie Lebovitz’s photograph of the Chinese cane bed he slept on in the cabin at Walden Pond. Here it is, along with displays including his flute, pencils from the family factory, a pair of snowshoes, and keys from the Concord jail. Below are his waking stick, a spyglass, a bird guide, and a tap for birch trees.
Thoreau seemed to accompany through my day, for when I did some research in the Concord Library, a copy of his journal was open to the day’s date, though in 1853. And the nonfiction room bears his name, lots of pictures, and these owls.
Finally I was in the mood for another visit to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and I turned out to be the only person on the tour. The beautiful young woman wearing loops of pearls couldn’t have more gracious, smart, and kind, offering me details, but stepping back from all the old stories to let me just look to my heart’s content, enjoying a more intimate spirit than I’ve felt when the rooms are filled, though I’ve never been on an Orchard House tour, starting with the one I took with cousins when I was about ten, that I haven’t enjoyed. The docents clearly are learned and adore the family, but also show a sense of humor and imagination that I think Louisa would have enjoyed, not being one to take herself too seriously. It was the end of the day, and I could hear staff laughing from a back room. There’s a sense of this still being a home, and not only historic: I noticed a big plaster bust of Emerson on the floor of a closet where a few old dresses hung. When I asked, the docent told me that work was being done on the school next door, and the busts of philosophers had been stored here and there.
There were about twenty minutes last week when I thought I’d finished writing my novel. I knew I’d go back to edit, but I felt the thrill of finishing for at least the length of time it takes to down a late summer beer. It was long enough to wonder why people cheer for you when you finish writing – not to suggest they shouldn’t, but when you really want that chorus and hurrahs is during the long, long middle of getting there. Maybe I guessed my private celebration would change, as I didn’t make giddy announcements, just a quiet, “Done,” maybe with a question mark, to Peter, absorbed in his own thoughts at the table on the porch.
I got back to work pretty quickly going on what I was calling a final pass. You might think I know better, and I do, but I guess I wanted to keep that light ta-da feeling a little longer. Sure enough, excising some dialogue, polishing descriptions, the holes and shine made way for new thoughts. I’m trying not to fill every excavated paragraph and add only at dramatic moments. But the process which I began calling editing is looking more like writing. The manuscript I giddily called done isn’t looking like a first draft, but there are rough edges at the ends of sentences and scenes.
It’s all for the good. I still harbor thoughts of sending this to my agent before the leaves fall; and I’m not counting the brown leaves that cling to oaks. We’ll see. What I’ve come to know is that every manuscript is as individual as a person, each with its own quixotic needs. And the good part is that I don’t feel the removed attitude of a good editor, but that the people in my work are important friends, who need me a little longer.
Yesterday was one of those warm but not steamy days that led Edith Wharton to spend summers in a home she called the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. My friend Ann, a first grade teacher, took a break from looking for caterpillars and putting up monarch displays to go with me to see a play called The Inner House. The Wharton Salon one woman play was beautifully performed by Tod Randolph, who truly seemed to channel Wharton’s grace and strength. It was adapted by Dennis Krausnick from Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, with occasional quotations from her fiction. The title comes from a short story in which the narrator compares a woman’s nature to “a great house, full of rooms… full of treasures and wonders.”
The play was performed in the shadow of a grand house and gardens that we’re told Wharton loved more than any other place: yet she lived there only about five years. It seems to be at least partly a mystery why she left. Some things we’ll never know, and perhaps some things are revealed that she wouldn’t have chosen for us to know. The play begins with silence and looking that suggests the life of a writer, then the actress recounts Edith Wharton’s youth, speaking of a girl who loved books before she could read them, holding them sometimes upside-down as talismans that let her tell stories. I don’t think her mother was ever described without the word cold before her name. We hear of marriage to a man who was sweet but troubled, and with little in common except for a love of animals. We hear of the affair Edith had in her mid-forties, and the pain riddled through both these relationships.
Edith Wharton was sensual, stoic, and tragic, no surprise to anyone who’s read The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome. or one my favorites, Summer, which shows the richness and pleasures of that season followed by the harshness of a New England winter. The play quotes from a letter to Edith from a reader imploring that if she knows of even one contented woman, couldn’t she write about her? It seems those weren’t her stories to tell. Rather she often concentrated on the tragedies brought about by a society she considered frivolous, in good part because of the narrow choices then offered to women.
Yesterday was the last scheduled performance of this play at the Mount, celebrating the 150th year of the novelist’s birth, but the Wharton Salon will perform elsewhere,
so please check out their website! After the play, Ann and I walked through the magnificent gardens, then strolled around picture perfect Lenox, stopping for quiche, coffee, and meringues (I want to use the word magnificent again) at Patisserie for a taste of Paris where Wharton lived for many years.
One of the gifts of summer is when people travel into my small western Massachusetts orbit. I’ve felt a kindred spirit with Irene Latham after reading her blog, her beautiful novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend, and her collection of poems, The Color of Lost Rooms. I was happy she let me know that she’d be flying out of Alabama to visit the nearby Emily Dickinson homestead , while taking a literary journey with her father, who shares her passion for books.
We met at Judie’s Restaurant in Amherst, where they shared some stories from the Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain houses they’d visited in Connecticut the day before. I also loved hearing the proud father speak of his favorite author, Irene. When I asked if he read her blog, he said, “I read everything she writes.” They told me about how when he’d travel when his five children were small, he’d bring back some small thing for Irene to write about. Most things were so common they were hard to remember, but what remains is the link to his daughter who is still inspired by things as small as the “i” she wore as a necklace with a tiny blue stone, or ordinary events that become extraordinary with deliberate attention. And that person who is waiting for whatever she writes next.
When I mentioned envying their relationship, Irene asked who encouraged me to write, giving me a chance to talk about my Grand-mère who didn’t offer exercises, the way her father did, or ask to see poems, but Grand-mère’s pleasure in art and allegiance to beauty gave me a kind of hope I didn’t get from my more practical parents. I was reminded of the different places we find the people who whisper Keep going. Even if a person never used those words, even if they’re not now among the living.
Irene and I talked about the different challenges of writing and marketing poetry and novels, and our frustration about publishing prejudices against works about real people who aren’t deemed famous enough. We talked some about what we’re writing and reading now. Her father seemed happy to listen. For more details of what they saw over a jam-packed few days, visit her blog.
I like what she has to say about how Mark Twain put Huck Finn in the pigeon holes of his desk, the photograph of Edith Wharton’s bedroom and Henry David Thoreau’s gravesite, and also how she includes who couldn’t bother to say good morning in the literary tours, which restaurant to avoid, and the weirdness that is the Massachusetts Turnpike. I only wish we could have visited longer, but I am looking foreword to my next summer visitor – a weekend with my daughter!
We who write children’s books are invested in hopeful if not happy endings, but it doesn’t mean we’re not aware that stories can end in other ways. So these past two months, while doing some radical trimming and promising myself the joy of writing the last third of the book as a reward, I had a niggling fear that my reward would take an ironic turn, that my pen would feel heavier than the knife I’d been weilding. I longed to get my character to Europe c. 1870, and reap the pleasure as if I were there myself, minus jet lag (or seasickness) and bills.
My porch isn’t Paris, but I’m having fun in territory that’s familiar, with enough time having passed between drafts that it feels fresh. Those hats laden with feathers! Those gloves with buttons to the elbow! That bread and cheese! And after all this time with a blade, I’ve got a sense in my bones of wanting to keep things somewhat lean, which makes sense as things stream toward a conclusion. There will be some flooding, conversations that may meander, but I’m doing my best to keep them from circling. I like moving forward, even though, just as in the children’s game of Mother, May I?, there are occasional side steps and giant leaps back. But I’m determined to cross that finish line. Conversations in my head go like this: Is it hot on the porch? Yes. Well, you might as well keep writing. Is it not sweltering? Yes. Yay, what a great day to write.
Sometimes writers have to put in words we’re bound to take out, and the high temps made me less than vigilant. It’s all okay. I know my good writing group will point out sentences and possibly chapters that don’t belong. I won’t be sanguine, though I’ll try not to moan. And remember that while tearing into my manuscript to pull out digressions and fluff and just general lengthiness, the ragged edges that were left gave me a few new ideas. The poking made the manuscript feel more stretchy, inviting new thoughts, so I added, and backtracked. Other holes realigned or stayed as they were, giving a smart smack of stopping while I’m ahead. I hope.
Now, should I cut that last sentence? I’m leaving it for now. The great period of second and third guessing will come later. For now I’m enjoying moving forward. Mother, May I? Yes, you may.
This weekend Peter and I drove to Wells, Maine to help celebrate the grand opening of Shellback Artworks, a shop our friend Steve Lavigne, with huge help from his wife, Denise, is opening to sell comics and art supplies and where Steve will teach classes to kids. There was free pizza and lots of good will through the day, but maybe my favorite story was the one Steve told me about three little boys who checked out some racks, raced home to get some money, doled out their quarters, then sat side by side on the steps with three heads bent over their comic book.
Peter and I also found time to walk on the beach and eat fried clams and charbroiled shark. On our drive through New Hampshire, enjoying lupine season, we stopped at Henniker Book Farm (our timing was good, as I can see from this web link that they’re closed this week, as “grandchildren and lobster trump books.”) The poetry section was amazing, and I found an old book about the history of my favorite library, but my happiest find was this collection of letters written by a friend of someone I’m writing about.
Peter reminded me of my initial elation as the weekend passed and I read, skimmed, slogged, and eventually grumbled. Fourteen hundred pages can hold a lot of tea parties in which not much happens. I was reading about a time in which both Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne died, and I’m pretty sure Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter would have attended those funerals, but nothing is said about them. Her neighbor Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, but that isn’t mentioned.
But of course I can read about those events elsewhere. What you want from a letter collection are the small details you can’t find elsewhere. I did get the fabrics of some dresses and the varieties of pears in the Emerson’s small orchard. May Alcott showing off a spider she painted in the corner of her bedroom wall could be worth the twenty-five dollars I paid for these two volumes, at least along with Ellen’s gifts to her when she went abroad: four bottles of champagne, a hanging pin cushion to nail to her berth, and her copy of Portraits de Femmes. She advised May to bring a shawl-strap for her blanket, a basket of oranges, and napkins (handkerchiefs won’t be large enough) to spread over her chest when lying on her back to eat broth or porridge.
We learn that Mrs. Emerson had a habit of screaming if she stubbed her toe or pinched a finger, then might call out an assurance no bones were broken, then shriek again. I’d have enjoyed some more screams through the dense pages, but I did develop a sense of Concord, MA as seen from one particular household. Here are a few notes I pulled from the thick first volume:
May – catbird, blue jay, song sparrow, wood pigeon, red-shouldered blackbird, oriole
Massachusetts scenery isn’t like Italy, but the moral atmosphere is higher
stereoscope showed houses on Main Street and along the Mill Dam – Mr. H seemed enchanted, as if he hadn’t walked by them hundreds of times.
1868 burglaries, now Mr. Emerson won’t leave the silver cream pitcher
Such finds are the reasons I urge those writing about history to end with the internet, which is good for fact-checking, but to begin with books, which are full of clutter, but hold gems not yet ferreted out. I’m on a revision of a revision, and didn’t think I needed new material, but fresh details lend zip to my tired eyes and finding places for them can change the shape of the whole. It’s like Steve painting the walls of the shop, opening boxes, filling shelves, and hanging banners. You can plan all you want, but what can make a novel or shop great are surprises like three boys huddled on the steps waiting to turn another page.
Today I joined colleagues who teach in the MFA in Writing for Children Program at Simmons speaking at a Children’s Literature Association Conference at the Boston Campus. We each had been asked to read some and talk about our lives as authors and teachers.
Anna Staniszewski read from her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, and spoke about moving between writing this funny, upbeat book and a novel that was more wrenching. Ellen Wittlinger read from her novel set in the cold war, This Means War, and spoke about the writing process, which so often switches between our beautiful dreams and the harsh reality of seeing the long way we have before we reach that initial, gorgeous vision. I spoke about my grandmother’s attic as the place in which I learned to research, and read three poems from Borrowed Names. Anita Silvey spoke about her most recent work of narrative nonfiction, The Plant Hunters, which tells the history of scientists who risked their lives collecting plants which both expanded our knowledge of the world and, because of their medical use, saved lives. Anita spoke of how she located primary sources, sometimes choosing her subjects because of pictures and artifacts such as plant collecting cases that were available for her to see firsthand. She also told us how she spends about six months developing a proposal, rather than waste three or four years researching and writing without a clear direction.
Here is Anita, Ellen, Anna, and me in a photo taken by the program director, Cathie Mercier.
Perhaps since the audience was one largely of scholars, we were asked by more than one person about how one reconciles putting forward great books as teachers, setting high standards, and … just writing, which for me and many starts as writing badly. All of us counseled separating the creator from the critic as much as possible, using whatever tricks one could, such as finding a name for that inner critic, and saying whatever must be said to get her or him off our shoulders and waiting quietly for a turn. I hope we didn’t sound glib, because we understand this can be truly painful. Reading, and gently tearing things apart to understand how a book is constructed, is useful, but really has to be pushed to the back of one’s mind as one writes.
The final question was from an academic who loves children’s literature, and worries about its survival in a climate in which good books go unpublished or get neglected. As authors, we share her concern, but Anita left us leave with hope, speaking of signs of an upturn and the possibilities of new avenues of publishing. I know I wasn’t the only one who left with a short list of books to read, and to have looked into the faces of people who care about good words.
Is there a way to sit down to write memories, funny stories, or adventures about made-up children in made-up lands without risking crying at the computer, having touched on tender places? I was just asked about this from a thoughtful, sensitive person embarking on a summer of writing and who would rather not do this by a box of tissues.
Clearly some people can write anything without feeling overwhelmed. Journalists have to write about catastrophes all the time. And I expect many of those writing dystopian novels showing the world at its worst may work on chapters while eating lunch.
But I find that sitting quietly can put me in a lot of moods. Sadness, which caregivers may neglect during days of making an effort to look bright for other people, may take this chance to call for attention. You may not mean to write about a loss that’s pushed back to get on with the day, but it may take its chance to rise at the writing desk, just as it might when a song comes on the radio while driving to get groceries, or in the quiet when your head hits the pillow. I’m not a therapist, though I’ve been to one, and think if tears come, they do so for a reason. And happiness can be found on the other side. Tears do dry, and they can be healing.
Someone surely knows of a writing practice that avoids the dark recesses of the mind, but I’m not sure I’d choose it, any more than I’d want a life without love, though I know that means eventual loss. My mom was the sort who advised, “Don’t dwell on things. Leave the past behind,” and I became someone who dwells kind of for a living, and unburies hidden stories of history, work that sometimes makes my own hidden stories fly up with the dust.
This kind of work isn’t for everyone. But those who choose to write and find tears come should know they’re not alone. And if it hurts too much, it’s good to ask for help.
When I was moaning about plot challenges recently on Facebook, my friend Jen Groff suggested that when I figure this out, I should run a workshop called “Plot for Poets.” I haven’t figured it out, and I’m not running a workshop, but I like her title and I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction, which might be the text for this class. Edith Wharton wrote a lot of great fiction in the same era that her friend Henry James was also writing novels and trying to figure out the aesthetics of a form that could seem wayward and bulky. But I don’t see as much heavy lifting, the marks of trying to figure out rules, in Wharton’s fiction as I do in James’s. (Not that I’ve read that much, let’s be clear: I lose patience.) Edith Wharton was known for grace, reticence, and heroic strength in a life both privileged and trying, and you find all of this in her novels. Her slim book on writing could be placed on the elegant end of how-to guides. She doesn’t discuss plot in terms of lines or triangles, but as light, which might radiate back from illuminating incidents and an end that seems inevitable. Not just characters, but place, should contribute. “The impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house, should always, to a novelist, be an event in the history of a soul.”
“No conclusion can be right which is not latent in the first page.” I’m playing with images in the first and last chapters, realizing that I have pine boughs on page one, and can slip in evergreen nicely at the end. This echoes what Blake Snyder says in Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need which I’m also finding useful on plot. But of course since it’s about screenwriting, discourse is left out. Like most of us twenty-first century writers, I can lean too much on dialogue, which Wharton warns can be a method that is “wasteful” and “roundabout,” best used by those who dare start in the middle and aren’t tempted to use conversation as a setup to let readers in on things they need to know. Wharton mentions Trollope’s “least good tales, rambling “on for page after page before the reader, resignedly marking time, arrives, bewildered and weary at a point to which one paragraph of narrative could have carried him.” I’m not sure I can or want to with use dialogue just as she advises – “sparingly as the drop of condiment which flavors a whole dish” –but she gives much to ponder as I trim to bring out a shape. Wharton writes that the length of a novel must be determined by its subject, but when composing, we shouldn’t forget that “one should always be able to say of a novel: ‘It might have been longer,’ never: ‘It need not have been so long.’” Okay, back to paring down.
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There are many reasons to teach, and one of them is hope. I loved reading final projects for Children’s Literature. I’m proud of all twenty-six of my students at UMass, but let me name Danielle, who told me that she didn’t really write poetry when I suggested she try expressing the feelings that she thought a book she read left out. She wrote amazing free verse about a girl dealing with her mother’s death. Sahar had us laughing with a little boy contending with older sisters, one of whom she said was based on herself, and showed a side of her we don’t see in class. I thought a new twist on Red Riding Hood might be impossible, but Jenny, after “staving off my usual fear of drastic rewrites,” proved me wrong. I ask those who choose to do creative projects rather than a final paper to show me at least two drafts, and I was impressed by the way several students developed motivation in their picture books, added surprises, and blended educational elements and fun.
There was great analysis and research, too. In “Life is Just an Imagined Puzzle,” Nicole looked at the ways J. M. Barrie’s Wendy and Lewis Carroll’s Alice make an adventure out of the process of becoming an adult, mixed with excitement and fear, flying or falling, and starting with liberation from adult control. Brenna showed how Dr. Seuss “familiarizes young children with his distinct illustrations and language early, creating a bond with the reader, and later introduces relevant social issues and stories of empowerment, using his signature style.”
Katie taught me a lot about E-books, examining what’s passive and what’s active, what’s similar to reading as most of us grew up knowing it and what’s different. I was interested in her reported research of children learning to read, whose parents might ask over pages questions like, “You’ve done something like that before, right?” or “What do you think will happen next?” but with a device may say, “Careful!” or “Hold it this way.” Kevin is passionate about bringing a broader selection of books into high school classrooms, not substituting Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Hopkins for Shakespeare, (though maybe Catcher in the Rye: we can make him cringe just by mentioning that overused title). He wrote, “We do not want to dismantle the bookshelf, but to add to it, to let it grow.”
That’s what we hope. Kenzie examined definitions of childhood and storytelling in Narnia, and quotied C.S. Lewis from On Three Ways of Writing for Children: “surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new ones.” I hope all of my students move on cherishing the old, and ready for what’s new.
Maybe this has happened to you. You’re moving forward through the second half of your third-or-so revision of a novel, feeling pretty happy with your process, thinking you finally got the hang of plot. If you’re a writer, you can see where this story is going. If you’re empathetic, you may be stiffening your shoulders as I did listening to the first person in my writing group go through the requisite but always too short list of things I did right in the first 270 pages. I let out a breath as she calmly said that about 100 pages have to go. And I still need to find a plot.
My two other friends nodded. I nodded, too, trying to hide my gritted teeth. As I eventually packed up three copies of these 270 pages to go out into the cool spring night, I tried not to look like someone who’d been gently told she didn’t get something she’d been trying long and hard to get. I can’t say I slept well. In the morning, I reminded myself that if all three in my writing group think something, they’re usually right. I planned to keep writing toward the end of the novel, taking the good advice of dear Dina to try writing my way back from the climax.
But by the following day, I started a slow, gentle tearing in, going through their good notes, looking at my manuscript, ripping out a sentence here, a paragraph and page there. I was buoyed by the “nices” in some margins. It’s not all bad! A little history can go far, and while I love the texture, it can distract from the line I mean to go through, propelling, well, at least nudging, a reader forward. I’ve made some holes where I’m finding ways to wrestle in and bring out more of my character’s heart, making sure each scene isn’t there just because it’s pretty, but is either a roadblock or slide to a forward movement. So while I’ve got out the scissors, and markers to show myself who appears where, and assess how much I need them, I’m using my pen, too. Adding to the impact of scenes.
I’ve got out the pink and sky blue index cards, and at some point I’ll actually use them, I promise. What does she want? What’s stopping her? I murmur, feeling cheered on by all the you-can-do-its from plot-challenged and history-loving friends posted after I moaned on Facebook. Thank you! I know that faith is in my writing group, too. Now it’s starting to return to me, as with every twist of my blade, every new word, I remember my love for my character. I want her story to be told. And with the new holes, new ideas come, too. My shoulders are almost back where they belong. I’m having some fun again.