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Nov. 1st, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

It’s a Book! Views from a Window Seat: Thoughts on Writing and Life

After a few weeks of ripping open envelopes to find book proofs that were just a bit off, and had to be tweaked, on Saturday morning the fourth sample copy was waiting at the post office, and this time the cover looked right. Through summer and fall, I’d been following the instructions offered on CreateSpace to publish VIEWS FROM A WINDOW SEAT: THOUGHTS ON WRITING AND LIFE, stepping forward, then taking several steps back. They give checklists that seem simple, but I found some were like the lines at Disneyworld – just when you thought you were in, there was a new and winding line. But at last I pressed “Proof approved,” and up popped something like, “Your book is now available.” Really? Really. No more buttons to push.

Views from a Window seat frontcover
Yikes. I mean Yay! Even with print-on-demand, I’d expected more lag time to check off a few more things on my pre-pub to do list. Feeling giddy, I posted a link on Facebook. Five minutes later I thought, that’s not very professional, and I’m not quite ready.  So I logged back on and already found love or looking-forward-to-it-ness I couldn’t delete.  I’m so grateful. This book came about because of people who’ve read my blog, a few of whom who’ve told me they’d like to see some of these entries collected in a book. I changed a lot, but I hope kept the flavor of writing that comes from the warm connections I’ve enjoyed online, though without the insightful and delicious comments I get here on the blog.

The self-publishing part was fun and frustrating, with the fun going first, especially in memory, because of the technical, artistic, and emotional support of my husband, Peter. As a long time self-publishing advocate he’s urged me on for decades. Luckily, he’s a patient guy, who also copy-edited the text, designed the book, coached me through technical crisis, and created the logo for Stone Door Press. I chose the name because I want my writing to have both a sense of permanence and that it can be opened and changed by readers.

Stone Door Press logo

I learned a lot and would self publish again, going about some things differently. When I decided to put together this collection of thoughts on writing, it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t go through the waiting and rejections that have marked my publishing life these past few years. I enjoyed playing with ideas for covers, then choosing a different one when I posted a picture I took of day lilies, and my brother-in-law, Bruce, commented that it would make a good book cover. Not much later, I heard him say those very words to someone else about a photo, and asked his wife if he always said that. Catherine nodded. Never mind. I like it.

Self publishing brought up aches I’ve felt while writing, too, such as considering readers, while struggling to trust my own judgments. It seems there are a lot of fonts and shades of yellow to choose from. Raising and lowering bars, and then trying to give them one last lift without going crazy. Testing the boundaries of perfectionism and being laissez-faire-ish. Choosing when to grit my teeth and when to shrug, and finding who I am in between. This time around there’s no second guessing re what will my editor think of responses, not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels cleaner not to get involved in such deflection. I already feel closer to the fact that every book is held by one person at a time. There’s the joy.

Note to dear and faithful readers: I’m going to stop blogging here at LiveJournal. I hope you will read my posts at
http://jeannineatkinsonwritingandstuff.wordpress.com/. Thanks!
 

Oct. 11th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Rhymes on the Closet Floor

I generally write more free verse than formal, since I like working with the facts of history, which give me some structure, and the needs of narrative, with most of my poems following another as they build a world on the page. These poems are shaped by images, which echo through repetition. The echoing sounds of words we call rhyme would be too much.

Off and on for years I’ve been working on a picture book with a science-based theme. I love the subject, but something has always been off, maybe particularly my stiff voice. It finally dawned on me that I wanted something more like song, which would invite readers to join in. And with a theme of the ways that animals who look different behave in similar ways, rhyme, which uses sound to bring together two different things, seems perfect. It took me a long time to see past my habits to get that.

While I continue to gather material and trim, trim, trim, I haven’t yet decided on what poetic form I’ll use. I’m reading some ghazals, sestinas, and pantoums, and will decide if I want to work in couplets, triplets, or four-line stanzas as I decide on how much information is best. Meanwhile, I’m noting some pairs of sounds and possible refrains.

Rhyme and meter set up expectations that can feel as comfortable as in a chair where we feel coziest, but it might also knock us off that seat. The rhythm sets us up to wait for that last word, but it should surprise us, too. In poetry fro children, often that surprise is a joke, but it can be any kind of startling, waking up, and might first have an element of Really? or Wow! followed by: Why didn’t I ever see that? Readers should feel both balanced and tipping over.

It’s fun to let words knock against each other, with rhyme calling out its own needs, setting my mind to thoughts I wouldn’t have without its demands. But in this particular picture book, I can’t let it run into nonsense, but keep the lines trimmed to actual animal behavior. Fortunately, I’ve got lots of movement to enjoy, not to mention snuffling, snorting, nickering, neighing, whooshing, huffing, and RhymeZone, which is a lovely place to play.

Rhyme is a sort of cousin to metaphor, bringing together two different things, but its shirtsleeves are made of sound. Or does that shirt quite fit? Trying out rhymes is like putting on a shirt, taking it off, and pulling another off a hanger.  Just how comfortable should it be? I want a little tension, but not so much the seams threaten to tear. I don’t want it to be saggy. The closet floor is getting covered, but that’s a good thing, full of bright possibilities. I’m going to be letting shirts fall and kicking them around for a while.


For more Poetry Friday, please visit Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids.

Note: I’m about to stop blogging here at LiveJournal. I hope you will read my posts at
http://jeannineatkinsonwritingandstuff.wordpress.com/. Thanks!
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Sep. 27th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Writing Verse about History and Science

In the way poetry often begins – is this eureka-ish or just another day? -- last spring a few people from history bumped against another in my mind, which set off other mini collisions about the ways we might understand plants, rocks, and stars. History and science seem like good subjects for verse narratives, for paring down the bulk of history can make it more intimate, and peeling off some of the complexities of science can show its spare beauty to a wider group. As I read about the lives of three girls who began their careers by age thirteen, themes such as supportive fathers, circles, and long, close looking started to overlap and mesh. I’m thinking of the book I’m now calling A Bouquet of Caterpillars as a sort of Borrowed Names, but with science, instead of mothers and daughters, as the connecting thread.

This summer I didn’t exactly throw myself into research, but I collected books and dipped, keeping an eye open for essential parts of character, key moments leading to recognition, and any bright detail that might later wiggle or swell into metaphor. Research sounds like a heavy word, but I was just hauling books into the hammock, holding a net lightly while keeping an eye out for images from the lore of astronomy, geology, and biology, though I don’t use those words, partly because two of them weren’t used during my time period. I twirled rather than gripped an imaginary net, and looked past the pages often enough. I wanted information, but only what sprung out. Along with collecting facts, I asked what some called to mind and what would someone who didn’t know much science (me) or about the era need to understand? As I mulled about what repeated images might be trying to tell me, some turned into metaphors.

By the end of summer, I had files for each of my three subjects, divided into headings about work, family, friends, and inner struggles. Each holds facts as well as a few lines of poems, stanzas, even occasional whole poems ready to revise. The biggest file for each girl is a hodgepodge just called Notes, which I’m now breaking up and organizing, while still tossing in new things as I bend chronology into plot. While I like to fuss with language, I wave my arms to remind myself of story and action. What should I take out to build suspense?

Questions are often more powerful than answers. The spare biographies have been handed down, but of course my subjects didn’t know how things would turn out, either in their personal lives or within a great body of knowledge. For instance, my biologist lived before pollination was defined, but she observed the yellow dust on the feet of bees and wondered.

Now I’m looking deeper into my notes about these three girls. The more I look, the more I see, and the more they engage me. This really is a labor of love. Will I sell A Bouquet of Caterpillars? There’s no way to know. But I’m thinking of some girls and their mothers who liked reading Girls Who Looked Under Rocks, and I want to write this for them, and anyone who encounter fascinating worlds I often miss from my desk.

For more Poetry Friday, please visit Amy at The Poem Farm.

Sep. 19th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Shifting: Science and Girls

Many of us grew up looking at stars, but found our original wonder got washed away by familiarity or the sort of science that seems to diminish: Sorry, but your lucky star may be just a big hot rock, dust, or gasses. We get pretty songs and stories about the stars, then learn about distances and speed of light and that neither we nor the earth are the center of the universe.

But I hope we can find ways to treasure both wonder and knowledge, poetry and science, whose union is a focus of the book I’m currently working on. We live at a time that divides the fields, but according to a great book (with what I consider an unfortunate title) I just read, this has not always been so. In Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics , Renee Bergland traces ways that separating science from the arts parallels the way society has split  the roles of women and men. Maria Mitchell, who would be the first American woman to discover a comet and the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College, noted that she always had a mathematical mind. This bent was encouraged by her father who was glad to have a companion in his passion for astronomy, and on the rooftop, it was necessary to have one person look through a telescope while the other took notes. Maria’s work mapping sky and land and fixing chronometers wasn’t considered all that unusual in Nantucket in the first half of the 1800’s, for with many men away whaling, women often took over work that was traditionally done by men.

original-1
But according to Renee Bergland, Maria Mitchell wasn’t just lucky to have a sympathetic father and town.  Rather, she states that such devotion to science was common enough for girls and women back when science was seen as a way to understand an orderly universe and could often be managed from home, perhaps with some fairly inexpensive field guides, nets, star charts, magnifying glasses, collecting jars, and notebooks. Many women were close to the natural world, tending sheep or goats, then spinning, weaving, and dying cloth to sew warm clothing, caring for gardens, looking through meadows for plants to be used for healing or household cleaners. They needed to know more about what was around them.

The mid 1800s were a time in which Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college that called itself  “a castle of science,” and Dickinson later wrote many poems referencing astronomy, botany, and geology. Scientists, then called natural philosophers, most often based their work on observation, so the field was closer to art, and similarly not recognized of having great practical use. Men tended to be trained in politics, history, philosophy, and religion, with colleges funneling them to work in churches, law firms, or the government, which were seen as the places of power.

Only when science became more linked with technology, and offered ways to make money, did it become a field more associated with men, as it remains today. At the end of Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, the author notes how women now make up a small percentage of scientists, with those taking advance degrees in the hard sciences numbering in the single digits, with biologists and behavioral scientists hovering just a few digits above. Her hopeful conclusion is that if things were different before, the field of science can change again.

I’m only the very most amateur of naturalists and happy to focus on literature, but I can remember being a kid holding other’s hands while whipping around in the sort of game now banned on most playgrounds, before suddenly letting go and drifting or tumbling off. There are always things we must let go of, but I hope those who detach themselves from science do it for bigger reasons than feeling they must align ourselves with expectations of girl or boy, or lovely nerd or not. And it’s a shame that when students let go of much of science, they often leave in the midst of being asked to memorize basics, so never get to glimpse what those who move ahead find:  a swirl of new questions, the beauty some see not just in the glow of stars, but in equations that reveal randomness or patterns.

Out of breath, with stinging hands, we can forget the way we started out together.
 

Aug. 30th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Metaphors

Sometimes I wish metaphors weren’t often taught as their own unit in elementary school. It makes them seem sort of precious, like a necklace one would only wear on Very Important Occasions. Or it can make them seem crafty: Hey, anyone can do this! Just draw a line between two rows of words.

Of course anyone can do this and have fun while they’re at it. It’s never wrong to amuse oneself with language. But what bothers me is what such a linking game may leave out. Some of us working with metaphors are looking beyond whimsy or fancy to convey ways that disparate things or ideas find common ground. We don’t go on metaphor hunts waving nets or pincers, but rather quietly stay alert for flickers of meaning in the shadows.

The best metaphors surprise us the way we hope they’ll surprise readers. I might go about my day with something in the back of my mind, then when I read, see, or hear something altogether different, what’s in my mind’s corners and what’s front and center collide into something new. Or maybe something catches my attention, and in asking myself why the once-ordinary image brightens or haunts, I glimpse a link. The connections deepen in the triangle between what happened, my snagged attention, and my inquiry about why this might matter.

Sometimes what we look at takes the shape or color of our obsessions, which is why anyone writing about an oak tree, chrysanthemum, or the ocean will write something different than anyone else, if they’re really paying attention. This leap from ourselves to what we behold is like the one in which we find ourselves in another’s story, perhaps an old tale or myth, whose flexibility to take many forms is one reason it’s stayed around.

Most of us work hard to keep things in order. We try to separate joy and sorrow, life and loss, going after one and doing our best to dodge the other. But when these wash together or collide, there’s nothing more we can do. We remember that most joy and sorrow has strands of the other twisted through. When fragile dams break, we can drop our aching arms and stop building them. And maybe spot strange beauty.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit the always inspiring Tara at A Teaching Life.
 

Aug. 23rd, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Deepening

I’ve been revising some poems, which means while I trim and polish, I’m also kicking up dust, going deeper, a tricky term that doesn’t mean patching in meaning with words boasting an extravagant number of syllables that might be spoken in churches, temples, or lecture halls. To me, going deeper means working with a polishing cloth to get a clearer view of what the dust-raising reveals.

I often end a day, or month, or year, thinking I’m done, then go back with the clarity of distance and find an alarming number of opportunities to bring readers with me for a renewed sense of connection. For example in the verse novel I’m revising, I’d set a scene with an aunt and girl playing cat’s cradle. I’d wanted a simple linking task. But as I look closer, I see the patterns made by string that twists into new pictures, and will bring those out a bit, going beyond a game to fit my theme of transformations.

Good critique partners or editors may ask questions that lead us to looking again, looking longer, but I also pull out my own stock of questions as I head through another round. Looking over the shoulders of characters to the background can tease out meaning. What kind of light are they in, and does it change as they speak? What’s happening in the sky? What might they smell, and does that change? What’s the season? What shape spaces form between the characters? Is their conversation at odds with their surroundings?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Bringing in weather may make us think of the clichés such as, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But weather may lead us to something new in the way clover catches sunlight.  Landscape changes with each observer, and when we put it into words. Most of us have stood with another, and seen something only when the other names what’s before our eyes. Not only what is now seen, but what we missed before, may offer a place to deepen. What made us or our character blink or duck?

Changed feelings alter what we see. Grief, for instance, may make our throats burn as we spot a child swinging a jump rope or a couple holding hands. We don’t need to name the ache or our sense of passing time, but can try to accurately convey the scene. We’ll never quite get it, but that’s all right. Part of the reader’s work is to fill in what was missed. We just want to turn them in the right direction, toward beauty that may seem slightly beyond grasp.  We put into words what resists words, so it may be a ragged fit. Readers are not therapists, waiting for us to announce meaning. We want to invite them with us as we retrace our awkward steps and let meaning glimmer, peek, or elude in the same haphazard or slippery way it comes to us.

Some dust clouds are raised by clearing out information that gives away too much, put there because I need to know it, but when taken away might give the reader more places to enter, speculating, or even feeling suspense. Not my forte. I nudge characters closer to cliffs, though they are more often made of choices than rock and air.

Writing is like living, in which we often act, make choices, and the meaning appears only afterwards. It’s the mix of seeing, feeling, and questioning that deepens. We see something that touches us, in life or imagination, and probe: did that stir feeling because of some association? What colors, shape, or patterns seemed to touch us, and can we mirror that with words? We can try.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit: I Think in Poems.
 

Jul. 15th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Ways of Butterflies

The garden in front of the porch where I sit is woefully neglected. The pink petals of echinacea, where an orange butterfly lands, are the only bright spots amid a sprawl of foliage from spring blooms gone by. In mid July, I’m reminded of the need to think of this month during planting season. My blog has been neglected, too, which makes me think of the wisdom of some friends who thought ahead to declare summer blog breaks. But I’ve been writing, mostly in the guise of pulling together my book about writing and trying not to get intimidated by the self publishing process as I stare at fractions and equations to contend with as I decide on page sizes and margins and a host of things that can go wrong. But there will be a book, which I try to keep in mind.

The details of bookmaking are like getting swept up in conversations about roofs, wells, furnaces, deeds and such, as Peter and I are in the process of buying a second home in southern Maine. There’s a lot of detail work, so that sometimes I forget the end idea is to have a house where we can look out at the ocean.

daylilies
Two orange butterflies just danced over the tangle of iris and star-flower stalks. I’ve got my daughter and an extra dog in the house for the evening. The cat has tucked himself up against my computer, lying still in the heat.  Life at its best is still here, going on amidst the plans. Every day I’m trying to add a little poetry to my time spent with rulers, reports, and how-to guides. And driving by orange day lilies. We have the moment and we have plans. The butterflies twist around each other, flying higher.

Jun. 18th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Final Pages

A white butterfly flits over the roses and wild geranium. The porch is neither too hot nor too cool. I had local strawberries on my oatmeal this morning, all of which makes me feel kind of ashamed for feeling restless while I write. Wishing Peter would suggest a diversion.
I know the signs. Recently, two friends have asked me to cast an eye over work that was soon to head into its next public stage. They wanted one more person to read it. They wanted a little more time. Work that’s almost done can make us anxious or bored or some hideous combination. Yesterday I talked with a friend who mentioned another writer who seemed never to quite finish things. “It’s hard,” I said. “When you think everything on your computer is fairly worthless can be a sign that you’re near the end.”

Sometimes I can sound like I’m smart. But only minutes later, I said, “My book about writing is about 95% done. Um, have I told you that before?”

My friend laughed.

Peter also had recently asked about my book, while I’d been caught in the pleasure of a new project, and I was reminded to finish what I’d set aside. It’s been going well, and I’ve even make new discoveries in old material, but there’s a resistance that shows up as self doubt or a general wiggliness and desire to work on something brand new, which seems so much more attractive. I’ve managed to keep at my editing until noon, and now plan to do a few errands and return to the work over an iced tea, hoping a different view turns around my mood.  And if I run into anyone, I’ll tell them I’m 96% of the way through. I’m still taking some notes about my new book, but, while I dread as much as yearn to type, “The End,” I’m heading straight toward that day.
 

Jun. 13th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

On the Cliff Walk

Peter and I just got back from spending a few days in Maine for our thirtieth anniversary. When we got to the waterfront inn, Peter wanted to close his eyes post-driving for a bit, while I left to smell the salt air and stretch. I walked on the beach in a soft rain, then headed up a path bordered by rugosa rosas. A woman with long windblown gray hair and a face that looked as if it had been etched by perhaps eighty years of weather stood in the path with her eyes on some pink blossoms. I smiled, and she smiled, but she didn’t step aside. She turned back to the roses and said, “I’m looking at how sturdy the stem is and how the petals are so soft.” I nodded, then made a move to scoot around her, but she was sort of wide. We said something else about the roses and the weather, then she told me she’ll be teaching a drawing class at the senior center tomorrow and maybe they should draw these leaves. “Aren’t they interesting? But I’m not sure they have green pencils.”

The thought of no green pencils in an art class took my breath. That was when I met her eyes. We spoke a few more words before going our separate ways.

On the drive to Maine, I’d been describing a book I’d just read to Peter. A character had done a lot of different things, but at the end, I felt I didn’t know her much more than I had in the first chapter because she’d skimmed from action to action with little suggesting that much mattered.  I don’t need a Greek chorus wailing or an intruding Victorian narrator pointing out what’s praiseworthy or a shame, but I want a sense that the author is tilting something like a small mirror that catches the light from time to time, suggesting stories behind stories, catching shadows from the action, perhaps the shifts in a moral or emotional life. Every action of an attentive person has strands that can build tension, for how often do we act with conviction that we’re doing something perfectly right and wise? A character’s reflections can pull in readers who add their own responses to the braiding between events and a character’s sense of whether her choices are right or wrong, apt to lead to trouble or happiness.

Talking for a few minutes with this stranger, who may or may not have been a little crazy – I’m not sure if there is a senior center without green pencils where she teaches – didn’t give me a whole story, but it made me wonder: Why is she saying this to me? Is it true? Where is she going now? Does she have a home? Is there a shortage of pink pencils, too? She wasn’t trying to sell me something. She just wanted me to look at the roses and then to look at her. She reminded me of who I am and how I’m like her, a feeling I sometimes get from books.

I’ve been thinking about what and why I write, which is in a voice as quiet as this woman’s, and sometimes with a point as vague. Can we just look at the leaves, thorny stems, and falling, flimsy petals and ask someone to join us for a moment? Can I write as I listened for those minutes, without worrying about time passing or what anyone but two people think, listening as we do to someone we expect to lose soon, so  that listening seems a brief, taut holding on?
 

May. 17th, 2013

Jeanninehead2010

Poems in the Greenhouse

Yesterday was the perfect day to smell lilacs and pass under the white blooms of dogwoods on my way to the Smith College Greenhouse. The museum area is currently devoted to a show called From Petals to Paper: Poetic Inspiration from Flowers. Poems printed on placards and arranged according to flower types were selected by Liliana Farrel and Janna Scott, class of ’13, who were inspired by Annie Boutelle’s poetry workshop. Walls featured irises, tulips, and other spring flowers. The section on daffodils offered Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, along with Robert Herrick, Amy Lowell, and Alicia Ostriker giving the flowers a political context. Poets including Li-Young, Mary Oliver, and Louise Gluck show flowers as solace, taunting, sensuous, exuberant, or demure.
smithoverview

A small room was devoted to Smith alum, Sylvia Plath. We see a draft of Among the Narcissi filled with cross-outs and new words, with still more lines and notes from an editor at The New Yorker, then we see it published in the magazine.

plathdraft
David Trinidad had given us a brief introduction to both Sylvia Plath and tulips in his amusing and profound poem The Red Parade. Here we find Sylvia Plath’s Tulips on the wall and can also listen to a recording on a television. The poem tells of a red gift in a stark hospital room at a time when the narrator felt as if of nurses were claiming her clothes, the anesthetist her history, and the surgeons her body, so that I believed the line near the end: “Tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals.” I like the poem, but am glad I’m a person who can receive tulips and simply say “Thank you, what a gorgeous color!” The recording was made in 1961, two years before Plath would die by her own hand at age thirty, leaving two children.

plathphoto
This heart-tugging show is open until the first weekend of September.

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