Friday, November 18, 2016

Finding Wonder in the Process with Jeannine Atkins

Irene Latham, me, and Jeannine Atkins at Poetry Camp.
I have immersed myself in novels in verse over the last few weeks. (Of course, only when I wasn't going all ga-ga over a sweet new babe.) I suppose that's what we all do when exploring the ins and outs of a new project. I always find myself with more questions than answers as I make my way along this path, and most of them, the questions, begin with "Why?" There are a few "How" questions, though many of these are answered in the context of a book. And the occasional "When?" But what I really want to know if "Why?"

Why one voice, or twenty-eight voices, or somewhere in between?
Why a close first person or a semi-distant third?
Why a mix of prose and poetry?
Why free verse over form or form over free?
Why poems with titles? Why one long, unbroken stream of consciousness poem?

Sure, some of the answers become evident in the text, but others remain in some form of wonderment  in my brain. I know this journey is a process of discovery that we all make as we press forward, and my process will not mirror anyone else's. However, that does not change the fact that I want to know why those other authors made the choices they made. I keep wondering about the process.

Fortunately I have at least one lovely verse novelist to whom I could wonder my questions aloud. Jeannine Atkins was finding wonders in verse novels long before her latest book, (of course) called Finding Wonders, was published by Atheneum Books/Simon & Schuster. Views From a Window Seat, Jeannine's blog, is a favorite spot to stop and soak up her beautiful gift with words. Another book, Views from a Window Seat (available at, was published artisanally at Stone Door Press. It began, Jeannine says, as blog entries focused on the writing process and is meant for anyone wanting company as they create. And yes, it has been good company for me on more than one occasion.

Without further ado, here are Jeannine's answers to some of my many questions.

Dori: What do you do before an idea becomes a project?

Jeannine:  Ideas are long and wandering, while books are relatively short and focused. I aim to discover all I can about someone, the work she loved, and where she lived. As I read or walk where she walked, some events surface, suggesting scenes that will hint at what to highlight.

Dori: In a recent blog post you mentioned that you work in a new notebook for each new project. Tell me how you approach your notebook. Are you organized or random? Sections? Is there order?

Jeannine:  I am so very random. (Dori interjects: I'm so glad to know there is hope for the rest of us random folks!) And those pretty notebooks eventually get so messy. Ideas don’t come to me in order, but I snatch them when they show up. Later, noting what’s repeated or simply still interesting to me helps me to see a structure. Sometimes I’ll color-code scenes. I’m always left with stray words and lines. Some will be discarded, but some that hold on become the core of poems of their own.

Dori: Is there a typical order you use as you begin a project?

Jeannine:  I first fall in love. My heart still beats hard while I start research to see whether this is the real thing or an infatuation. Some subjects can lead to dead ends if unsavory things turn up. I’m going to spend a long time with a person, so while all of us have flaws, which make us interesting, my aim is to showcase the more wonderful among us. If I’m still enchanted, I continue researching, and keep files with a timeline, known incidents, and themes I might tuck into the action.

Dori: You keep a William Carlos Williams quote near your computer. “No ideas but in things.” How do those things find their way into your notebook? How do you choose which images you will use in your poems?

Jeannine:  I write in free verse, so after paring down, the poetic aspects usually involve imagery more than aspects of sound. I look for things someone might commonly use, and natural science gave me a lot for Finding Wonders. Maria Merian worked with paints and plants, and her study of metamorphosis in moths and butterflies gave me imagery and metaphors. Mary Anning offered the layers of time she found in rocks. Maria Mitchell studied stars, comets, and the way that standing on one roof with a beloved father could show her a vast and gorgeous world. The tools of their trade as well as discoveries often suggested ways that the tangible joins abstractions, and metaphor winks.

Dori: When working on a project, do you plot first? When do you begin writing poetry?

Jeannine:  I start out writing fragments and run-ons that don’t look one bit like poetry. I keep watch for a way to create a bit of suspense. While I can know the outcome of events, the person did not. Sometimes an image glints against theme, suggesting a metaphor, so I have some rough bits of poetry. But, except for occasional lucky accidents, most of the poetry comes late in the process.

Dori: Your verse novels tend to be in third person POV. You mentioned at Poetry Camp that the distance this gives you is important. Can you expand on this idea?

Jeannine:  I sometimes write first person in early drafts to get to know the characters more closely, but then want to see them from the outside. First person might suggest more intimacy than I feel I have a right to, and third person gives me more access to the visual. I want to see these people in action, as well as visualize the work they loved.

Dori: Because you work in historical fiction with real characters, some of their back story is history. Much is probably unknown. How much do you allow yourself to imagine of what might have caused a character to be the way they are?

Jeannine:  I keep to the facts of real events, but within them, may surmise emotion. I always want to include domestic scenes, which are rarely recorded, so I research some common settings of the day (what would she wear or eat, and on what kind of table?), then allow myself to imagine. So much of women’s history has been lost. We need to honor both research and imagination, taking what we have to shape the future.

Dori: Thank you, Jeannine, for your willingness to let us observe a little bit of your process. May metaphor keeping winking at you, and would you kindly ask that friend of yours to wink at the rest of us, too?

Visit Brenda Harsham at Friendly Fairy Tales for today's Poetry Friday Round Up.  


  1. Thanks for this interesting exchange,Dori and Jeannine. I love the idea of winking metaphors and first falling in love with your subject.

  2. So good! Thank you for sharing this!

  3. I LOVE hearing about authors' and poets' creative processes, it's so inspiring. It's also reassuring to hear that no two people create in the same way - there's no wrong way to make art!

  4. Love hearing this "conversation", and Jeannine teaches us every time. Fun to hear you're exploring the verse novel, Doraine.

  5. What a wonderful interview! I love hearing about Jeannine's process, and FINDING WONDERS is such a terrific book—I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you Dori and Jeannine!

  6. Thank you, Dori and Jeannine, for your generous sharing today. So many tidbits of brilliance. =)

  7. Dori, Thank you! This is wonderful! I cannot wait to read this newest book from Jeanine Atkins and I have the same questions.....and worries about being somewhat random. I am such a build-it-as-I go kinda girl. A big project really scares me. I truly loved your questions and Jeanine's answers.

  8. Great interview. Inspiring details on the process.

  9. Thanks, everyone, and hope all you writers feel more inspired than intimidated. We should never forget Anne Lamott's advice: bird by bird. One word or step at a time.