Sunday, July 10, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes likes to write curled up in the morning with a yellow pad of paper in a leather chair only a few feet away from her bed. When she’s ready to revise, the New York Times best-selling author and recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children has only to walk to her office in the next room.

“There are two great things about being a writer,” says Grimes. “One is that I get to go to work in my pajamas! The second great thing ... is that everything in my life becomes fodder for my books.” Her childhood church experiences, for example, gave rise to Come Sunday, a special friendship prompted her to create Meet Danitra Brown, and her memories of the time that she spent on a tour of China turned into Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China.

Grimes wrote poems and stories as a child and read with an insatiable hunger for all kinds of books. “Everything. Mysteries, myths and legends, biographies, science fiction, historical novels, short stories, and, of course, poetry. I dreamed of one day having my own books on the library shelf!”

Although her mother eventually took great pride in Grimes' accomplishments, she was dismissive at first of her daughter's childhood dream of becoming a writer and tried to discourage her, saying “writers are a dime a dozen.” Her father, on the other hand, always gave her encouragement. He was the one who introduced her to her first “real” author, got a signed book for her, and always liked to give her books as gifts. “There's no question but that my father helped to shape the artist that I am today.”

During her teen years growing up in the Bronx, Grimes found emotional and spiritual support from her high school English teacher and guidance counselor, Mrs. Wexler, and from world-reknown author James Baldwin, who she met in her junior year and who served as her mentor until he went back to France.

Wexler, a Holocaust survivor, helped Grimes focus on the future. “This, too, shall pass,” Grimes recalls her saying whenever her life seemed on the verge of chaos. “And because of her own history, I believed her.”

Baldwin, the author of such literary classics as Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Devil Finds Work, taught her to follow her passion for writing.

“From him, I learned many things. To honor my talent, my gift. To write with honesty, integrity, and a sense of responsibility toward my audience. Most of all, he encouraged me to master the tools of my craft, to expand my knowledge of language, to enhance my fluency in my mother tongue. I loved his work. He may not have been a poet, but his language was among the richest I have ever read. It's no accident that he was one of the most honored authors of the last century. I will forever be in his debt.”

Grimes began publishing her early poems in high school literary journals, then in other literary journals and magazines. Two years after graduating from high school–after spending some time in a writers' workshop at Columbia University–she enrolled in Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“It was an exciting campus to be on because many of the professors there were working artists. Larry Ridley, a bassist, started the first American university jazz department. The English staff included authors Toni Cade Bambara, novelist Nathan Heard, poet Nikki Giovanni, and Nuyorican poet, Miguel Algarin. I couldn't have been in a more stimulating environment.”

Since then Grimes has written award-winning titles like What is Goodbye? (an ALA Notable book ), Bronx Masquerade (a Coretta Scott King Award winner), and the novels Jazmin's Notebook, Dark Sons, and The Road to Paris (each a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book), and has created the popular Meet Danitra Brown series.

Grimes says she wouldn’t call herself lucky because it’s taken “hard work and perseverance” to become a successful author. “But I'd definitely say that I'm blessed because, as a child, I dreamed of being an author some day. And now, by God's grace, I am.”

She lives in Corona, California and was kind enough to take a break from her work-in-progress to speak with wordswimmer about her writing process.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Grimes: The great thing about being a writer is that no two days are the same. Sometimes I wake up with an idea in my head, roll out of bed, and grab a pen. On other days, I'll spend time with God, read scripture, then go for a 3-mile walk. That walk is work, though. I'll read through notes on my current work-in-progress, choose a poem or passage to work on, and process it during my walk. I literally talk it through, out loud, as I walk. People used to look at me funny when I did that, but these days they assume I'm talking on a cell phone!

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Grimes: My interest in my subject matter, the challenge of the work, my drive to raise the bar for myself—all these things drive me on, whether the work is short or long.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Grimes: The quickest way to pull myself out of a dry spell is to read a good book. When I get excited about the wonderful work another author has created, I want to get back to trying to create wonderful work of my own.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Grimes: Trusting that, stroke by stroke, I will, indeed, reach the other shore. I just have to trust it, and keep trusting it, and moving forward. Treading water won't get me anywhere.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Grimes: Writing is always a lonely business. That's the nature of it. But if I've got writer's block, I know to read a certain group of authors whose work always triggers me. I know that an extra set of eyes is always helpful and so I have a few trusted readers I rely on to give me sound critique, as I feel the need for it. I also understand the value of distance. Sometimes, I have to put the work down for a time, then come back to it with the objectivity time and distance allow.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Grimes: I relish each stroke because I'm excited to see where it will take me. The journey is difficult, but the view along the way is spectacular, and each time I attempt the journey, I feel renewed and invigorated.

For more information about Nikki Grimes and her work, visit her website:

You can catch the trailer for A Girl Named Mister, her new novel, at:

And you can follow her on Facebook:

For more interviews with her, take a look at:


laurasalas said...

Thanks for this interview with Nikki! I've known her for years and admired her work for ages, but I learned some new things here.

I love what she said about processing things on walks, since I do that, too!

Nikki's talk at a national SCBWI conference years ago helped me shape my first poetry collection into what became my first trade book. So Nikki's had great mentors and inspirers, but she's also done the same for other writers.

Brittany said...

I've been really wanting to get back into writing, and this post was really great inspiration. I'm looking forward to looking into this author more!