The woods in Sterling, Massachusetts, where Jeannine Atkins grew up, stimulated her curiosity in many ways.
She wondered about the things that might be hidden under rocks, and years later such wondering led her to write Girls Who Look Under Rocks, a book about girls like Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, and others who became naturalists as adults.
Wandering near the woods gave her child’s imagination a chance to roam across the boundaries of time, as well, and she grew curious about what it might have been like to live as different people in other time periods.
“When I was a girl, I liked to pretend that I was someone from another time, such as writer Louisa May Alcott, soldier and saint Joan of Arc, or a pioneer girl like Laura Ingalls Wilder,” says Atkins.
A shy girl, Atkins wrote in a diary because “writing things down in a diary made them seem more real” to her. Now, as a grown-up and former high school English teacher, she’s writing about some of the things that she “noticed as a child but didn’t have words for then.”
Atkins loves the process of researching and writing her books of nonfiction, historical fiction, and poetry, including such award-winning titles as A Name on the Quilt, How High Can We Climb, Wings and Rockets, Anne Hutchinson’s Way, and Aani and the Tree Huggers, as well as others.
But that doesn’t mean she always runs to her desk to start work each day.
“I have days of discouragement or running into dead ends,” she says.
On those days, when she questions her own goals or when other people question them, and she finds herself stuck, she’ll get up from her desk and gaze out the window at the woods near her home in western Massachusetts to view the birds and natural world that so inspired her as a child.
“It’s lovely, and soon my eyes turn back to the screen and I try out another sentence.”
Atkins was kind enough to take a break from a tour for her newest and highly praised book for adults, Little Woman In Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?
Atkins: These days I take short, slow steps into the water. But the “every day” part of the sentence is important to me. I find that if I’ve got my bathing gear at the ready, the water will be fine. Skipping even a day makes the work feel somewhat unfamiliar, and it’s harder to step from shore.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Atkins: The short work can make the longer possible. Little Woman in Blue took me about fifteen years from first thoughts to publication, but I was writing verse, picture books, other yet-to-be-published novels, and articles in between drafts. It’s good to finish something, which is one reason I like keeping a blog with a quiet record of my writing life. I get to say “done,” then move back to the darker waters of longer projects.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Atkins: Happily it’s been a long time since I’ve felt a dry spell, due to the daily habit I mentioned and the inspiration I find in history. I’m motivated by wanting to give women of the past more of a voice, and that small sense of mission keeps me going. But there have been times in my life when I felt blocked, and I offer compassion for anyone trying to break through such rough waters.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Atkins: I think I just answered that. Not being able to swim when you badly want to: I remember such silence as painful.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Atkins: I expect to face obstacles on the page, so am patient with that part of the process. And it’s good to know when it’s not in your best interest to be alone. The three others in my writing group of twenty-five years offer each other not only critiques on our manuscripts but understanding of all the currents.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Atkins: So many parts flow into each other when I write. Every day there’s some sort of beginning and end, even if it’s just the beginning and end of a sentence. Every beginning has its sometimes lovely, sometimes frightening sense that anything can happen. Every ending brings a little satisfaction, if not elation, but also the dread that we might have got it wrong. I try to celebrate, though don’t always succeed, the fact that I’m there: in the water, on the mat, at the computer, trying to focus as best I can.
For more information about Jeannine Atkins, visit her website: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/index.htm
And to read more about her new book, Woman in Blue, check out: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/little_woman_blue.htm
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