Sunday, June 12, 2016

One Writer’s Process: Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

A celebration of the senses on the sand and by the shore.” That’s how a Kirkus reviewer describes the success of children’s author and poet Kelly Ramsdell Fineman’s first picture book, At the Boardwalk. “The oceanside boardwalk bustles from dawn's first light until night's starry skies.”

This kind of praise isn’t a surprise to anyone who has read Fineman’s poems, many of which celebrate the senses and joys of life in such detail.

Many of Fineman’s playful and thoughtful poems are included in poetry anthologies and collections. “Baseball Season” can be found in Little, Brown’s One Minute Til Bedtime; “Catatumbo Lightning” and “San Francisco, Any Night” are included in National Geographic's Book of Nature Poetry; and “Pocket Change” is part of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations.

“I started writing poems and stories when I was very young,” says Fineman, who continued writing poetry throughout high school and college.

It wasn’t until she began writing again after a hiatus of full-time work, though, that she found herself receiving acceptance letters for her writing projects, including most recently her picture book, At The Boardwalk, and her chapbook of poetry for adults, The Universe Comes Knocking.

In addition to writing poetry, Fineman produces an enduring and popular blog about writing and literature called Writing and Ruminating. In weekly posts, Fineman muses on a wide variety of subjects, including her love of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, as well as her interest in the work of more contemporary authors. And, of course, a good deal of the blog is devoted to her passion for poetry.

It was thanks to her blog, and, her love and knowledge of poetry, that Fineman was invited to serve as the poetry chair on the Cybils Award Committee for Poetry (and she was kind enough to invite me to join her on the panel a few years ago, which is how I came to know her).

Fineman, who lives in New Jersey with her sweetheart, was kind enough to take time from her many works-in-progress to share her thoughts about writing.

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

Fineman: Sometimes I fall in, almost accidentally. There are days I really want to write, and can’t manage anything much at all, and days when I don't plan on it that something comes to mind and I follow that thought and find something new - a poem, or a chapter, or a blog post.

In the past, there have been periods when I was completely and utterly absorbed in a particular project, and I couldn’t wait to get to the work each day. It was so easy to be excited about the project and the writing (and often research, as well), and I was eager to get to it, that I thought it would always be that way. Come to find out, that’s not the case.

I keep hoping for another totally engrossing project, but in the past few years, it hasn’t happened. I have started flirting with Natalie Goldberg’s notion of daily practice, except that I don’t manage to get to it every day, so it hasn’t developed into a true habit for me yet. On those days, I sometimes figure out what I should be working on while I’m doing my pages, which gives me a bit of structure now and again.

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

Fineman: Much of what I write is poetry, and I find that as long as I have an idea - an inkling, even - I can explore that and get a first draft down. Sometimes the finished draft is just a slight tweaking of the first draft, sometimes it involves a lot more new writing, coupled with massive revision.

For longer work - either a poetry collection or a picture book, chapter book, novel, or memoir (all of which are on my hard drive in various states of completion) - two things keep them afloat. One is actual interest in or fondness for the project, whether it’s a character or a concept, and the other is regularly “touching” the project. I have a collection of poems based on women in Shakespeare, for instance, that I completely and totally loved the idea of. I worked on that project pretty obsessively, until it was completed. (Still hasn’t sold, but then again, I’m not as diligent at sending completed work out as I ought to be.)

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

Fineman: I don’t always manage it - sometimes I flop about like a fish on dry land. I have a couple of autoimmune conditions that conspire to make life a bit difficult now and then, so while writing doesn’t require all that much physical energy, I am sometimes deprived of much in the way of mental energy. At those times, the work pretty much pauses.

There are other dry stretches, though, that are pretty much gaps in my own creativity, and those are the sort that are similar to anyone else’s dry spells, I guess. I view them as an opportunity to do other things and to fill the creative well. Something is bound to come along later to demand my time and attention.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Fineman: For me, the hardest part of actual swimming is keeping from panicking - I start to hyperventilate because I worry that I am going to drown if my face is in the water too long. I guess you can say that applies a bit to writing as well . . . the notion of panic because things aren’t going as well as you’d like, or the words on the page aren’t doing justice to what you meant, or aren’t conveying the idea or image you had inside your head.

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

Fineman: I guess it depends on the day. Because I am not under contract at the moment, nobody is waiting for any product or revisions, so I don’t have to focus on staying in my lane or kicking hard all the way through - I can always float on my back for a while under the sun, waiting for a new idea to come along. If I find myself in too much of a corner, I will backtrack to see if I went off in the wrong direction along the way. Or I will run it by a friendly first reader to get another opinion.

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

Fineman: There’s a real sense of freedom to it on days when it’s going well and all engines are firing properly. Hours pass quickly by, and things come relatively easily. Those are pretty great days.

The other thing I love the most is playing with words. Finding the precise ones that are just the right shade for what I mean to say is a kick!

For more information about Kelly, visit her website:

And take a look at her blog, Writing and Ruminating:

To see her poetry chapbook for adults, visit:

And for more interviews with her, take a look at:

And here’s the review of At the Boardwalk that appeared in Kirkus:

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