Sunday, February 23, 2014

Nikki Grimes: Keynote on Patience, Perfectionism, and Poetry

The wonderful Nikki Grimes
Nikki Grimes is a poet and bestselling author for children and young adults. 

Her novel-in-verse WORDS WITH WINGS, about daydreaming, just won a Coretta Scott King honor award. It's her fourth such award.

She's also won the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. She also wrote the ALA Notable book WHAT IS GOODBYE, the Coretta Scott King Award winner BRONX MASQUERADE, and the novels JAZMIN'S NOTEBOOK, DARK SONS, and THE ROAD TO PARIS.

You can learn more about her at her website.

Lin introduced Nikki thus: "Her language soars. Her language takes children into ordinary worlds they might not know."

"I've been writing for 57 years," Nikki said. "That's an extremely long time to do anything. There's one thing I've been doing longer than that: daydreaming."

She read to us from WORDS WITH THINGS and PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL, which she and her editor refer to as PMS.

She never had an intention to write a book about puberty, but she was asked to contribute something to an anthology about first kisses. She put together a partially true narrative called BREATHLESS. That poem circulated around her editor's office, and they loved it so much she was invited to turn it into a novel. She didn't know how she'd do that, which made her want to try.

When she writes, she can never wait to get to the last line of a poem and will rush and write headlong to get there. Her love of speed made her a fan of Wile E. Coyote. She's fast about everything, and one of the things that helps her write quickly is being impatience.

"Patience is not in my DNA. I don't even write poetry about patience."

When she has an idea that excites her, she can't wait to produce it so she can see how quickly the finished work matches her original vision. 

"Here's something else to know about me. I suffer from an ailment known as (pause) perfectionism."

Impatience and perfectionism means you spend "an inordinate amount of time in hell... Bring on the Excedrin and bring it now."

"What I've learned from a lifetime of being an impatient perfectionist is that both characteristics can be useful," she said. "Keep a rein on them, though."

"It's so important that we ask ourselves the hard questions, that we're honest with ourselves about our level of skill," she said.  In other words, you're sometimes not ready to tackle a great idea you have. "They're hard to come by and you don't want to give them short shrift," she said.

With BRONX MASQUERADE, she didn't feel she had the skill to execute on it then. So she waited. She put aside her notes and went back to writing poetry collections. During that long waiting period, other story ideas bubbled up. A wise editor guided her into writing a novel, a project that felt fraught at times. But her editor encouraged her to "just keep writing," reassuring her that she would figure it out later.

This book has eighteen points of view--a huge challenge. She wrote one at a time, but still didn't have the story thread that tied them all together. "Once again," she said, "I had to wait."

During that six- to seven-month period, she visited a local high school where students were studying the Harlem Renaissance. He wanted his students to meet a poet from Harlem, like Nikki, who had been influenced by those writers. Amazing things were happening at the school. Poetry was the talk of the hallways. She decided to read through her manuscript and see if something spoke to her.

"And all of a sudden I started thinking about that school visit and those students and that poetry movement and I realized, that's it. The poetry movement at that high school is the perfect skeleton on which to hang my poems and monologues."

Nikki had us all spellbound.
She worked and worked. But her editor still wasn't satisfied.

"What you need, she said, is a Greek chorus." So Nikki created a character, Tyrone Bennings, who could comment on the others (even as he grew himself). That worked, and then she had to rewrite the ending three times before her editor was satisfied.

She summed up her talk with words that will give us all wings:
"It had taken me years to come up with the idea and even more years to figure out how to execute it. Do you have a classic in you? Take a deep breath and dig in. Give yourself permission to take the time and write it well. Whatever you do, don't be in such a rush that you settle for good when your story has the capacity to be great. Great books are what young readers deserve. Great books are what we should strive to give them, and the key to doing that is patience."

1 comment:

  1. I love Nikki Grimes. She is an amazing writer, storyteller, poet, person, and child of God. I admire her work. She, Mildred Taylor, Toni Morrison, and Jacqueline Woodson are my inspiration. One day, I hope to inspire others, the way she inspired me. Write On, Nikki! Write On!