Riding (and Writing) on a Dare

Book Links: September 1999 (v.9 no.1)

by Nikki Grimes

Easy doesn’t interest me. It never did. In art, and in life, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I like to take on work that frightens me, that I’m not sure I can pull off, that makes me dig deep. It isn’t enough to write with a mandate, although I do. Like many African American authors, I strive to create positive images, to counteract negative stereotypes of the African American community, and to explore a greater depth of character than the media generally assigns people of African descent. But every time I put pen to paper, I’m also writing to stretch myself. Otherwise, I feel I’m not doing my job.

In It’s Raining Laughter, the puzzle to be pieced together was matching words with images. The images, evoking joy more than anything else, were those of photographer Myles Pinkney. In Come Sunday, the question was how to write about church life and genuine faith without sounding sanctimonious. In A Dime a Dozen, I wrestled with old family wounds and new poetic structures. In Jazmin’s Notebook, I beat back my fear of writing prose and struggled to sustain my character’s voice. In My Man Blue, I slipped into a boy's skin and tried that on for size. As an artist, I’m always searching for that idea that will send me to the wall—or send me sprawling! Ultimately, it is in meeting such challenges that I find my greatest satisfaction.

I suppose that’s why series writing holds little appeal for me. Unless I can devise a way to make each book in a series unique unto itself, the very concept leaves me cold. (Developing such a series may well be my greatest test yet!) In any event, writing Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift was definitely a stretch. What else would you call a collection of poems for children about the art of weaving and weaving as a metaphor for life?

The idea was simple. I wanted to write a book about weaving that was faithful to the particulars of the craft, and yet was not a dry instruction book written in verse. I wanted to explore the relationship between color and texture and human emotion. I wanted to create a book with an element of story in which the basics of the weaver’s craft were made both intelligible and interesting for young readers. I wanted to inspire readers to consider taking a closer look at the craft themselves. I wanted to underscore weaving’s universality rather than spotlight the Kente cloth of my own ancestors, exquisite though it may be. I wanted to explore weaving’s metaphorical meaning in a manner accessible to young readers. The question, of course, was how? Okay, so maybe the idea wasn’t simple. But remember, I already told you that I don’t do easy.

I should explain that I, myself, am not a weaver. I’m merely a knitter with a natural interest in all forms of fiber art. Weaving, in particular, first caught my fancy while I was living in Sweden some 15 years ago. I can remember the specific occasion when it did. It was while attending an exhibit on Swedish handcrafts held at the national museum. The installations were impressive in themselves, but most memorable were the demonstrations given daily by craftspeople from around the country. There were muscled metal workers pounding designs into sheets of tin, nimble-fingered tatters who made lace at blinding speeds, and woodworkers shaping utensils out of Swedish pine, to name a few. I enjoyed watching them all, but the loom room was where I spent most of my time, watching the weavers make their magic. I thought about learning to weave but never quite got around to it.

Shortly after I returned to the States, I met California painter and textile artist Nancy Gary Ward, from whom I was to learn a good deal about the art and craft of weaving. During a span of 11 years, I had many opportunities to watch her dye yarn, prepare the warping board, and work on the loom, and I did so with great fascination. I’d frequently ask her questions while she worked, and though I never took physical notes, I busily filed the information away for future consideration. Meanwhile, my knitting designs became increasingly influenced by weaving patterns. Still, it wasn’t until the summer of 1995, as I thawed out from the chill of my first Seattle winter, that the idea for a book on the subject was born.

The story of Aneesa Lee follows her through the process of weaving cloth, from spinning yarn and dying it, to beating the threads into place, to removing the cloth from the loom. Along the way, we learn about Aneesa as a character, about her nearest relatives, and how their love for each other weaves them together as a family. How I got there is part magic and impossible to explain, but certain steps are traceable.

I began with a visit to the Seattle Public Library. There, children’s librarian Toni Myers steered me toward books about weaving basics. I needed to reinforce what I’d learned by watching my friend, plus note specific terminology related to weaving in general, and to the loom in particular.

Little by little, the technical aspects of the book came together in my mind, and I could write, “Measuring unbroken lengths / Of yarn takes time . . . / To wind yarn enough to make the cloth one plans / One adds, subtracts, and multiplies the strands . . .” But this book was to be about more than technique. I needed a character and decided I wanted one who was, herself, a blend or “weave” of races. Why? I saw the text as a literary figure eight, looping back into itself thematically, from poem to poem. I wanted each piece in the book to reinforce the other, to connect the same way threads are tied together in a good piece of cloth, forming a seamless whole. That was the goal, anyway.

I chose a character who is part Japanese because I have a beautiful friend whose heritage is African American and Japanese, and it was a younger version of her image that came to me as I was writing this book. Next, I dove into my files for a name, looking for something exotic. I found Aneesa and added Lee, which I liked because it is a popular surname for both Japanese and African Americans. Now I was ready to write “Aneesa / like her mother / is a weave / of black / and white / and Japanese / a blend that sometimes led to teasing . . .”

As my file on weaving grew, I outlined the key subjects my poems would tackle: searching for dyestuff in nature, dressing the loom, finding emotional solace in the act of weaving, etc. Finding metaphors for the poems I wished to write about the weaving process was another problem, entirely. A trip back to Los Angeles and visits with the fine craftspeople of the Denwar Craft Studio Worskshop in Costa Mesa gave me what I needed in one particular instance.

I wanted to write a poem about spinning yarn, but was stuck on the right approach. I had a rough idea of the process, and had even seen yarn being spun on several occasions. But I’d never watched anyone spin yarn with an eye toward discovering an image or metaphor to describe it. Now I did. I asked one of the ladies to demonstrate spinning for me, and as I watched, I noticed her rocking motion as she sat at the wheel, and the image it suggested was obvious: dance! That became the metaphor around which I wrote the poem “Aneesa at the Wheel,” which begins “Aneesa dances at the wheel / She’s seated, yes, but hardly still . . . / She reels out wispy clouds of cotton / Twist, twirl / Twist, twirl / The spinning wheel whirls, all time forgotten . . .”

As the book began to take shape, I shared my excitement with Nancy. In response, she rattled off a number of weaving and weaving-related terms, shuttle and spinster among them, that have made their way into general use. My excitement heightened. Mind you, I had no idea whether I’d actually be able to sell this book. For me, that was hardly the point. I wrote it for the adventure itself.

By the summer of 1995, I’d decided to write at least one book a year for the sheer love of it, to explore a subject close to my heart, or to take on a project that scared me for some reason, simply so that I could stretch myself. Forget about contracts, nightmarish bookstore events, bad reviews, changing trends. Forget about market predictions, about squeezing myself into a format of someone else’s design. What I needed to remind myself why I got into this career in the first place was to return to the purest form of the work: to write for the love of it. Ending up with something I could actually market was a lovely by-product, but not my primary goal.

First and foremost, Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift was my gift to me. While I certainly wrote it to celebrate someone else’s craft, it definitely returned to me a love of my own. I hope some of that passion shows through in the poetry I created. Even more, I hope that good feeling catches on! Joy is fullest when it’s contagious.

Joy is the least of what I felt while writing Jazmin’s Notebook. Angst with a capital A was more like it. One particular vexation was how to write poetry that was not in my voice, but in the voice of the character. At times, it was difficult to separate the two. However, the delicate matter of writing prose proved to be my biggest hurdle. While I had freelanced as a journalist early in my career, I’d long since gotten out of the habit of writing prose. Moving, then, from poetry to prose was a giant step outside of my comfort zone. To overcome that obstacle, I treated the first third of the book as if it were a collection of poetry, writing each chapter like a long poem, casting the sentences accordingly. Only after each chapter was complete did I reformat the work as prose. By the second third of the book, I was once again comfortable enough with prose to write it directly.

It’s important to note that, in the beginning of this process, I castigated myself for my failure to write prose straight out, as I imagined other writers did. But, by the novel’s end, I realized it doesn’t matter how you get a story out, so long as you do. Whatever creative process works for you is the right one. I wish my teachers had taught me that. Perhaps I’d have felt less repressed at the start.

I remember working on Meet Danitra Brown, and attempting to force it into a traditional storybook format. My characters were well defined, I had a specific sense of place, the particular incidents I wanted to write about were clearly outlined, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t turn it all into a cohesive story. Finally, I took a highlighter and went through the manuscript, marking those portions that were working, and, in the process, discovered I had a collection of poetry that told a story of friendship. Like a sculptor, I chiseled away the excess, and, when I was done, had the book that had been hiding there in plain sight. All that was required of me was being able to think outside of the box. Thinking outside of the box means different things to different people, of course. What constitutes a creative risk for me might not for someone else. No matter. The important thing for my own growth is that I go on taking risks where I find them, that I go on trying themes and genres that are new to me, that I answer, “Why not?” when my editors ask me, “Why?”

Let’s face it, if I wanted safe, I’d never have tried basing a career on writing poetry. (Can I get an Amen!) Lord knows, everyone in the business—and quite a few outside of it!—warned me not to. One such naysayer ended up on the pages of A Dime a Dozen: “Writers are / a dime a dozen / a dime a dozen / a dime—I heard those words one time too many / from my own mother who / worried I would fail and said / Find another dream instead.” As my mother eventually learned, there was no other dream for me. There still isn’t.

I’ve stories yet to tell. How I’ll tell them is anybody’s guess, including mine! But then again, that’s what keeps things interesting. And I like interesting.

Sampling Grimes

At Break of Day. Illus. by Paul Morin. 1999. 32p. Eerdmans, $17 (0-8028-5104-5). All ages.

C Is for City. Illus. by Pat Cummings. 1995. 40p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-11808-9). Preschool–Gr. 4.

Come Sunday. Illus. by Michael Brant. 1996. 32p. Eerdmans, $15 (0-8028-5108-8); paper, $7.50 (0-8028-5108-8). Preschool–Gr. 4.

A Dime a Dozen. Illus. by Angelo. 1998. 54p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2227-3). Gr. 5–9.

Hopscotch Love and Other Poems. Illus. by Melodye Rosales. 1999. 39p. Lothrop, $14.95 (0-688-15667-3). Gr. 4–8.

It’s Raining Laughter. Illus. by Myles Pinkney. 1997. 32p. Dial, $14.99 (0-8037-2003-3). Preschool–Gr. 3.

Jazmin’s Notebook. 1998. 102p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2224-9). Gr. 5–10.

Meet Danitra Brown. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1994. 32p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-12073-3); paper, $4.95 (0-688-15471-1). Gr. 1–4.

My Man Blue: Poems. Illus. by Jerome Lagarrigue. 1999. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037- 2326-1). Gr. 1–up.

Nikki Grimes is an award-winning poet and author of many books for children. She is also a fiber artist with a specialty in knitting.