Nikki Grimes on Writing From the Inside Out and Back Again
Nikki Grimes is an author of fiction and poetry who has received five Coretta Scott King Book Award recognitions. In this column she discusses her writing process. Whether it’s her focus on character development, the story behind Bronx Masquerade (Penguin, 2001), or her personal experiences that influence her research and writing, Grimes’s insights reveal the dialectical nature of writing.
Trusting the Process
By and large, I am a character-driven writer. I don’t always know the story I’m going to tell, but oftentimes a character begins to whisper to me what story they want told.
For example, Jazmin in Jazmin’s Notebook (Penguin, 1998) told me things about her that I didn’t know going in. The trick is to learn to trust the writing process; trust your individual process enough to keep writing even when you don’t know where the story is going.
I remember I got really terrified when I was working on Jazmin’s Notebook. I had a great editor who would call me periodically. I’d be panicky because I didn’t know where the story was going, and she’d say it was okay, that I’d figure it out, and to just keep writing.
I did keep going, and about two-thirds of the way through, I had that “aha” moment when I suddenly knew what the story was about, and it all sort of fell into place for me. It’s a strange kind of process, but I have learned to trust it.
Writing Bronx Masquerade was an incredible challenge. For quite some time, I had wanted to write a book exploring a classroom of high school students during the course of a year, and I knew I wanted to do the book in both poetry and prose.
Initially, I had outlined 33 possible characters and the storylines or issues that each character would deal with. But then I realized I didn’t need 33 stories, because 18 already felt like a classroom to me. So I just explored those characters and those stories, and then the book came together in a couple of interesting ways.
First, I wrote all the monologues and initial poems. Then I set it aside, because I work very much in sort of a jigsaw puzzle process. I just work on the individual things that come to me. I had all these individual monologues and matching poems, but I didn’t yet know what overriding story they were going to tell. So I set it aside and went on doing other work, including school visits.
One of the school visits I did was to a local high school, where a poet friend of mine is an English teacher. While I was there, he held an open mic session, which he’d been doing for several months, and it had become all the rage. I became really excited about what was going on there with poetry, and the memory of that just stayed with me.
I picked up my Bronx Masquerade manuscript about six months later and was contemplating what would be the overriding storyline when I remembered that school visit. I realized that an open mic session in my book was a perfect, natural skeleton on which to hang all my monologues and poems.
Filling a Need
I’m very service-oriented in my approach to writing: I choose themes primarily because I see a need for books dealing with those issues, and then I try to fill that need in my own way. I’ve done it with grief, with blended families, and with foster care systems.
I connect with each story emotionally on some level, whether or not it is my experience. So, I start there, and then I move into research mode. In this way, I’m not only bringing my experience and observations to the page, but also looking at the subject in a broader way.
The Road to Paris (Penguin, 2006) is very close to me. It’s a much kinder, gentler version of my own experience in the foster care system. As I visited schools around the country and met kids who are in foster care, I was not seeing much in the way of literature that really spoke to that experience, especially for the younger ones. So, when my editor suggested that I might want to explore that, I agreed that it was time.
Questions for reflecting on Nikki Grimes insights:
- What events sparked Grimes’ interest to make her want to write?
- What events spark your interests and make you want to explore a subject?
- Try writing by letting a character’s story unfold as you go—rather than knowing in advance where the story is going. What are some of the challenges and rewards of this approach to writing?
This post was originally published as an article in Carin Bringelson and Nick Glass’ monthly column for School Library Monthly.