Friday, November 11, 2011

Jeanne Walker Harvey on My Hands Sing the Blues

My Hands Sing the Blues by Jeanne Walker Harvey, from Marshall Cavendish (a publishing house with vision, judging by just a few recent and backlisted titles) is a childhood biography of artist Romare Bearden. Jeanne has recently taken her picture book on the road. She's been to The Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has been hosting a Romare Bearden retrospective in honor of the centennial of the artist's birth. She was the featured speaker at Bearden Family Fun Day, when children had a chance to do Bearden inspired collages.

In an e-mail message to me Jeanne wrote, "Such fun! And, it was so exciting for me to be talking...where my book takes place -- his birthplace! I met such nice people, including those at the Harvey Gantt Center for African American Culture which is also hosting a Bearden exhibit. And I spoke at the Family Day at the SFMOMA so I've gotten to be at the two places most important to me for this book."

[Uma] Congratulations, Jeanne. As someone who saw this work in manuscript, a long time before it found its voice and current form, I'm delighted to see it in print. (Note to anyone who doubts the power of e-mail: Jeanne and I have never met in person, yet our creative lives connected indelibly over this work!) I'm so pleased to be talking to you now about My Hands Sing the Blues. So, to start, why Romare Bearden, and why a picture book? Talk about how this project came to be.

[Jeanne] I'm a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a number of years ago I gave tours to school groups of an exhibit organized by The National Gallery of Romare Bearden's amazing art. The students and I LOVED his art, especially his huge collages, and the stories they tell about himself and his African American heritage. I realized I wanted to write a book about how the people, places and experiences in his childhood, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, influenced his art. I felt this book had to be a picture book because the story is all about the creation of visual art, and I could not be more thrilled by the incredible illustrations Elizabeth Zunon created for this book. I feel magic happens with a picture book -- something incredibly special happens when the illustrations and words are joined.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?

[Jeanne] I learned that I need to trust my instinct about how a story should be written, even it's outside my comfort zone. I wrote this book in a loose blues format (three line stanzas with end rhymes and repeating phrases) which was totally new to me. I felt that the story I wanted to tell about Romare Bearden needed to be told in this format because of his passion for jazz and blues music. He felt that the way he created his paintings, his collages, was inspired by the give and take, the improvisation of jazz music.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about writing?

[Jeanne] Trust the writing process/journey because you never know what will happen! I learned to trust that I'll get past the pain of those first "drafty drafts" as you call them.

[Uma] That's right. I won't use the Anne Lamott term, not because I'm squeamish but because I don't believe a draft should be quite so easily dismissed. A first draft contains the spirit that made me want to do the work in the first place, so why should disparaging it make me feel more competent? Drafty I can live with. [Stepping off soapbox...]

[Jeanne] I was enrolled in your online writing course in 2007 with Writers Workshop when I hit this (drafty) phase. I had submitted an early version of this book to the group. But then I reread it and felt remorse that I had let the piece out into public, even though it was a supportive group of writers. I asked you if I could withdraw the piece. You said, hold on. You referred me to your article which so articulately set forth the phases of the writing process:
  • read, exult
  • reread, despair
Then you shared one of your tips from your wonderful "20 writing tips that I wish I'd heard 20 years ago": "The beginning is often not what you think it is." You suggested that I begin the book with a line from the middle of my text, "Snip a square of color" which ultimately became "I snip a patch of color." That truly made the difference. My focus became more about Bearden's connections to his childhood, and less about his New York City life as an adult. I was then able to read and absorb the class comments, and move forward.

The last line of my book is what I've ultimately learned about writing and the creative process: "When I put a beat of color on an empty canvas, I never know what's coming down the track." That is, as long as I remember to stick with it and believe in the process!

[Uma] It's true, isn't it, of writing as of any other kind of art? Congratulations on a beautiful book.


  1. Thank you. This is a book I know we will want for our school library (beautiful combination of art, music and words), but beyond that, I loved reading about the process from the drafty (best adjective I've seen so far for first drafts!) draft through to the final sentence. I also appreciated Uma's tips and then on to other helpful resources on that page! Great post.

  2. Congratulations, indeed. The cover is beautiful. Thanks for sharing, Uma.

  3. You're welcome, KaaVonia.

    Joanna glad you liked my use of the word "drafty."