The Muses Must Play

Yesterday, I sat at the computer all morning, ready to write.  I have a time line here.  It’s summer vacation, and it ends in six weeks.  I need to write . . . NOW!  I have goals!  My muses don’t seem to be getting my sense of urgency as they failed to bless me with their presence for the third day in a row.  Apparently they don’t like to be ordered around.

I felt abandoned, so I tried a few different strategies:  I grabbed a favorite book off the shelf and opened it to a random page, reading great writing for inspiration . . . nothing.

I read a few blogs on writing . . . nothing.

I got on you tube and watched some videos of a fiddler since there’s one in the scene I’m writing . . . nothing.

I kept going and standing in front of the refrigerator.  I wasn’t hungry, but thought that feeding my stomach would possibly feed some ideas into my head . . . nothing, other than to make my ass a little bit cushier when I sit down to write.

Blocks that still aren't all sewn together

Finally, I forced myself to write half the fiddling scene until I gave up and left my computer for my sewing machine.

Maybe stitching a few blocks would inspire me.  I pulled some blocks off my design wall and began to put them together.  I was chain piecing them and at the end of each row instead of pulling the blocks out and snipping the thread, I grabbed two random scraps from my scrap bucket, sewed them together and then clipped the blocks off to press.  A friend showed me this technique to save thread.  Ultimately, you get enough pieces of scraps sewn together, and you have a whole new piece of “scrap” fabric, and maybe a teeny tiny dent in the scrap bucket.

Soon, my blocks were pushed aside, and I found myself surrounded with piles of scraps – the ironing board, the floor, my sewing table, all were covered with little pieces that were growing into bigger pieces.

My "new" scrappy fabric

I had a ball.  It was creative, fun, and probably most important, not forced.  I wasn’t planning on spending three hours making new scrap fabric, but I did.  I completely lost track of time.  I didn’t realize how much I needed to just play.  My muses are back this morning; apparently they like to play too.

If I demand they show up, they laugh at me and go their own merry way, off to play without me, leaving me to figure out, yet again, that I can’t force creativity.  I need to honor the process.

The Piss Plant – Once Again Life Proves Stranger than Fiction

The Accused

This spring, starting about mid-April, each evening, when my husband I would sit in our favorite chairs to read, write or watch baseball, we could smell cat piss.  It is not a pleasant smell.  Some days it was strong, others, we could barely smell it at all.  In any case, the cat, Blackberry, was in big trouble.  We banned him from the house.

My daughter had strict orders to make sure the cat was in the garage or outside before we all left for work and school.  She spent an entire afternoon, moving furniture in the family room and spraying each and every spot she could find with carpet cleaner. It didn’t help.  In fact, it got worse.

I called the carpet guy. “Yep, I smell it.  Definitely a cat,” he said as soon as he entered my house, sniffing repeatedly.  He then went on to explain that in order to locate the exact spot that had been sprayed, he needed to use a black light.  Apparently, cat piss has crystals in it that light up underneath a black light.

This is one of those tidbits that writers file away.  What if someday I decide to write a horror piece with a rabid cat in a disco?  I could use that information!

In any case, we now had to make my house dark enough for a black light. It was noon.  I don’t live in a disco.  I have windows, and since we aren’t currently under any threat of nighttime bombing raids, I don’t have black out curtains.  I did, however, have three teenagers at home and a stack of quilts.  We proceeded to hold up these in front of the windows until all the blood ran out of our hands while we watched the carpet guy crawl around on the floor shining the black light.

Anytime anything lit up, he’d put his nose right next to the carpet and take a long sniff.  “Is that it? Are you finding it?” I kept asking.

“Nope, not it,” he kept replying.  This was getting annoying.  My arms hurt holding up the heavy quilt, and he just kept crawling and shining.  I learned that my carpet looks disgusting under a black light.

Even though he never found the spot, he went ahead and treated the entire carpet with some sort of special really expensive pet piss stuff, and then he cleaned my carpet.

The Culprit Piss Plant

The next day, carpets dry, we moved the furniture back.  I sat in my chair and smelled . . . cat piss.  What the hell?

My husband then decided the cat must have pissed on the plant that sits behind my chair and that’s what smelled.  He moved my lone indoor plant outside to the front porch and guess what? The smell vanished.

I decided to scrub the pot and perhaps clean off the pee.  I heaved the plant up, my face buried in its leaves (it’s actually a dwarf tree) and carried it to the sink.  By the time I got it across the kitchen, I was gagging.  The pot was not the culprit.  It was the plant itself.  My dwarf fig tree’s leaves smell like cat piss.

It has now been outside for two weeks, and it’s sucking up enough water that I would think it needs to take its own piss.  It doesn’t, it just smells like it did already.  My kids christened it “the piss plant” and let the cat back in the house.

In fiction, cause and effect are crucial.  Events must lead to, well, something, or why have them?  Likewise,  any effect or event, must have some sort of cause.  In this case, the cause of the cat piss smell in my home is . . . not a cat!  Of  course its not.  That would be so . . . predictable.  Instead its the lovely leaves on my dwarf fig tree proving, yet again, that life is often stranger than fiction.

UFO’s – UnForgivably Ordinary (please revise)

I currently have ten quilting projects in various stages of completion.  In the quilt world, these projects are called UFO’s, or “UnFinished Objects.”  I think, relatively speaking, that ten is not that many but for me, it’s a lot.  In fact, it’s driving me crazy.  I want to work on them, but I also am really compelled to write, to make progress and someday finish this major writing project I’ve begun.

It’s interesting that in the writing world, there isn’t a name that all writers understand as a collection of partially finished work, like the UFO’s in the quilt world.  If I were to ask any quilter about her UFO’s, she’d know exactly what I was talking about.  She might even, like me, be able to put a number on how many she had stacked on her shelves or shoved in closets or under her bed or, well, anywhere there’s space.

I don’t consider my writing projects “objects” in the same way I consider quilts objects, so the acronym UFO of the quilt world doesn’t work as well for my writing.  I’ve been thinking about what UFO could stand for when it comes to my partially finished blog posts (the ones that I will definitely finish and post someday), or that scene that I had to stop writing to make dinner.

Perhaps a half completed chapter that isn’t quite working could be “UnForgivably Ordinary (please revise),” or that random blog post that started out as a good idea but didn’t quite go anywhere might just wither into “UnFinished Obsolescence.”

Perhaps my favorite UFO for writing would be “Useless Fodder I’m Over” for those pieces that I’ve revised, and revised, and revised, and they still suck.  Those will probably never be finished. I’m okay with that.  I’ll shove those in my orphan block basket.  Then at least they’ll have quilty friends to hang with.

All the rest that I finish will hopefully become, like this blog, “Utterly Fabulous Odes.”

Okay, I’m done.

Forgive me.

Unless, of course, if you want me to keep going, and then I could write a great “Unbelievably Fabulous Opus,” but probably not here on this blog. I’d need more space.

Okay, I’m really done.

I think I’ll go work on one of my quilting UFO’s.  I know exactly what that will entail.

Denim Bus Blankie

One Friday per month during the school year, I arrive at school sometime between 5:30 – 6:00 am to head west, 300 miles on a school bus that tops out at 58 mph (safety comes first).  The bus is filled with 25-50 teenagers.  Their sport? Talking, literally.  I coach the Speech and Debate team, and they, more so than the average teen, thrive on the sound of their own voices.  Just imagine . . . I know.  These six hour bus trips can be painful, even to the imagination.

We generally return to the school anytime between midnight and 6:00 am the following Sunday morning.  I spend these Sundays with a Speech & Debate hangover – truly.  It feels like a full-blown hangover without having enjoyed even one drop of Merlot.  Such is the life of a coach in rural Nevada.

My one standby that goes on every trip with me (along with an orange flavored 5-hour energy drink for Saturday afternoon) is my denim quilt.  I am like Linus on these trips, dragging my blankie around with me everywhere.  This quilt is heavy, flannel, scrappy, and warm, the last being a bus trip requirement.  Often, at 3:00 am in February, the bus driver will get sleepy on the return trip home and she’ll crack the window to let in a breath of fresh 5 degree air.  This most often happens when the heater isn’t working quite right.  Northern Nevada in February is cold.  My quilt is required to ward off frostbite.

I’m starting another one next week.  The neighboring High School’s coach, who is my traveling companion and buddy on these excursions, has decided to use up the bins of pre-cut denim she has stuffed in her basement to create her own snuggly denim masterpiece to drag around to tournaments.  We’ll be a matched set.

When I made my quilt, I spent hours cutting up the piles of old jeans I’d saved for years without any preconceived notion of what I would do with them.  She had an assistant do all her jeans.  Apparently her friend has a developmentally disabled daughter who needed a project, and her piles of jeans became perfect squares ready to stitch.  She’s such a great friend that she’s sharing her denim, so I can make another one.

I’ve got piles and piles of cotton strips cut at random widths and lengths; she’s got the denim and muslin foundations, and we’ve set a date to begin.

Even better? Our first bus trip is not until mid-October.  We’ve got plenty of time to finish!

5 Things I Learned from my Dad

As a parent, I like to think that my kids will take my always insightful, wise, and relevant advice to heart when they’re making any sort of decision for themselves.  How could they not?

I know the answer to that question because I am also a daughter who listened to my parents’ insightful, wise, and relevant advice, well, as much as my kids listen to mine.  This means I listened when, for better or for worse, their advice aligned with what I had already decided for myself.  I, like my parents in front of me and my kids behind me, had to figure things out all by myself while my parents watched from the sidelines, hoping that I’d listened just enough to be okay.  Thankfully I did, or at least I think I turned out alright.

Today, I’d like to say thanks to my Dad for offering advice and teaching me even when I didn’t listen, so Dadd-o this one’s for you.  No new BBQ cookbooks or Home Depot gift cards for you this year.  You get something even better, a blog post!   Cheers!

1) After my first blog post, my Dad commented and informed me that I come from a long line of writers beginning with my great, great, great grandmother whose Oregon Trail diary was published by the Oregon Historical society.  Good to know writing is “in my blood.”  He’s also read and commented or emailed me on almost every post since.  It’s nice to know that somebody out there is reading this.  Even if sometimes it’s drivel, my Dad reads every post and believes in me as a writer.

2)  Between reading my posts, my dad surfs the net and reads all kinds of conservative bloggers and websites.  He’s a conservative republican, which he constantly reminds me through article links and jokes.  I am a Democrat.  He loves me anyway, even when I entertain myself pushing all his conservative little buttons. That’s nice to know.

3)   Just about every night since I can remember I have read before falling asleep, even if its just a page or two.  My Dad always did too and passed on is love of books to me.  When I was eight, he installed a reading light into the wall above my bed, so I could read until the wee hours if I felt like it.  While my mom tackled the classics and introduced me to Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables, he  introduced me to Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, and thrillers.   I’m not sure that I have been able to pass on our love of books to my children, but I haven’t given up hope yet.

4)  As a kid, my dad dragged us to church just about every weekend.   In the summer he almost always followed up church with a trip to the beach for the afternoon.  I didn’t always love going to church and I would say now that we’re in different places spiritually, but I’m thankful he introduced me to God.  I’ve learned that God is pretty good to know.

5) Before I got married, my dad presented me with a gift.  He wrote a lengthy piece on everything he wished he had known before he first got married to my Mom.  He learned these lessons from his own parents and their 50 year marriage,  his failed marriage to my mom, and his successful marriage to the love of his life, my stepmom.  I didn’t understand some of his wisdom at 24 when Gary and I tied the knot, but after 17 years of marriage myself, I’m starting to get it.  This is one of the best gifts I’ve ever recieved.  I’m old enough to finally appreciate it and learn from it.

Obviously, I’ve learned many more than five things from my Dad, but this is a blog, not a memoir.  I’ll stop here.  Happy Father’s Day Dad-o.

Thinking teens exist . . . we are not doomed

I judged a round of Original Oratory yesterday morning at the National Forensics Tournament here in Dallas.  No, this is not a tournament as to who can fingerprint the fastest á la CSI but rather a tournament that brings together the best high school speakers and debaters across the country to compete in a variety of events.

The student competitors are an amazing group of young men and women.  (In fact, if you are ever feeling fearful for the future of our country, volunteer to judge next fall at a local Forensics/Speech and Debate Tournament.  I guarantee you will feel better about both this country’s youth and our future.)

In one round, I judged seven Original Oratories.  An Oratory is an original speech written by the speaker, hence the name “Original Oratory.”  Some students made me laugh . . . a lot, while others impressed me with their research or eloquent delivery, but most importantly, they each made me think.  The speeches are both persuasive and motivational in nature, and the best ones leave the listener feeling both inspired and questioning the status quo.

It’s amazing to listen to young men and women question our society and culture.  These kids get it.  They may not have the solutions to our problems, but they are far more aware of what’s going on than we, as a society, often give them credit for.  Their commentary on life is thought provoking and inspired.

One excellent speech addressed the one sided nature of sex education in our country.  In her health class she learned how to properly “install” a condom on a cucumber (really?!?) and knew all kinds of details about the physical mechanics of sex but the curriculum never addressed the emotional impact and consequences of being sexually active at a young age.  Hmmm . . . interesting, and, I would agree, a problem.

In another speech, a student talked about the self-esteem movement that has merely led to a generation of narcissists who consider themselves above average but have nothing to back that claim up.  As a teacher, I can’t say that I disagree with him.

A third speaker in that room tackled Yoda’s quote from Star Wars, “Do or do not.  There is no try,” and he discussed the value of realistic goal setting.

These are Juniors and Seniors in High School who have figured this stuff out early.  They get it. There’s more to sex than what we see in movies and on TV, false praise doesn’t lead to excellence but rather to narcissism, and we need to believe we can achieve realistic goals if we hope to do so.

As a writer this inspires me.  If a teenager can write something that really makes me think, then maybe I can too.  I won’t get there without hard work and some realistic goals, but at forty one, I already know this . . . right?

“My Life is Beige” and other Unsolicited Memoir Titles

Setting:  5:30 am, on the jet way boarding an airplane

Characters:  5 high school students and two coaches (one of them is me)

Situation:  Heading to Dallas, Texas, for the Forensics National Tournament.  HS students are people watching and commenting on all the women’s “bling” and my lack of it.

Student #1:  [turns to coach #1/me] “Mrs. Isaman, you should write a memoir and title it ‘My life is Beige.'”

Student #2:  “Yaaaaa, that is sooo true!!” [everyone laughs, for waayyy too long]

Coach #1 (me): Ouch

Beige?  Really?  Am I so completely lackluster and bling-less?  Apparently to the 16-18 year old set, I am.  I spent the entire flight pondering this.  What exactly is a beige life?  Is beige boring, or reliable and stable?  Dull or consistent?

I’ll go with reliably consistent and choose those words with a positive connotation.  I tried hard not to take offense, but then I considered the alternative.  If I wasn’t beige, perhaps they’d have suggested the title to my memoir be “My life is Puce.”  Then I’d automatically figure they had some deep seated hatred for me, and I’d worry about why.

Or they could have titled my memoir “My life is an Animal Print” at which point I would instantly picture some super blinged out, forty year old with frosted hair and tits that were perkier than theirs . . . a cougar, trying way too hard –  not a pretty picture when I’m spending the week traveling with high school students.  Sounds like some character in a novel (or on Glee) but not me, thank God.

After a little introspection, perhaps beige isn’t bad at all.  I think I’ll take it, without getting down on myself for my consistently reliable and even keel nature, but as for my memoir, I’ve still got a few years of living before I tackle that project, and maybe by then, the title will be “My life as a Blingy Senior Babe,” you just never know.

Literary Black Holes – Part 2

I am an avid reader, and have been my entire life.  I read for the escape, the story, the characters.  I am normally something of a speed reader; if a book grabs me, say “goodbye” to Amy.

My children could be hungry and late for practice while I just finish “one more page.” I stay up far too late on work nights, completely engulfed by a great book.  When I do have to put the book aside and function as a responsible member of society,  I find myself thinking about the story.  I can’t seem to escape the vortex of a good story.  I’m literally sucked in.  I power through it, anxious to find out what happens.

Then, I’m sad. The book is over.  I’ve lost a dear friend.

Not all books affect me like this.  Some I can actually read at a normal pace – well, normal for me.  My family still thinks I read books freakishly fast even if it seems to me that I’m taking my time and really trying to savor each word.  The writer in me has been pondering this lately.

What is it about some books that completely take me over so that I ignore everyone and everything in my life, keep the book on a shelf and read it again while others I enjoy but don’t completely lose myself and all sense of responsibility as I read?  I can take them to the used book store without any feelings of loss, and sometimes I don’t even finish them.

Maybe its just genetics.  My sister does the same thing, but as a single mom with younger kids, it’s a little bit more dangerous for her.  She avoids good books until the perfect time; I used to do this too, but my kids are now teenagers who can at least feed themselves, get dressed, and out the door with their shoes on the right feet.

If its not genetics, and authors actually have something to do with this phenomenon, what is it that pulls me in?  Is it the plot?  The characters? The action? The realistic dialogue? I hadn’t ever really thought about these questions until I started writing  (actually doing it and not just thinking about it), and my life as a reader has changed.  I keep stopping and thinking about all the elements, the structure, of the stories.  I’ve slowed down . . . a little, but I still ask, what sucks me in?
The first, not-so-profound answer I came up with is that they’re just great stories.  It’s all of the elements put together in a compelling way that somehow pulls me in.  But that’s not really an answer; it feels like a cop out.  The books are good because they’re, well, good.  As a debate coach, I would hammer a student who used that circular reasoning in a case, so I need a better answer.

I guess, after much thought, it comes down to what I would call writing style, that elusive, indefinable way with words that every writer has.  However they approach their work, whatever it is they do to draw us in is their style.  Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not so much.

It’s much easier, and not quite so intimidating to think that I can pick and choose what I like and what I want to focus on in terms of my own writing style.  I now read, paying attention to why the authors made the choices they did in their story, and then if I want to, I can try that strategy myself or I can chuck it.  Any book I read, whether I get sucked in or not, has become something of a textbook.  What works?  What doesn’t?

This has even brought me back to some old favorites that I have re-read as a writer. When I’m writing dialogue, for example, I find myself randomly pulling old favorites off the shelf and opening up to sections of dialogue to see how that author wrote it.  It’s hugely helpful to have these masters sitting in front of me as I write, helping me develop.  And even if they aren’t “masters,” they’re at least published which, in my book, makes them a master.

The end result of all this reading and writing, my own writing style.  Maybe someday it too will suck some poor, unaware reader into a literary black hole they can’t escape until the last page.   (Wow – writing fantasy is fun too!)

 

Literary Black Holes – Part 1

This past year, I was blessed with a student who has an IQ many, many points above mine, probably higher than most anyone reading this blog.  He decided to read Atlas Shrugged.  My Dad had re-read it a few years ago and kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year.  It’s a hard back, weighing at least five pounds, and printed in, maybe, an 8 point font.  It’s well over 1000 pages.  I enjoyed The Fountainhead, so I thought I’d tackle Atlas with my student.  I think we started reading this past January.  He’s done.  I’m not.  I tried.  I really, really did.  Despite my student’s encouragement, it’s still sitting on my bedside table, buried at the bottom of my “to read” pile.  I just checked and I made it all the way to page 126.  I enjoyed some of the characters, but the story never grabbed me.  And there it sits, unread.

Great Expectations is another one.  I should be teaching that.  It’s on The List to teach.  I’ve started it four times in the last twenty years, the last time on audio this spring.  In fact the paperback is buried next to Atlas on my table.  Pip’s a funny kid, but the story does nothing for me.  If I can’t read it, there’s no way I can teach it and expect thirty, fourteen year olds to stay with me.  It’s a classic so clearly many, many people have enjoyed it.  I find it, well, boring.

Perhaps it’s the sense of obligation with these tomes that turns me off.   I read The Hunger Games series solely because so many of my students loved it and recommended it.  I  got sucked right into each of those books, reading each of them in a few hours and staying up until 1:00 am one night.  I even drove all the way to town with a student’s gift card to the bookstore to pick up the last one in the series.  She wanted it but could never get into town to use her card (yes, I live in rural Nevada and a trip to town is a minimum hour and a half event).  We made a deal.  I’d pick it up for her if she’d let me borrow it.  It’s a great series if you haven’t read it –  Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” meets 1984.  I loved it as does every student I’ve had whose read it.  That makes me think it’s the action that pulls me in, but in the past few months I’ve also read: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy Turner, The Goodbye Quilt by Susan Wigg, The girl who . . . series by Steig Larssen, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and a few romance novels.  All of these are certainly not action packed thrillers.

These authors have all, somehow, created stories that pull me in, grab me.  How do they do it?  I can come up with pieces to that answer but it’s different for each story. In some, I fall immediately in love with the characters.  I care about them and need to find out what happens.  For others, it’s the social commentary and internal conflict.  The whole idea of wondering what I would do if I found myself in that same situation.  For others its, I’ll be honest, the romance.  I like a good love story.  Sometimes it’s the history I find fascinating and how the author really captures a time period.  All these draw me in.

When I read the last page and close the book, I’ve discovered that it’s not one single thing that I enjoyed.  It’s all of it working together.  Some authors do every part very well, but I’m learning that most of them do a few well.  That’s good to know.  In my own writing, I can do one or two things really well to draw reader in.  I don’t have to master everything.  That’s kind of a relief, actually.  When it comes to my writing, I don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades master of none,” nor do I want the pressure to be a master of all.

Happily, I don’t have to be.

Quilt Stories (or Quilters’ Obsessions with Anything Related to Quilts)

After I started quilting, I discovered quilt fiction.  I had no idea until I started reading a few books with a quilt focus, but this is almost a genre unto itself and it actually has been since the mid-1800’s.  Apparently quilters’ obsessions with anything at all having to do with “quilting” has existed for centuries.  The first two quilt stories were published in periodicals in 1844 and 1845.  They were both called “The Patchwork Quilt,” and they both idealize the quilt as a symbol of domesticity.  The second story is by an author who is unidentified other than “Annette.”  It’s a sad little story about a woman who spends her teen years making her masterpiece of a quilt for her wedding.  Sadly, she ends up as a spinster and finishes the quilt for her younger sister who does find a beau to wed.   The quilt in this story represents love, marriage, and security, and the sister who achieves these goals gets the quilt.  These were highly valued for women in the 19th century who existed in the world of the “domestic sphere.”

It is interesting that contemporary quilt fiction also often uses the quilt as a symbol of domesticity, safety, and comfort though in these more modern stories, quilts perhaps don’t represent love and marriage so much anymore as they represent female solidarity and relationships.  In any case, the quilt is still a prevalent symbol in fiction.

We quilters are an interesting group.  We are not only obsessed with building fabric stashes and stitching, but when we take a break from sewing, many of us pick up books novels about our favorite pastime.  There are an amazing number of novels and stories all about quilts which I find fascinating.  There is even an index of quilt fiction on the web though it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002.  You can find it here.   In a general search of “quilt fiction” on Amazon, I hit 572 books.  That’s a lot for a pretty specific topic like quilts!  In a quick preview of these novels, it appears they can be broken into several sub-genres of quilt fiction (though this is based on a quick review, not any study):  contemporary fiction, historical, Christian, and murder mysteries.  The last two crack me up – they are so very different but both of them frequently use a quilt as a relevant symbol in the story.

My novel will definitely land in the first two categories; though I realize that contemporary and historical might not mesh, in my case they do.  We’ll see how it actually turns out.  In any case, they are the categories I am the most familiar with and the ones I enjoy reading, so it seems that’s what I’m drawn to write.  It’s also fun to combine two of my favorite pastimes: quilting and words (reading or writing) in this story.

I have no idea if publishers consider quilt fiction as a genre unto itself, but I do, and judging from the searches on Amazon and the shelves of fiction books available for sale in my favorite quilt shops, quilters do too.  If anyone who happens to read this blog is interested in reviews on quilt fiction, let me know, and I can add that as a monthly or weekly feature.