Wonky Blocks and Scenes

I have no idea why I am so drawn to anything having to do with quilts . . .  but I am.  I bought my first book on how to make a quilt when I was seventeen years old though I never did make one then.  For college graduation I asked for and received a sewing machine.  I was thrilled.

Though I loved to sew and even dragged my mom’s sewing machine to college with me, I got married and had a child before I actually made my first quilt.  Since then I’ve lost count of the quilts I have made.  I love designing quilts, sewing them, snuggling and sleeping under them, giving them as gifts, reading about them in stories, researching them, and now, writing about them.

My first foray into actually stitching a quilt happened when I talked my mother-in-law and a friend into taking a beginning quilting class.  We made a log cabin quilt, tearing the fabric into strips rather than cutting it.  The fabric got all wonky.  This is my own weird word for a quilt square that is close to perfect but it’s just not quite square, or the seams just don’t quite match up.  It can usually be fixed with tweaking or a bit of “un-sewing,” but it must be dealt with.

Despite some wonky blocks, I felt pretty confident after my first class and also loved the whole process of quilting, so I signed up for a quilting class at the local community college.  This was taught by a professional quilter, and it definitely challenged me.  The pattern had lots of tiny little points and curves.  I learned that stitching a smooth, even curve is HARD.  I made so many wonky blocks that the instructor (who is now a good friend) actually spent most classes sitting next to me pulling out my stitching and making me re-do it while she chatted away with the more experienced women in the class who didn’t need quite as much supervision.

I didn’t start quilting until I had a solid understanding of sewing.  Transitioning those skills to creating a quilt required learning some new skills but also relying on skills I already had.  From my first wonky log cabin, I have grown and improved.   I have even made a few quilts that I would categorize as artsy.  With perseverance, I have progressed.  My fiction journey so far has followed a similar course.

In terms of my writing, I know I can write.  I’ve written numerous academic papers, but on this latest adventure I’ve had to transition those basic skills into the new arena of fiction.  This has required some new skills.   The more I write, the more comfortable and confident I get, but some of the scenes that I’ve written so far have been, well, wonky, not that different from a quilt block that’s not quite right.  They’ll work but just need a little fudging or tweaking to fit the plot’s structure.  I could probably revise them forever and never reach “perfect” in either a quilt or a scene, so I’m accepting that wonky scenes are part of writing just like the occasional wonky block is part of quilting.  And maybe wonky isn’t so bad.  At least for me, its a place to start.

Getting Characters to Come and Play . . . or Not

I’ve been waiting for someone.  This is not someone I know, but someone I want to get to know.  Actually, she’s a character.  I didn’t realize she was a somewhat major character until last week when her role in my story grew.  Now, I need to get to know her in order to move on, but apparently she’s not nearly as interested in getting to know me as I am in getting to know her.

All week, I’ve been asking myself: what kind of person is she?  What is her name?  Her job?  Her ambitions?  All those things I ask myself as I develop a character, and so far, I’ve gotten nothing.

I almost feel like she’s not quite ready to introduce herself, which is an odd feeling.  Is it me?  Have I done something?  Is it possible to inadvertently offend or intimidate a character who lives in my head?

I realize I sound crazy right now.  I feel a little crazy.

I had big plans for writing this weekend.  It didn’t happen, and I’m starting to blame this character.  To be honest, it’s starting to piss me off.  I want to yell at her, explain that I have a novel to write and a busy life.  My weekends are important for making progress, and it’s all her fault that I’m unable to work on it right now.  This is not a good start to our relationship, unless, of course, for some reason, I’m supposed to not like her much, or she enjoys creating drama.  Maybe that’s it.

I’ve tried all my strategies to jump start my creativity:  running, reading fiction, reading “writing” books, quilting, quieting myself and listening, asking for help right before I go to sleep so my subconscious can work on it while I sleep, wine.  Nothing.

Apparently, I just have to be patient which is not my strong suit, but I feel better already after this little temper tantrum on the page.

For some reason, she’s not ready to introduce herself to me.  I guess I’ll have to trust there’s a reason for that and just hope that this week, she’ll be ready to make a grand entrance.

Scrap Strategies

After I finished up my last quilt, I had a giant pile of leftover coordinated scraps from mitered borders and extra blocks.  I stared at this pile of fabric for a while and couldn’t come up with a solution, so I shoved it onto a corner of my cutting table and left it there.  I’m finding that whether I’m quilting or writing, this is a strategy I use often – shove the fabric or plot mess into a corner and ignore it until a solution somehow appears.  It always does.  I just have to be patient.

For this particular quilt mess, I waited until I drove 300 miles to Fallon, Nevada to watch my daughter play soccer.  During a break between games, I found a great quilt shop, Uncommon Threads, and the owner shared a technique to use all my color coordinated scraps.  I’ve already been making my own scrap fabric on a smaller scale, so it was easy to use it with my pile of bigger pieces.

First, I sewed the scraps into a giant strip that was 13-13 ½” wide, and I have no idea how long.  I just made it as long as I could.

The long strip I made first.

Then, I used my 12 ½” square to cut out giant squares, and I got these blocks.

Finally, I cut all those in half and paired them with some tone-on-tone blue I had on hand.  I haven’t sewed the blocks together yet, but when I do, they’ll look something like this.

Not bad for a Sunday afternoon, except for the fact that I didn’t get any writing done.  I did have fun though!

The Quilt as a Symbol in Fiction

Me and My Quilting Buddies

When I got my MA, I had to write a thesis.  The challenge was coming up with some area of literature to analyze that had not been done a million times already.  I love quilts and American lit., so I combined those to interests and somehow convinced my professors that enough short stories about quilts had been published in the 19th century to sustain my research.  I found and read as many 19th century short stories as I could that had a quilt in them or in someway focused on the world of quilting.  I then analyzed the quilt as a symbol in those stories.

It was actually pretty fascinating.

In most of the earlier quilt stories which were published in the 1840’s, quilts symbolized the domestic sphere and all acceptable womanly endeavors.  The quilts were cherished objects and the quilters were kind and loving, representing all that was wonderful about being a woman.

As the century wore on, this changed.  During the entire time period I studied, women had to sew, making all their family’s clothing and bedding.  I can’t even imagine what a chore that would be for someone who hated sewing.  Thus, by the end of the century, well known authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Mary Wilkins Freeman used the quilt to symbolize the stifling aspects of the Victorian era and the demands the “domestic sphere” placed on women.  In their fiction, they describe quilters as gossipy, small-minded women and quilting bees as a never-ending miserable chore.

I have never seen quilts or quilting in this light.  For me, a homemade quilt is an outlet for my own creativity.  It also symbolizes my love for my family and friends through the time and effort they take to create, despite the benefit of a sewing machine..  I love quilts.  I love that they symbolize my creativity, my hard work.  I love that I work on them with a group of my dearest quilting friends, and we celebrate our roles as mothers and wives as we quilt, our own little modern “domestic sphere.”  This view of quilts and quilting is much more similar to the earliest quilt fiction than to most of the stories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A celebration of quilting - I made the center, and the women in the center pieced the borders in a round robin challenge.

In my current writing project, a quilt ties together the historical and contemporary threads of the story, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical significance of the quilt as a symbol of women’s lives and where my novel, which combines both worlds, fits.

I’m not sure if I can answer these questions, or if I even need to, but I’ve been wondering:  What does a quilt symbolize now for women in general?  Is it a symbol of creativity and choices in that women create them if they want to? Or for some women are they still symbols of stifled female ambitions as they were 100+ years ago?   How do I honor my predecessors in quilt fiction?  Does the quilt in my story even need to?  Or does it just need to honor this story?

I guess I’ll find out the answers when I finish, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them.

Dragging my Feet into eBooks

EBooks are here, and apparently they are here to stay.  I have embraced the internet, digital music, my ipod, smartphones, email, blogging, texting, and all kinds of other technological advances, but I haven’t yet embraced the digitized book.  If the “e” stood for excellent, I might be sold, but it doesn’t.  It stands for electronic, and since anyone can publish an eBook in minutes, how can I know if they’re any good?  I like the idea that a traditional book has had more than a few people read it, work on it, and edit it before I spend my money on it.

Apparently this makes me old-fashioned, but as of now, I’m okay with that.

I am also a book store junkie. I love digging through giant book stores, small used book stores and even the local thrift shop to find literary treasures, and I can spend hours there. I adore the stale smell of stacks of old books as well as books with old gift inscriptions inside the front cover.  I lose this experience with digitized novels.

When I pick up a book, I know how to decide if its one I want to read. I look at the cover, read the back, read the front page, and read a page or two in the middle. I check the font and the amount of white space on each page.  I have no idea how to do that electronically.

I am overwhelmed by the whole idea of Kindles, Nooks, the Motorola Xoom (is that zoom?) and the Sony Reader. There’s even a Kindle DX. I thought that might play games like the Nintendo DS, but apparently it’s only a larger version of the regular Kindle which makes me wonder why they didn’t just call it the Kindle XL?

The world is transitioning to eBooks. Two years ago, none of my students had e-book readers. Now, there is one or two in each class. Students bring their eReaders, and I check their progress in percentages. On Monday, they might be 17% done. On Wednesday, 24%. That’s weird.

If I ask how long their book actually is, what do they say? 100%? Um, ya.

Perhaps there is a page count feature on an eBook reader, but I don’t know since I still haven’t succumbed despite some friends’ valiant efforts.

Everyone who has one loves it, and they tell me all about how great they are. The world is heading that direction. Borders’ demise is a sure sign of it. I’m sure eventually I’ll succumb, but I’m dragging my feet and hanging on to my piles of paperbacks for as long as I can.

Six Benefits of Writer’s Block

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block, that hideous stuck feeling when I sit down to write.  Yesterday morning, I finally broke through it, but during my week of being stuck, I spent some time thinking about the benefits of writer’s block. There must be some reason for it or my brain wouldn’t “block” itself in the first place.

Here are the six benefits I came up with:

  1. Your desk will stay clean.  In my life, that’s a small miracle.
  2. You can spend time with family without any guilty feelings that you should be writing.  I spent the weekend as a bona fide soccer mom, traveling to my daughter’s tournament on the other side of the state, visiting with family, baking cookies for my son and not feeling even a little bit guilty for not writing since I still had no words coming to me.
  3. You can catch up on fun stuff like ironing.  All my laundry and ironing is done and no longer clutters up my quilting space, another small miracle.
  4. You can devote some time to alternative creative endeavors. I have a whole appliqué block designed and ready to add to my scrappy quilt top, and I made 25 12” blocks out of extra material from my man quilt.
  5. You have some extra time to get caught up on your reading.  I can’t write unless I read, so I took advantage of it and did just that.
  6. You can start a new different writing project that does strike you.  I began to sketch out a YA novel idea that has been brewing in the back of my mind but hadn’t got to because of my devotion to my work in progress.

I’ve decided to think of writer’s block not as my nemesis, but more as a brain break.  All the activities that I did instead of write somehow fed my creativity in that I didn’t really have to think too much while I did them, leaving some part of my gray matter free to solve my dilemmas in plot and character that had me stopped in the first place.  I enjoyed myself.  I tried not to feel guilty or bad about not getting any writing done, and for the most part I succeeded.

When I sat down to write yesterday and the words started to flow, I couldn’t stop.  I had to force myself away from desk, which already has a nice little pile of messy papers, so I could get to work before the tardy bell.

I’m happy the words are back, but next time I find that I can’t write, I’ll take full, guilt-free, advantage of it, knowing that the words will return.

Messy Desk = Inspiration

I’ve decided to give up on my desk.  I’ve rearranged it, organized it, tidied it dozens of times, but by the end of my every writing session, it looks the same way, disastrous. This is odd for me.  I’m a fanatically organized person.  If there was such a thing called “Organizer’s Anonymous” I would probably be a member. I love going into stores like Office Max and browsing all the organizational supplies.  It’s like how some women feel walking into Nordstrom’s shoe department.  My heart races, I pick up colorful packets of sticky notes or cool expandable files and think about how I can put them to good use, like some other women pick up a pair of shoes and dream of all the outfits they would complete.

In either case, it’s probably some sort of unhealthy obsessive behavior, but one which my writing space seems to be making a stab at healing in me.  Despite repeated tidying sessions and a vow to keep it clean, it just doesn’t.  Almost like it can’t.

I spent 20 minutes the other day scouring the house for my ipod ear buds, so I could listen to music, write, and tune out “Pretty Little Liars,” my daughter’s current favorite TV show.  I searched my bedroom, both my kids’ rooms, the family room, everywhere I could possibly think.  I finally borrowed my daughter’s pair, only to sit down and see a little piece of white wire underneath a precarious stack on my desk.

Several books, a binder, a three-hole puncher, a journal, sticky note pads, a basket of pens, and piles of loose paper balanced atop my long lost ear buds which had been there the entire time.  Thankfully, they hadn’t been completely digested or seasoned with the half cup of coffee I had spilled earlier on the other side of the desk.  I could still use them.

My desk seems to have mind of its own, almost like one of my characters that I think should be responding to a situation in one way but who insists on responding in their way, thank you very much.  I argue with them, but they usually win.  If I insist on doing things my way, I get stuck.  Sometimes, it’s just easier relent, let them have their way, just like sometimes it’s easier to give in to the arguing two year old (or sixteen year old).   So, I’m giving in . . . to my desk.

Writing desk, this is for you:  “You can stay a mess.  You can inspire me in your disastrous, paper laden state.  I will not spend time organizing, tidying, or pondering why you like it this way.  I give up.  I trust you.  I am learning the lesson that maybe I just write better in a messy space.  Thank you for your patience with me, and please, keep the inspiration coming.”