Home Sweet Home

A close-up of the center applique panel. I love how it looks with the scrappy blocks.

Between hockey tournaments, track meets, Speech and Debate tournaments, my sister trip, and various family commitments, I have been home for a grand total of three weekends since the beginning of February. My life has been ridiculously busy and while it has been fun, I haven’t had a whole lot of quilting or writing time.

Normally, we’d do something fun and go camping on Memorial Day weekend, but this year, it was prom weekend and with two kids in high school, we got to stay home!! I was soo happy!!

It was all about the hair, the clothes, and the dates . . . until they left. Then, it was all about actually finishing a quilt top and parking my butt in a chair with my lap top and writing. I actually got to say hi to my husband too. It made for a great holiday weekend.

I finished the center of this quilt applique on a road trip a few weeks ago, and I had finished all of the blocks last fall. I finally got all the sashing in and the whole center put together a week or so ago.  At that point, I discovered that I not only didn’t have enough fabric, but that I had cut the selvage off of the fabric I did have and I had no idea how to get more. Thankfully, a brilliant woman in a Reno quilt shop (I was on another trip to another sporting event) identified it correctly, so I could order some. The only place I could find any was from a quilt shop somewhere in Minnesota – thank God for the internet!

No borders yet!

I could have left it without borders, but I wanted it a little bit bigger. I also wanted the blocks to “float” a little more in the quilt’s center. Happily, the fabric arrived on Friday, just in time for my three whole days at home. I got the borders on this morning, and I like how it looks.

Now, it just needs some quilting, and it can go on the bed. One UFO down, nine to go!

On Expectations

As they say, anticipation is half the fun. We get to imagine perfect outcomes for any experience we may dream up, but when the job, book, vacation, or even the restaurant I’ve just tried doesn’t live up to my expectations, disappointment ensues.  Expectations make me focus on the outcome, not the journey, and I wonder what opportunities I have missed out on because I decided on the expected outcome before I  had the experience.  That sounds ridiculous, but its the truth.

I live in Nevada, home to slot machines in each and every grocery store. Gambling exists because of this whole idea of focusing on the outcome – players think if they just “play” one more time they’ll win big, with no attention paid to what’s happening right now which is, “OMG, I’m losing all my money!!” I tend to do this (though not with gambling) because it is often far more fun to think about possibilities rather than “what is” or “what I should be doing right now to make that possibility happen.”

This past week, I was needing some creative inspiration for a quilt, and I came across this video. It was on a site on Design Principles, which I found kind of funny, but  I loved the concrete example of people stepping up to meet expectations.  Check it out – it’s really cool!

What is the lesson here? People step up to meet expectations others have for them.  They don’t just lead to disappointment but to people achieving great things.

Last week I had a fishbowl style Socratic Seminar in two of my Inclusion 10th grade English classes.  An inclusion class just means that there are 5-10 kids in the class that struggle with the subject.  They’re generally kids who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan ie. they require special ed. services). I co-teach it with a Special Ed teacher, so we can give those kids the support they need. It works really well because it includes kids, rather than excludes them by parking them in the “resource room.”

I have used socratic seminars in honors classes and wasn’t sure how a population of students who tend not to be quite so engaged would do. The seminar entails putting six desks in the middle of the room in a circle. The rest of the desks are set in a larger circle facing in.  Six students start in the middle and begin their discussion on whatever text we have been reading, in this case Elie Wiesel’s Night.  They then proceed to have a discussion.  If somebody wants to go in, they get up, quietly tap on the shoulder of one of the people in the middle, and the students trade spots.

The kids loved it.  I only had one student out of almost 60 (in two classes) who refused to enter the circle. They didn’t want to quit talking. Students who never speak up in class got upset when somebody “tapped them out.” My co-teacher and I were shocked.  These kids put my own book club to shame with the depth of their responses and their reliance on the text to support their opinions.

The kids were prepared. They had done the reading. They had written responses to the reading, and prepared “Big Questions” (questions that don’t have one right answer) to ask about it. I had also told them that I had only ever done this in honors classes, and it was up to them to make it work.  I set the expectation high and they stepped up.

So what’s the lesson here? I need to raise the bar, not only for myself but for my students and even my own children. Not so high that they can’t be met, but high enough that I force both myself and my kids out of the status quo where many of us (myself included) happily schlump along.

Every Story HAS NOT Been Told

The idea that every story has already been told is a potentially depressing one for a writer embarking on a writing journey.  The problem with this saying is that it’s patently false.  Every story has not been told.  When people say this, they mean that every story archetype or pattern has been discovered.  Examples of such archetypes are the hero’s journey, the rags to riches tale, or rebirth and transformation.  There are also a slew of archetypal characters such as the gambler, the hero, the villain etc.  Thousands of pages of academic study have been devoted to defining these archetypes in both literature and the human psyche.

As a writer, these are a gift.  They provide us with a pattern, a starting place.  However, archetypal plot patterns and characters allow for an infinite number of combinations which can be imagined and reimagined.  That is where writing gets fun and why I can safely say that every story has not been told.

I like having a starting place, knowing that if I have a character who is going on a journey, she will learn some sort of lesson through the journey or else what is the point?  Knowing this allows me to imagine and create her journey with an infinite number of variables.  I get to inhabit the world of “what if?”

This is one of my favorite places to live in my quilting world too.  I always start with a pattern, but rarely, if ever does my finished product look like the given quilt.  I always tweak it in some way, or I use a completely original pattern that I design myself.  The fun part about quilting is that even when two quilters use the same pattern, the quilt never turns out the same.  This is no different than two writers using the same archetype.  Their stories will always differ.

A few friends of mine completed the same kaleidoscope pattern, and their finished products illustrate my point.  These quilts were all based on the same pattern, but through variation in color, value, borders, and fabric choices, the quilts appear to be entirely different patterns.  They’re not, but they’re all beautiful and successful creations.  They each tell a different story though the pattern remains the same.

This is how creativity and archetypes (or patterns) work.  We can start with a foundation and then vary it to our hearts content, and that’s what makes writing or creating of any type so much fun.

Fear of Finishing

Last week I pulled out a bunch of fabric to start a new quilt.  It’s not that I don’t have enough current projects to work on, (there are at least eight).  It’s that I like starting projects.  There’s so much potential at the beginning of a project, whether it’s a new quilt or a new story.  In my mind, it will turn out amazingly well.  I can picture the beauty of the quilt, feel the flow of the words.

The fabric I pulled sat on my ironing board for about five days, right in front of a quilt that is stuck to my mini-design wall and has been either on the wall or shoved in a basket on the shelf for, well, about five years now.  Obviously, that project has not had my undivided attention.  It did at first, when I started and tackled it merely for the challenge.  This project entailed drawing a picture (I don’t draw), enlarging it at the print shop, tracing it all onto butcher paper, labeling each little piece, ironing it to the back of the fabric, and stitching it all back together again.  It was a long tedious process, one of those that you get halfway through, start drinking and then think “what the hell was I thinking?!?” We’ve all had them.

The first part looked like this:

The stars have TINY pieces!

This took FOREVER, so I bagged that plan, and went with this:

The pieces are slightly larger and easier to work with here.

The entire quilt is now done except for the hands.  I appliqued them on, decided they looked like lobster claws, and shoved the thing back into the basket for another year.

                                

Last summer, I got it out again and added some thread to try to add some shadows and fingernails to the hands.  It helped, but they still don’t look like I want them to look.  So I shoved it back in the basket.  It came out a few weeks ago.  Now, it’s on my wall, sitting right next to where I write.  Or, more accurately, where I haven’t been writing, but where I’ve been sitting, staring at the screen or the paper, trying to finish the last stretch of my novel.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about “finishing.”  I have two projects that are two of the most difficult I’ve ever done: my hand quilt and my novel, and I’m struggling to finish them.  I’m learning that I have a hard time finishing hard projects. I start to doubt myself, decide it’s going to stink anyway, and start on something new and easier.  I realized that’s what I’d done this past week when  I pulled fabric for a new and easy quilt, one that I know will turn out, and also one that I know won’t challenge me at all.

I have never thought of myself as someone who avoids a challenge; I take them on all the time.  My hand quilt, my novel, even this blog are all challenges I’ve taken on.  However, somewhere along the way, I must have decided that it’s the finished project that is the most important element.  Intellectually, I know that is a fallacy.  The finished project is not the most important thing.  Really.  I learn something every time I work on the damn hand quilt as I do every time I sit down to write. It’s all about the journey . . . right?

Emotionally, I’ve decided my problem with finishing a difficult project is that it just might suck.  My hand quilt might look like lobsters trying to sew and my novel might serve better as kindling for the wood stove, but if I don’t finish, they’ll always have the potential to be perfect!  I’d love to say I’m mature enough to finish a hard project, accept the lessons of the journey, and move on, but I’m finding that the reality is, I’m not.  I’d clearly rather keep working on these projects indefinitely rather than face the fact that they might not live up to my expectations.  I might let myself and everyone else down.  That’s scary, and in a nutshell, I don’t like it.

However, to try to overcome this new little core belief I have discovered about myself, I’ve decided that I’m not starting any new projects until the hard ones are done.  I put all the fabric I pulled for the new easy quilt away.  I’ll try to make the lobster claws on my quilt magically transform into hands, and I’ll also create a fabulous resolution for my novel . . . hopefully.  In any case, they’ll be done, perfect or not, and I can start fresh.

How do you say a word without really saying it?

I had an interesting conversation with one of my students this past week.  He decided that since he has been suffering from a severe case of Senioritis since August, now that the Forensics season is almost over, he’d like to write a new expository speech.  Apparently, his apathy might be wearing off, but we’ll see if the speech actually gets written.  For those of you who don’t know, an expository speech is a ten minute informational speech using visual aids.  The kids make these elaborate “boards” that have interactive elements and pictures that go along with their speech.

“Okay,” I said.  “Any idea what you want to write it on?”

He grinned.  “Ya, bad words, like . . . the F-word.”  He paused, “Can I do that?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Can you write a whole speech without ever saying your topic? Can you dance around it that much? Because you can’t swear in your speech.  I won’t let you compete if you swear.”

He smiled. “Yep, that’s the challenge. I think I can do it.”  We then proceeded to think of all the ways people have devised to refer to a swear word, or even swear, without ever really swearing.  Fudge is one example.  A more current one is “Frick.” People will actually say, “Oh fudge” and “what the frick?”  Really?

Here are the strategies we’ve come up with so far.

  1. Use a word that sounds similar to the offensive word but is oddly benign.  Fudge, for example.
  2. Use any word that has the same initial sound and final sound such as “frick” or “shoot.”  This is similar to #1.
  3. Or, just use the initials.  Texting has brought this one to the forefront.  WTF sounds for something other than Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for example.
  4. Cut out the bad part and use the initial.  Everybody knows what an a-hole is, but technically, you haven’t said the “bad” part of the word.  If you don’t know what one is, it is not the hole that comes before the b-hole.
  5. Use a non-word.  I’m not sure how to type this as it is a totally verbal usage.  It would work in a speech though. Two examples that come to mind are from the film The Christmas Story, one of my all-time favorites.  Example #1 – when Ralphie loses all the nuts to the tire and his Father has a tirade, and Example #2 – when his mom calls his buddy’s mom to tell her that her son said “fudge,” and the mom begins beating her son while Ralphie’s mom listens. In both cases, you don’t hear a swear word, but you KNOW that’s what they are saying.
  6. Provide the entire history of a word, its etymology which is its origins in Old Latin or wherever it came from. For example, there is a word in our language that is derived from the Old English word, “scite” meaning dung.  I’m thinking you can figure out the word.
  7. Synonyms are useful.

Feel free to add to our list if you have any fabulous strategies; I think he could use the help, and maybe the motivation too.

Where do scenes come from?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve spent the last two weeks taking notes and writing down ideas anticipating the day I’d have time to sit down and write something.  After working probably 75+ hours over each of the last two weeks (sometimes being a high school teacher and coach can suck every second of every day and every ounce of energy from me, and I write nothing, including my blog), I finally spent much of the day on Sunday actually writing and putting those notes into action, fitting all the little pieces of the puzzle into scenes that hopefully tell a good story.

Where did the scene ideas come from? Let me share:

  •  Historical research – a good half of my novel takes place in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. I love research and history, so writing this part has been fun.  Some of the interesting facts I have discovered that I couldn’t leave out of the story include the existence of a library at Fort Hall, Idaho.  A “mountain man” refers to it in his journal and his visits to get books.  Another is that Indians used porcupine quills tied together with rawhide to brush their hair.  There are numerous little details like this that I find fascinating.  I don’t know if they’ll all find their way into the final draft, but I’ve enjoyed finding them and figuring out how to include them without slamming the reader with history.  I don’t want a reader to read a passage and think, “wow, that scene was written merely for that random piece of trivia.” I want it to flow but also to reflect some of those details that make history so interesting to me.
  • Planning – some scenes I’ve just had to plan from beginning to end following classic scene structure.  What are the characters’ goals? What is the action? What is the major conflict? Who’s going to talk to whom? And finally, what is the disaster that will finish the scene and raise the stakes for everyone?
  • The muses come to play – this is my favorite.  When I sit down, I almost always have a general idea of what I want to write or where I want to go, but then as I start to write, great things start to happen.  Events that I haven’t planned occur.  Characters have great conversations or arguments.  Wise and witty words pop from their mouths. These are days when I feel like a writer.
  • Stories or conversations I hear – yep, if I know you and you tell me something funny or crazy or I’m with you during a noteworthy event, I figure its fair game.  I wonder, “how could I tie that in”? These are not stories that completely change the plot, just little things.  For example, last week I was shopping with one of my students for supplies to run a concession stand, and the store didn’t have any more of that disgusting nacho cheese sauce.  (If you don’t think it’s disgusting, put it in your crockpot for six hours with HS kids ladling it all over the sides, and then try to wash the crockpot.  You won’t ever eat it again.)  Anyway, as I was panicking over the lack of nacho supplies, he looked at me, grabbed his phone and said, “Don’t worry Mrs. Isaman, I’ll just call my Sysco lady.  She’ll take care of us.” You’re Sysco lady? For those of you who don’t know, Sysco is a restaurant supply company.  The entire conversation sounded like some sort of nacho drug deal.  The Sysco lady pulled the products for him (nacho cheese and hot dogs) and dropped it in the shed for him to pick up later. I’m not kidding. To explain, his mom is a caterer and he has worked for her for years, hence, the Sysco lady, but it was really funny, something that will probably appear, somewhere, someday in some piece of writing.
  • My own crazy life – Have you ever said or written something and as soon as it came out of your mouth or appeared on the screen, you felt sort of surprised that you knew that, shocked by your own wisdom, but then you thought about it, and realized why you knew it?  You knew it because you lived it, not the exact situation but the feel of it.  That might sound strange, but I think reaching middle age has given me something to say.  I’ve lived half of a life, and I’m comfortable sharing and reflecting on it.  I wasn’t even five years ago.  This is the part of the scene that isn’t just the conflict or the action, but the explanation of it, the why.  The part when the character reflects on what has happened or what will happen.  It’s the character part of the scene.

Where do your scenes or ideas come from? I’d love to hear.

Books at Night

As a lover of books, bookstores, color and design, I fell in love with the following video.  I have no idea how the creators did it, but it made me smile.  It also reminded me of two of my favorite films Toy Story and Night at the Museum.  While those focus on what happens with unsupervised toys and historical icons, this little film envisions what all our beloved books might be doing when the lights go out.  Enjoy.

‘Tis the Season

Following the Christmas holiday, I was talking to a friend expressing my frustration with my lack of progress on my novel.  I told her I had been thinking a lot about it, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t been able to sit down and write much on it, or at least as much as I felt I should be writing.  “’Tis the season,” she said.

“I know.  It’s so busy with . . . stuff!” I replied.

She laughed and said, “That’s not what I mean at all.”

“What are you talking about then?” I asked.

“It’s winter,” she replied.  We were talking on the phone, and she obviously noted my silence which prompted her to continue with an explanation.  “Winter,” she said, “is the season for dormancy, for the plants and trees to rest before all their growth in the spring.  Why would you be any different? Can you be creative and productive 365 days a year? Is it reasonable to expect that of yourself?”

Hmmmm.  These are great questions, and their answers made me pause because I think she’s right.  I have noted throughout this past year that my creativity comes in spurts.  Sometimes I am highly productive and other times . . . I’m just not, but are my “unproductive” times necessarily “unproductive”?    Or am I just like anything else in the natural world which follows the cycles and rhythms of forces far greater than us?  Why do I expect myself to produce all of the time? Why have we created a society that demands that of us?  I’m not sure that makes any sense whatsoever.

I don’t mean to say that I’m just like an ant or a tree at the mercy of mother nature, but I do think that she made a valid point, one that allowed me to back up and back off of beating myself up for my perceived lack of progress because since my “creative dormancy” began.

Perhaps the most heartening idea behind all of this is the idea of spring which is the season for growth.  Spring has never failed me; it always will come.  I will welcome it, both the green leaves and new growth in my own life, with open arms.  I’ve always looked forward to spring, or to any new season for that matter, for the change in the weather, but this year, I have a little different view of it, and I think I like it.

Crazy Quilts = Crazy Women?

Crazy quilts don’t equate with crazy women now, but the fiction of the late 1800’s tells a different story.   Crazy quilts were all the rage during the mid-1870’s but began to drop from favor during the mid-1890’s.   An article in Dorcas magazine explained the then current fad, ‘Of all the ‘crazes’ which have swept over and fairly engulfed us, there is none which has taken a deeper hold upon the fair women of our land that this one of the crazy patchwork . . . Many a woman with strong artistic taste finds no other outlet for it than in work such as this’” (Jenkins, The American Quilt Story, 73).

Crazy quilts are made of bits of silk and velvet pieced together in a seemingly haphazard, or crazy, manner.  They are then heavily embroidered with fancy stitches and figures.  The designs do not follow a strict block format, as do traditional quilt tops, which allows for artistic license in terms of the patterns, colors, fabrics, textures, stitches, and even threads.  This creative freedom is a far cry from the oft hated “stints” of needlework the young women throughout the 19th Century were required to complete.  Nineteenth century crazy quilts were some of the first art quilts to appear in the quilting world, but perhaps they were viewed as a little bit too crazy.

The main characters in the short stories that focused on crazy quilts during the latter years of the 19th Century are all young women who are desperately conniving and manipulative in their attempts to catch a husband, and the authors tie the young women’s “crazy” behavior to the influence of the “crazy” quilts upon which they work.  Thus, the symbolic use of the quilt is negative in these texts in that the crazy quilts do not allow their makers entry into the traditional community of married women, or the women’s sphere.  Only one story I found offers a positive view of the crazy quilt, but even the main character in this piece serves as a one-dimensional figure in her complete goodness and self-sacrifice.

“The Career of a Crazy Quilt,” published in 1884 in Godey’s Lady’s Book, highlights the difficulties in both making a crazy quilt and achieving life’s most important goal for a young woman, marriage.  The young women in the story lie and cheat to complete their crazy quilts, but they only achieve marriage, and a subsequent welcome into the woman’s sphere, when they set those quilts aside.  The two young friends, Heloise and Marie, decide to make crazy quilts, and they resort to almost anything to get free samples of silk for their quilts.  Marie’s fiancé, Dory, warns her of the dangers of crazy quilting and begs her not to beg for scraps.  Marie, of course, becomes indignant at the suggestion that she might stoop so low, only to do so later in the story and lose her fiancé.  Heloise goes so far as to break the law and petition a fabric company for a packet of samples under a fictitious corporate name as the fabric companies will no longer send free silk samples to women.  She, of course, gets caught but ends up marrying the representative from the fabric company who catches her.  While these young women will stoop to any means to create their quilts, their behavior is redeemed as their future husbands forgive their behavior and save their reputations.  The young women renounce their foolish ways, negate their creative ambitions, and enter the domestic sphere through their marriages.   The quilts, of course, are completed in time for the double wedding ceremony.

A second story, “The Story of a Crazy Quilt” (1885) by L.E. Chittendon, also focuses on a young woman’s ambitions for marriage, and she too ultimately catches her man but only after putting aside her crazy quilting for a full year.  In the fiction of the time, crazy quilting was perhaps a bit too crazy, bringing about impulsive behavior in otherwise well-mannered young women, behavior which did not suitably reflect the ideology of the home.  Interestingly, crazy quilting died out as a fad fairly quickly.

Another 1885 story titled “A Crazy Quilt” was published about two young women who also strove to get married.  Unfortunately for them, they were vacationing at a “regular death-in-life sort of place” without enough social interaction to suit them.  Because they have nothing else to do, the girls gossip and work on their crazy quilt, but these girls do not end up marrying.  Instead, one of the girls shows the quilt to a group of young men and realizes that “we’re ‘lowed to chuse some bits of our livin’, and to make what we please out of ‘em” (607) which her Granny translates into scripture, declaring, “Our heavenly Father in His word tells us that belong to Him to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and tremblin’.’ So we go at it.  We take our caty-cornered pieces, our zig-zag and criss-cross pieces, an’ put our lives together, black, blue, an’ white, all a-slant an’a-skew.  Then ‘long He comes an’ in drops the gold an’ silver stitches, and on this or that dark or crooked place falls lilies of the valley and roses of Sharon.  Don’t you see?” Though they don’t all understand or accept the lesson, it is clear to the reader, and this lesson, too, inhibits female creativity.

In 1885, women could try to create with their fabric, but in the end, only God could make it beautiful.  The message is clearly that whatever these women do to their quilt, they won’t ever be able to achieve true beauty, despite the artistic license they are taking with the crazy quilt.

The only story I found in which a crazy quilt serves as a positive force is one in which the young quilter is injured and essentially destined for spinsterhood.  In this story by Sidney Dayre, “Ruth’s Crazy Quilt,” (1886) young Ruth dreams of becoming a teacher and helping her mother with their household expenses, but alas, Ruth falls and becomes unable to walk.  As she languishes in bed, depressed that she can no longer help her mother, she begins to embroider her brother’s socks and to stitch a quilt. Ruth ultimately sells her crazy quilt for $300 and regains the use of her leg.  As Ruth’s aims were of the most angelic sort, her crazy quilt saves her mother from a life of drudgery.  She did not make the quilt to participate in the current “rage” of crazy quilting but did it out of the kindness of her heart.

The sentimentality and moralizing in these stories is somewhat galling to our contemporary sentiments as they completely espouse a domestic world as a higher aim for young girls, but we must not apply our modern sentiments to the meaning behind these stories.  Women must make the most of a bad situation, work hard to create a loving home despite any setbacks, and always take the moral high road as did Ruth.

Thankfully, women can now be as crazy as they want with their fabric creations, and their creative endeavors will not reflect at all upon their aspirations (or lack thereof) of becoming a wife.

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!