What’s the story behind this trailer trash?

Last weekend, on yet another road trip across the lovely state of Nevada, we saw one of the more interesting sites I’ve seen in the desert.  It was a fence (maybe), but not just any fence, a fence made out of old single wide trailers and dying RV’s, literal trailer trash.  There is a story behind this fence, though I’m not sure what it is.

If fences are built to either keep unwanted people or animals out, or if they’re built to keep wanted animals or people in, what, exactly, is the purpose of this one?

Or is it not a fence at all? Did somebody just decide to line up their old trailers to keep their trailer trash orderly?  It’s not really surrounding anything, functioning as a fence might, so is it even a fence? I’m not sure.

When we first saw it, my husband and I started laughing and I asked him stop to photograph it.  He kept saying, “What? Stop? Why?” By the time he understood that I wasn’t kidding, we were too far past it to photograph, so we had to stop on our way home.

I’ve been thinking about this fence all week.  Generally a fence is built serve some sort of purpose. If you’d like to read a funny tale about gates and fences, check out the short fable titled “The Vigilant Rabbit” in David Sedaris’ compilation of modern tales, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary.  The entire book is funny and entertaining, but in this particular tale, the gate represents power and the gate keeper’s ability to control the movements of the other forest animals.  The problem occurs when the power hungry rabbit forgets to build the fence around the gate, and the gate does nothing to keep out the riff-raff.  This trailer fence reminded me of the gate in the David Sedaris story, a valiant attempt to serve some sort of purpose but one that doesn’t make it, by a long shot.

Visually, this fence is fascinating too as it sort of meanders across the mountain’s base.  Perhaps its actually a giant sculpture.  I’ve been considering what this would look like in a quilt.  But I’d have to figure out the story behind the fence for that quilt.  I wonder how could I tell it through fabric?

One happy, or possibly annoying, result of writing or any creative endeavor for that matter is continually thinking about stories and possibilities. What is the story here? Any ideas?

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.

I’m Free (from an outline that is)

I’m at the point in my story where I’m no longer glued to my outline.  I’ve got about 15,000 words left to go, and I’m finally FREE.  I know some of you are probably thinking that I’m almost done, so really, am I free from my outline?

The answer is clear to me. Yes. I am.

My story has gone in different directions than I had anticipated, but I like it better.  At first, deviating from my plan scared the crap out of me. Ack! I thought, I’m not following my outline, and I am NOT one of those people who are labeled a “pantser” in all of the articles I read about writing.  A pantser is defined as someone who writes by the seat of their pants, no outline, no plan, just a pen (or keyboard) and the muses.

That just would never happen in my life.  I need a plan.  Just about always.  I aspire to be a spontaneous free spirit, but ya, it’s not happening. I have to-do lists for my to-do lists.

I actually have to stop myself from asking my two teenage children the “what’s your plan for the day” question.  Let me preface this by saying that I am not asking them to do chores or anything else. I just want to know their plans so I can plan my day as their plans almost always require something of me, and they generally give me five minutes warning before they need me to drive them to town which, living out in the middle of nowhere, is a 50 minute round trip event.

A typical Saturday morning conversation at our house goes something like this:

“So, what’s your plan for the day?” I ask, perfectly innocently, after they have finally drug themselves from their beds at the alarmingly early hour of ten thirty or eleven am.

“OH. MY. GOD.  Seriously?” They respond and glare at me with sleep encrusted eyes. “Mom . . . is it necessary to always have a plan? Do I have to know right now? I JUST got out of bed! Can you at least let me pee first?” They look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and they lack any appreciation of the fact that I’ve already marked two items off my to-do list and outlined an entire scene.

Yes, I realize it’s a problem, and I’m working on it, so the fact that I am no longer glued to my outline is progress, exciting progress in my mind, even if it’s only for the last ten percent of the entire story. Maybe I’ll morph into a middle-aged free spirit after all.

If you’re an outliner, does writing without one strike fear into your heart like it does me? Or if you’re a pantser, does using an outline completely diminish your creativity?

Just curious.

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.

And the winner is . . . NOT YOU! Deal with it

I’ve spent this weekend like I spend a majority of my weekends, watching kids compete. This weekend I watched my Speech & Debate team competing Friday night and all day Saturday, and then on Sunday, I watched my own son compete in the final day of a hockey tournament.

When I got to the hockey tournament, all the other parents asked me how my debaters did.  Did we win? How many trophies?  That’s all anybody cared about.

Late Sunday afternoon as we drove home while the rest of the country watched two football teams compete, I listened to my husband ask for at least the hundredth time, “who the hell did the hockey schedule this year? Why was there a tournament TODAY?  It’s the SUPERBOWL!”  He banned all radio or access to anything that might give away clues as to the game’s outcome as he and my son had  recorded it and wanted to pretend to watch it in real time when we got home.  Despite the fact that he’s a devoted Cowboys fan, he wanted to watch the game, to see who won the season.

I did cheat on my husband’s rules a little bit as it is a five hour drive home, and I checked my twitter feed.  I found out that the commercials are great and some people found Madonna’s half time show tasteful and well done while others found it boring and lacking in Madonna swag. My verdict?   After finally watching halftime at ten o’clock last night, it was a little dull.  I also found out that I follow people on Twitter who cared about the game about as much as did . . . not much.

More than anything, I find it fascinating how obsessed our entire culture is with competition.  For many, winning really is everything. Even if you’re not into sports, the nation is currently obsessed with who is going to win the republican nomination.  Competition is virtually impossible to escape.

As a coach one of the most difficult skills I’ve had to coach kids on is not how to improve their speaking skills, but rather how to lose.  When they lose in real life, they don’t just get “another life” to start the game again like they do in their favorite video games.  They don’t have any idea how to lose despite living in a society which values competition almost more than anything else.  In some ways it’s unfair.  In many youth sports, the motto is “everyone plays” and a score is not kept.  I get that little guys should just play for the fun of it, but then we send them into a world where they compete, they lose, and they are expected to know how to deal with appropriately.

My team has come a long way on this front as have my own kids.  They know that if they need to pitch a fit after losing, they better do it off by themselves where nobody else sees it.    They know to congratulate the winner, hold their heads up, know they did their best, and no matter how painful, paste a smile on their face.  They need to show some class: no showboating if they win, no hysterics if they lose.

As a coach who hates losing as much as my team, I’ve had to learn to do this too.  It’s really hard.  Winning is much more fun, and it’s also what keeps us going.  We hear about businesses that fail or writers who got hundreds of rejections, but then we hear about that one business that some kid developed in his dorm room and is now worth billions or that one story that a woman wrote in a café with her infant son in a stroller and we think, “if they can do it, maybe I can just achieve a half of one percent of their success,” and we keep going.  Competition does that for us.  It drives us. Even though somebody has to lose, somebody also has to win.

While I’m not sure that turning everything into a competition is the best approach to life, I still want to win in the publishing game and the business game, and I’ll keep trying, holding my head up and pasting a smile on my face if I need to until I do achieve the levels of success I want.  I’ll get there someday, even if I lose a few times along the way.

And in case you’re wondering, my speech and debate team won eight trophies (six in speech and two in debate), and the hockey team went 2-2, placing third overall.  I’m guessing you know how the superbowl ended up.

Scissor Slut

Yes, they actually come in a velvet lined box. Diamonds do too.

I’m a little bit crazy about my good fabric scissors. In fact, I guard them kind of like how Rumpelstiltskin guarded his name, and like good old Rump, I get a little crazy when somebody steals my scissors and potentially ruins their magic.

There are paper scissors all over the house, but for some reason, occasionally one of my kids will grab a pair of my good fabric scissors to cut wrapping paper or some chunk of cardboard they need to decorate their science fair board.  They don’t quite understand the ensuing meltdown.  “Geez mom, they’re scissors,” they’ll say as I snatch my prized scissors from their hands while screeching, “Oh my God!  You didn’t actually cut paper with these did you?”  I clutch them to my breast as if I have just rescued a child from an oncoming semi-truck or a princess has just guessed my name, while they stare at me like I’ve completely lost my mind.

What they don’t understand is that my quilting scissors are sacred.  They really are just scissors, but there’s something about cutting fabric with a really sharp pair of shears that just . . . satisfies.  It has a certain sound and feel that dull paper scissors could never hope to replicate.

I have all kinds of fabric scissors, probably far more than are actually necessary, but I love all of them.  There are the little scissors that look like a bird with a long beak for snipping threads, rag quilt pruning shears, small ones, pinking shears, and classic fabric scissors.  This doesn’t even begin to touch the variety of rotary cutters sitting in a basket on my cutting table. I have every size available, and in some sizes I have a choice between regular and ergonomic handles.  I need every single pair. Really, I do.

Delicate applique pieces require my super sharp small pair that easily cut around tiny flower petals.  This task cannot, under any circumstances, be completed with a rotary cutter or , God forbid, regular, dull paper scissors.  Well, maybe it can, but I’m not trying it.

I choose which rotary cutter to use depending on a variety of factors.  If the fabric is thick, I need the big ones.  If I’m going around a curve, the little tiny one is absolutely necessary.

My shiny silver Gingher scissors are a must have for larger applique shapes.  I also need them just in case I ever decide to sew an actual piece of clothing ever again.  They are absolutely required for cutting out patterns.

I actually saved money from my food budget in college to buy these scissors.  I needed a dress for some event that I can no longer recall.  The only way to afford the dress was to sew it, so I borrowed a sewing machine and saved for the fabric and pattern, only to realize that I had no way to cut it all out.  I vividly remember riding my bike to the fabric shop and investing in my still favorite pair of scissors.  I think they cost $35, which was roughly half my food budget for the month and a significant investment at the time, but since I still have and love them, I feel like I’ve gotten money’s worth.

As I think about my scissors, I wonder if it’s not the scissors that I love so much, but the beginning stages of a project that the scissors represent.  The cutting stage of a quilt is the beginning, creative part, the playful part, my favorite part.

Funny that I also “cut” when I write, but that kind of cutting comes at the end of the process.  Sadly, the delete button on my keyboard doesn’t quite give me the same excited feeling as when I’m cutting fabric for a project. In fact, I kind of hate cutting my writing, but I think that’s another post.