Seven Questions You Should Never Ask a Quilter

If you have a friend or loved one who quilts, and you would one day like to be the recipient of a lovely cherished heirloom, don’t ever ask them any of the following questions.  You may never get a quilt.

1.  “Why would you want to cut up perfectly good fabric just so you can sew it all back together again in another big piece?  What was wrong with it to begin with?”

 My dear husband asked me this when I first started quilting.  At the time, I didn’t really have a good answer for him because in some sense, his logical engineering brain came up with a good point.  If I recall correctly, I just stared him down.  He hasn’t asked that again.  Apparently he likes all the quilts around the house.

 2.   “You know that quilt you gave me? The cats love it.  I can’t get them off of it!  It’s their favorite place to sleep.”

The person who says this gets permanently removed from your quilting gift list.

 3.  “Is that supposed to look like that?”

This is a question that has different responses depending on who asks it.  If it’s a really good quilting buddy who asks it, you can safely assume whatever “it” is, looks like crap and needs fixing.  If it’s a non-quilter, you can safely assume they are lame and have no idea what they are looking at/talking about anyway.  You’re quilt is fine. Nod your head, smile, say “yes, it is supposed to look like that, thanks.”  Move ahead and consider scratching them from your quilting gift list as well.

 4.  “I needed to wrap a package and couldn’t find any scissors so I just grabbed those ones out of your sewing room to cut all the wrapping paper. Don’t my presents look great?”

This generally comes from a loved one who must be temporarily (or possibly permanently) banned from the sewing area.  See my post “Scissor Slut” for more on the sacred status of scissors.

 5.  “Did you ever finish that one quilt you started a long time ago that you were telling me about?”

I work on quilts based on whatever I feel like working on; hence, my giant pile of unfinished projects.  As a result, this is another one with two potential responses.  If it’s done, you say, “Yes, I did.  I gave it to _____________.  If I’d have known you loved it so much, I would have given it to you!  Bummer.”  Or, if it’s not done, you say, “Nope.  I got sick of it.  Hope you weren’t planning on snuggling up in it anytime soon.”

 6.  “Why do you need more fabric? Don’t you have enough?”

Only husbands (or at least the person you share a checking account with) asks this question.  It is not worthy of an answer, merely another stare down.  If my husband asks twice, I just have to ask if he really needs another gun. He’s an avid hunter, and I think one or two guns would kill whatever he’s hunting just fine, but what do I know? Since this question generally silences him on the amount of fabric I need, I would say that I clearly don’t know much about guns or hunting.  In fact, I know guns like he knows fabric.  ‘Nuff said.  

 7.  “How long are you going to take at the quilt shop?”

Another question from the love of my life.  My answer?  It could be hours buddy.  You better just drop me off and leave. . . . Love you!

If I can write, I can write . . . right?

This past weekend, I had a two by four hit me in the head again, as life hammered another lesson home.  It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before, but one that I clearly needed to learn again, hence the two by four.

On Friday morning, my alarm went off at 4 am, so I could catch the bus with my Forensics/Speech and Debate team to head six hours across the state of Nevada for our state tournament.  Twenty plus schools headed north from Vegas and the rest came in from the northern half of the state.  There’s not a whole lot in the middle of the state of Nevada, so it really was a “Civil War” type tournament, a true North vs. South contest.

There are seven speech events and three debate events to compete in.  We could enter two kids/teams per event.  Because many of my top competitors had a conflict this weekend and couldn’t go, I took some novice competitors and put them in events in which they hadn’t competed previously in order to fill as many slots as possible.  We practiced, and I felt that since they were solid speakers, they would be fine. They were.  In fact, one novice speaker made it into final rounds in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking which means out of approximately 50 competitors, he was in the top six . . . statewide.  He ended up placing sixth in finals, but a sixth place ranking at a state tournament is pretty impressive.  In fact, I’d even say its college application worthy.

So how is this a lesson for me?  The lesson is that (drumroll here) . . . skills transfer.  If my student is an excellent debater, then it makes sense that he’s also a good, I mean excellent, extemporaneous speaker.

I have always wanted to write and when I was in high school, my mom encouraged me to write my stories down.  Like many teenage girls, I ignored her and told myself that I couldn’t because what could she possibly know?  I wasn’t good at it, and I knew everything -  sorry Mom.  When I was in college, I finally acquiesed and took a creative writing class.  It was a disaster.  I hated the class, the teacher, and the stories I wrote.  It solidified to me that I wasn’t a good fiction writer.  I could write essays and non-fiction with ease, but fiction threw me.

Last year, when I decided to start writing a novel as well as a blog I had to overcome this hurdle.  I had thought for twenty years that fiction was out of my reach, so it was a BIG hurdle.  To overcome it,  I wrote a short story and a few scenes, and I learned that my writing skills transfer.  If I can write, I can write . . . right? Though fiction requires a different skill set, the basics are the same.  Writing is writing.  This blog has taught me that lesson because I’ve asked myself numerous times over the last year, what is a blog exactly? What is the genre?  It requires skills in essay writing, personal narrative, analysis, how-to writing, fiction and reflective writing.  It requires solid writing skills in terms of structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation.  In writing one to three blog posts a week over the past year, I have worked on these skills.

Though I’ve worked on these skills, I still question myself, wonder if what I’m doing is any good at all or if I’m writing an entire “practice” novel. Many people do, and then I begin doubting myself again which I have been doing over the past few weeks.  My student’s success this weekend reminded me that I CAN do this.   I’ve learned, yet again, that skills transfer.  If he can successfully speak in a debate round and transfer those skills to an extemp round, then maybe I am not doomed to write essays my entire life because at the ripe old age of nineteen I decided that’s what I was good at.

Nobody else (besides my Dad who loved it – of course) has read my fiction, but I have learned over the past year to believe in myself and my writing.  If I can write a blog for a year, then maybe I can write a novel too. I’ve only got about 8000 words to go . . . I can do this.

Giving is Way More Fun than Receiving

Happy Ocean Sunshine Quilt

This week I finished another “UFO” or unfinished quilt.  This is one my friend Teresa and I started probably six years ago.  We chose the pattern and began construction for a dear friend.  Life managed to get in the way, and we didn’t finish it.  Three years ago (or so) we pulled it out and decided to work on it again, but life intervened one more time and back into the basket the quilt went.

We forgot about it until this last summer, when we both decided to finish some of our UFO’s and the beach quilt came out again.  We’ve passed it back and forth since last summer without making too much progress. We finally got the middle done and the border pieces cut and stalled . . . yet again.  Three weeks ago, Lisa, the intended recipient of the quilt, posted on Facebook about a hard day she had.  It was time to pull the quilt out again and complete it.  Lisa clearly needed it, and we got inspired to get it done.

We finally finished and got a rush job on the machine quilting.  I got the binding and label attached, and Teresa hand stitched the binding down in record time.  Tonight, we presented the quilt to our friend, Lisa.  All day, I have looked forward to giving it to her, and it was the high point of my day.  It made all of us cry.

This quilt is probably one of the happiest quilts I have ever made.  Every part of it smiles.  My philosophy when it comes to quilts is the more fabric the better.  Teresa, my partner in this project, has never made a super scrappy quilt and had a really hard time sewing together all the different fabrics.  I kept encouraging her and it turned out great – she even agreed.  If we’d done it all “matchy-matchy” it would not have worked at all.  I definitely think its one of my favorites, and the best part is that giving it away made me far happier than keeping it would have.  That’s a great feeling.

For anyone who wants to make their own super happy sunshine ocean quilt, the pattern comes from the book Shoreline Quilts: 15 Glorious Get-Away Quilts.

Shakespeare and Freshmen – Good Times

Think back to your freshman year in high school.  You lived through moments that defined your life . . . at the time at least.  Now, you probably can’t recall what they were.  Think back also to your English class.  Do you remember what you read? Do you remember your first introduction to Shakespeare? As a 9th grader in the USA, you probably read Romeo and Juliet.  It overwhelmed you. You had no idea what the characters were saying. Your teacher probably spent lots of time expounding upon Shakespeare’s mastery of language and all you were trying do was figure out what the hell was going on and why the nurse was so annoying.

I have vague memories of reading the play when I was 14, but now, as a Freshman English teacher, I’ve read it probably 30 or more times.  I just started my third reading so far this year.  I have to stagger them in my sections to avoid reading it with all my sections at one time.  That would be just too painful.  Not that I don’t like William, I do.  It’s just that his writing includes much more than plot and for many 9th graders, understanding the plot is difficult enough without even mentioning Will’s masterful use of language.

Some of them do get it, and that makes it worth it.  Others struggle through and ask, “Why do I need to know this?  My life dream is to be a diesel mechanic.  Will I use this?”

My answer? “Um . . . ya . . . Open to Act II.”  I wish I could say that I have some profound answer that changes my students’ lives and their attitudes toward Shakespeare, but I don’t.  The ones that get it, get it.  They borrow my complete works of Shakespeare and read several plays on their own.  I have some of these every year.  The ones that don’t get it, muddle through.  I am sure that they will live perfectly successful lives as mechanics or engineers, and they will not feel a gaping Shakespearian hole in their lives.

In any case, I shared the following video with my students this year.  They loved it, totally got the story and began to understand the differences in language between the Elizabethan era and their Texting world.  It ended up being a pretty good introduction to the play.  It made me laugh and reminded me what it might feel like to read the play for the first time, rather than the fortieth. Even “The Three Little Pigs” in Elizabethan verbage would be tough to understand without knowing the story first. Enjoy.

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.

Five Reasons why State Proficiency Exams Suck

1)      The terrified looks on the seniors’ faces as they walk into the room to try to pass the math portion for the 8th time.  I am always shocked at some of the kids that come in because some of them are excellent students.  One came in yesterday who I had as a freshman.  She can write beautifully and often shared her short stories, poetry, and drawings with me.  She wrote for fun, loving the creative process, and earned solid A’s in English.  Is this a student who should be denied a diploma? She’s passed her math classes but higher level algebra (yes, it’s on the “proficiency” test) is incredibly difficult for her. I’m not sure that’s right.  Does she truly lack “proficiency”?    If the point of these tests is to strike terror into the hearts of students, our legislature who mandates these tests have been wildly successful.

2)      The cookie cutter approach – similar to the above comment, the test requires that we all have the same strengths.  Who decided that math, science, reading, and essay writing are the four areas that an educated person must excel in in order to be considered educated?  What about music? Creative Writing? Poetry? Drawing? Drama? We all have different strengths, and I think one of the most basic and frustrating aspects of working in the public school system is that the entire system does not get this. I get that basic skills are important, but the tests go above and beyond that.  They are also required for a diploma.

3)      The level of difficulty – I doubt that many adults, even those with college degrees, could pass it, especially the math portion.  I think it would actually be fun to give it to the legislature one day, score it, and see how they do.  I can guarantee there would not be a 100% pass rate, though I’m sure they consider themselves quite proficient.  Yesterday at lunch, one teacher, who had to read the math test aloud to students with special needs (who are also required to take the test), was shocked at the level of difficulty and commented that the language is not language that is used in the everyday workplace.  Why integers and not numbers?  I know there is a difference but is it crucial to know that to be proficient in math?  Maybe it is but I’ve earned a master’s degree, a good job, and a passing grade in college calculus, and I couldn’t tell you. What exactly is “proficient” and who decides?  I would like the legislators who think these tests are the answer to be the ones who have to read it aloud to a student, one who is trying not to cry, when he asks, “can you please just read the question one more time?”

4)      Scoring makes no sense.  Last year, the state lowered the requirements to pass the math and raised reading.  My high school had an 85- 90% pass rate on the reading test on the first time the kids took it until they lowered the scores.  Last year it dropped to about 65%.  Why did they do that? Were too many kids successful? Nobody was able to answer that question.  Now, I not only have my kids read great literature and free choice novels but also boring articles, just to practice.  Most of them say the reading is not that hard, it’s staying awake and focused for the two hours it takes to read random, boring passages about fascinating things like pyramids and deep sea ocean creatures that is the most difficult part.

5)      Lost Instructional Time – we have to test for four days, two hours a day.  Only the 10th graders and those who haven’t yet passed take this test.  Those who have passed, sleep in.  Lucky them.  They also aren’t in school, learning anything.  It’s over six hours of lost time, not including all of the class time we spend discussing test taking strategies to try to calm and prep the kids.

Now that I’ve had my rant, I will admit I do not know the answer.  I don’t know how to fix the educational system, but I do know that it must start with the individual students.  We MUST figure out a way to offer students choices and recognize that all of them have different strengths and interests.  I am not saying that students shouldn’t be able to read, write, or perform basic math functions.  They should.  I am saying that we need to have a variety of paths to achieve success, not just the one size fits all approach we have now.  It clearly doesn’t fit.

Keep Your Day Job AND Write . . . How?

This summer I attended the Willamette Writers’ Conference.  Many of the writers and presenters there kept saying, “keep your day job.”  There’s even a pretty good blog that I occasionally read called www.writerwithadayjob.com that offers tips and motivation to keep going in the face of a busy life.  She also has a companion book that I haven’t read but it’s on my list.

Some of the reasons successful (read published) day job writers give for keeping the job are:

  • It keeps you out in the world with real people, not locked away in solitude.
  • It gives you something to write about
  • It helps structure your day
  • It keeps you focused.
  • Health  Insurance
  • A steady paycheck so you can relax and not feel pressured to write

While I actually agree with many of those reasons, in practice it’s tough.  Now that I am almost a semester and a half into the school year, I’ve been thinking about my progress on my writing thus far.

It’s been a struggle to meet my teaching, coaching, wife, and mom obligations and still find time to write.  Last week, I did alright, but during the two weeks prior, I failed miserably at the writing part.  It seems to work like this.  I have a great week and churn out two blog posts and two thousand novel words and other weeks, it’s a struggle to get one blog post done.

My new writing goal is to write something every day.  I started the school year with the goal to write 4000 words per week.  That soon got reduced to 2000 words until I finally decided that writing something every day was better than nothing and demanding a word count from myself only made me feel like I was failing, which I am not, at all.  It’s just that writing in the large chunks of time which I prefer has been difficult to achieve.

So my question is this:  How do published writers do it?  They give reasons to keep the day job but then how do they achieve their writing goals?

What are the specific strategies?  On the one hand, I like the structure and focus my job teaching gives me, but on the other hand, my job is a time suck.  Right now, I have a stack of research papers to grade; I had to be at school at 6:00 am this morning to take four students to town to speak to the local Rotary club; I am sending 18 more students to Reno for a tournament at 6:00 am Friday morning with hotel arrangements etc., and then I’m driving a school vehicle down with four more students after school gets out.  I’ll return home midday Sunday.

Oh ya, and then I have a novel to finish.  I am not complaining. I am happy . . . just busy.

My life is full.  Each minute is precious. What are strategies that any of you found that work?  I’ve tried a bunch, and I’m open to suggestions.