My Summer Quilt

Yes, I know its almost Halloween, a little belated to be posting my “summer” quilt, but I did actually complete a quilt this summer.

Last winter, I got inspired to use up some of my fabric stash. I pulled out stacks of fabrics and cut out all the strips and rectangles for two different quilts. One of them is still a pile of now dusty strips on the end of my sewing table. The other one is actually done!

Seeing as I’m a teacher . . . on vacation in the summer . . . I probably should have gotten both of these quilts done, but I didn’t. The one I did finish took awhile though.

The pattern is the “Cobblestone” quilt from the book Scrappy Firework Quilts by Edyta Sitar. It’s a great collection of patterns for scrappy traditional quilts.

I chose to do it in brights and it ended up not looking like a cobblestone street, but more like some sort of digital matrix. This was a fun project to play with the fabrics and work with their values rather than their colors. I’m not super happy with how the middle left side turned out. It kind of mushes together, but I didn’t realize that until it was all sewed together. I wasn’t about to pull it out to add some more darks to it.

My Matrix Quilt

My Matrix Quilt

I’m not going to put a border on it, as I like how it looks as is, and it’s not getting quilted anytime soon either. I have no more beds for the quilt tops I’ve made, so its going into a tub under my bed until I have a home for it. I’ve learned that when you live in a small house like I do, unquilted quilts are easier to store than quilted ones.

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.

I’m still a WIP

1) My blog – I finally updated the “about me” page and changed the name of my blog. This is the third name, but that’s okay. It needs to grow with me. It’s now titled, “Speaking of Words, Quilts, and Life.” In reviewing the collection of posts I’ve made,  most of my posts somehow address creativity in my life through writing, quilting, or even parenting, so I decided to expand the title. My goal for this blog is to write, consistently, twice and week for an audience, whoever they may be. So far, I feel good about what I’ve done here, and I’m also okay with not having a laser focus on my “content.” If I was trying to monetize this, that might be a problem, but I’m not, so I feel perfectly comfortable writing about my writing, my creative process, my quilting, or even my kids if I feel like it.

2) My novel – My goal for the year was to finish my first draft by April 15. I figured that is a national deadline of sorts, so I’d just join the party. Alas, I didn’t make it. My word count goal was 90,000 words, and I’m happy to say I have met and surpassed that goal by several thousand words, but I’m still not done telling the dang story!  I think I have about six scenes left to write which could be anywhere from 6000-10,000 more words.  At this point, I have the end written and 90% of the middle, I just have to get the two tied together. I’m almost there, and I hope to have a first, really rough draft done in two or three weeks. I’ve decided not to beat myself up over this as I’d rather start my revisions knowing that I have to cut rather than feeling like I have a lot I need to add.  For me, cutting and tightening up language during revision is much easier than writing more.

3) My quilts - this part of my life has become a big zero. I haven’t touched a needle or thread in several months, other than to sew a button on a pair of pants last week, but that doesn’t really count. I wanted to sew this past weekend but ended up cranking out several thousand words on my novel, so my fabric continued its lonely existence. Summer vacation is coming, however. I just need to keep that in mind!

4) WhereTeensWrite – Another of my goals this year is to start a website for teen writers.  I am happy to say that this is in the works.  It will be a community for teen writers to share their writing, get feedback, and take online creative writing classes. I’ve had several students “consulting” with me on it, and we’re all pretty excited though it probably won’t be live for a couple of months.  When it is, you will be able to find it at whereteenswrite.com.  That whole summer vacation thing really needs to happen, so I have some time to dedicate to this project too!

5) This is not a goal, just proof that I’m still a “work in progress.” I’ve been blogging for a year and I just discovered that WordPress has a Handy Blog Scheduling Feature! I’m sure this tool has been available since I started blogging, but somehow it escaped my notice, so I’ll share for those of you who haven’t found it yet either. If, like me, you are busy and sometimes aren’t on the computer to post on your regular schedule, there is a solution.  The next time you finish a post, click the “edit” button next to “Publish Immediately” above the big blue “publish” button.  You can then schedule it to go out whenever you want it to and WordPress does the rest. How nice are they? This has made my life as a woman who works full time, has two teens, and tries to post regularly much easier, and I wish I had discovered it a year ago. Oh well, live and learn.

Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

pic from microsoft word clip art

One of my goals for this spring break was to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write.  Just about every time I enter into a coffee shop, I see people with laptops.  Clearly, there is a portion of the population who find them productive places to work, and I wanted to see if it worked for me, if pushing myself out of my quiet writing comfort zone worked or if I found it horribly distracting.

When I told my husband my plan, he responded by telling me about his good friend who works in coffee shops just so he can check out all the good looking moms who go in during the work day to meet with their friends though my devoted hubby swears he’s never carted his laptop into Starbucks to work.  Hmmmm.

My concerns with writing in a public place were that I’d see people that I know since I live and teach in a small town.  I worried that I’d spend my entire allotted writing time catching up with someone.  I was also concerned that it might be too noisy or that I’d spend my entire time watching everyone else since I am an avid people watcher.  My last concern was that I’d feel self-conscious and silly trying to write in public and that would squash my creativity.

I hoped that the change in venue would jumpstart the writing goals I had set for this week off of work, so Saturday afternoon, I packed up my clipboard filled with paper, my favorite writing pen, my favorite writing book for when I’m stuck, and my laptop.  I wanted all bases covered.  I chose a smaller shop for my experiment, and I went all the way to town, forgoing the small shop in my community, in which I was sure to see friends or students.

When I first walked in, I knew the first person I saw, the cashier.  Uh oh. She greeted me by name and began to chat, so I decided to sit on a couch out of sight of the front counter though knowing her did come in handy when she called out, “Amy, these your keys on the counter?” They were.

I ensconced myself in the rear corner of the shop on a comfy couch, and I didn’t feel self-conscious at all.  I began by writing by hand which I often do, but quickly switched to my laptop.  The words flowed. A few people came in and out of the shop, but it was relatively quiet other than the employees chatting.  I ended up writing over 1800 words and liking what I wrote. For me, this is a successful writing session.

I’m not sure that writing in a public place is something I would want to do every day or even every month, but to jumpstart my writing, it worked.

Apparently, my muses like the occasional latte too.  They definitely came to visit.

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.

‘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.