Yesterday went by so quickly that I never registered the fact that it was Tuesday. I missed another writing deadline, and I apologize to anyone who was waiting to hear from me. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)
What was I doing that kept me so busy? I was quilting, making a Mother’s Day present. The process held me completely engrossed. What color palette did I want to use? Once I selected the color, I had to select the actual fabric, and then decide how to arrange the strips. Once those decisions were made, I could begin the actual construction, carefully sewing quarter-inch seams, using a foot designed explicitly to keep me from straying. Only after I had sewn all the pieces together could I get to the actual quilting, which for me is still following the lines made by the seam, but for this project, I could use one of my machine’s built-in decorator stitches. Finally, I added the binding, using a fabric I wasn’t quite sure about, but when it was in place was just the finished touch the project needed.
So here I am today, a day late and a dollar short, trying to make good on my promise to myself. But what should I write about? The Slice of Life philosophy of writing about what is going on in our day made me think about the quilting I did yesterday. But here’s the problem: I am a novice quilter, so I can’t really offer any insights into the quilting process, and just writing about the day I spent quilting is hardly worth clicking on a link. But then it dawned on me. I like to use extended metaphors in my writing, probably because my favorite classic poet is John Donne. His use of metaphysical conceits makes me swoon. His comparison of separated lovers to the legs of a draftsman’s compass is perhaps my all-time favorite extended, even convoluted, metaphor. How might I use quilting as the basis for my own conceit?
I could write about how quilting is like a relationship, with the love contained in each stitch, and how the stitches (the love?) sometimes cause pain, the way I prick my finger with the needle or when my shoulders ache. I could write about the way learning to quilt is like learning to play a sport, starting with the basics and working up to increasingly difficult skills and finally adding one’s own stamp to the game. Both of these ideas struck me as too corny, and also unrelated to this blog.
Then it struck me that quilting is like writing. Both quilters and writers have to choose a project—a pillow sham or wall cover, a set of placemats or a lap quilt for the quilter, a letter to the editor or a short story, an ode or a sonnet for the writer. In each case, the decision imposes a size on the project and the amount of commitment required.
In quilting, one has to pick out the colors that will establish the viewer’s response. In writing, one has to establish an attitude toward the subject. In each case, the creator can make changes, but the further one gets into the project the more difficult it is to change.
As quilters pick the specific fabrics, writers have to select specific details. The fabric audition is much like the writer’s decision to incorporate some elements and leave out others. Some fabrics are too similar to be effective, just as too many similar anecdotes diminish the overall effect of a piece of writing. Other fabrics are too garish, just as some details might be too graphic. Quilting requires just the right balance of dark, medium, and light fabrics, some with larger designs, others with smaller patterns. A good piece of writing will do the same. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe emphasizes the unity of effect. Both the quilter and the writer should keep his admonition in mind.
Both quilter and writer have to decide on the arrangement of these elements. Does the quilt palette gradually progress from light to dark, or will it juxtapose the darks against lights and use the medium notes as a transition between blocks? The same holds true for the writer. Does the organization move from small details to large conclusions, or does the writer start with the conclusion and add details in support? Does the novelist tell the story in chronological order or in flashback? Will the poet jolt the reader with sudden shifts or lull him with elements that weave seamlessly together?
After these decisions are made comes the real work and commitment to craftsmanship. In quilting, one has to be very careful to maintain the same seam width throughout the project. Others before me have decided that one quarter inch works well, but even in this basic choice there are arguments. Some quilters swear by a “scant” quarter inch (to accommodate the width of the thread in the seam), while others insist on a precise quarter inch. In either case, consistency is important. Here is a major difference between the quilter and the writer. The writer has the luxury of ignoring the rules of grammar and mechanics while creating a rough draft, but before any piece of writing should see the light of day, it must be carefully checked for mechanics, grammar, and stylistic consistency to be taken seriously. In writing, there are some disagreements in style—does one use the Oxford comma or not?—but just like the quilter, the writer should be consistent throughout.
Once the quilting elements are pieced, the whole is finally assembled into a quilt, and the quilter decides the pattern that will be used to unite the top, batting, and backing. We may find unfinished quilt tops at a flea market, but these are much like rough drafts—they were abandoned before they were completed. This final step adds character, much like the writer with a draft that she wants to publish. Before sending it off, the writer should add appropriate craft. The difference between a great piece of writing and a so-so one is this step.
The quilter adds binding to hide the rough edges and provide durability. The writer has to bind her finished product as well, making sure there are no loose ends. The most successful pieces of writing will withstand the test of time because everything is tightly integrated, every detail contributing to the finished product.
Perhaps this conceit is too convoluted, too contrived, but I know that teachers of writing have to dig deep into their own experiences to help their students move from idea to polished piece. I was always looking for a new example to inspire my students to keep with a piece of writing until it had achieved its full potential. Maybe this quilting conceit will help your students. Or maybe you could challenge them to design their own writing conceit that works for them.