In the beginning

I dread beginnings, the uncertainty, the commitment, the difficulty of bringing something to completion. Each project is fraught with perils, whether it is a pair of socks (Will this color work with this stitch pattern? Will these needles produce the right gauge so they will fit? Will I remember how to turn the heel, to pick up stitches to form the gusset?), a set of placemats (Are they big enough for my dishes? Will the color look good in the kitchen? Will the binding provide the right amount of contrast?), or a piece of writing (Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Is my topic just silly?). Part of my trepidation is because of my inbred desire to please, but I also detest wasting time on an undeserving project. I should devote my energy to something that matters.

This morning I began a sewing endeavor, a graduation present. I can’t say exactly what I’m making so the recipient will be surprised, but I can say I am worried about its outcome. Sewing requires careful attention to detail, especially at the beginning. Once the fabric is cut, it cannot be uncut. The carpentry mantra of measure twice, cut once is equally true with sewing. So it is with great anxiety that I place and pin the pattern pieces and cut into the cloth. There are curves that must match, so even a fraction of an inch can introduce an error that can’t be corrected later. That is probably why I spent most of the morning circling the project before cutting into the fabric. But now the deed is done. There is no turning back, other than abandoning the project altogether. Abandonment is certainly an option, but I’ve invested in the pattern, the fabric, and the worry already. Since I was so very careful in the cutting, I’m reasonably certain that the technical parts will succeed. After all, I’ve been sewing for over 40 years, and the pattern is not that difficult. Practice might not make perfect, but at least it takes away surprises.

Writing is a different beast. Beginnings do not predict success or failure. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts.” Unlike sewing, it is more important to put some words on the page than to wait for just the right words. The honing, the craftsmanship can come later. Writers will still procrastinate, but we should not stop ourselves from writing because we don’t have a perfect draft in our minds. In fact, the very word “essay” comes from the French “to try.” Writing gives us an opportunity to figure out how we feel, and it is only after making complete hash of language and ideas that we can discover what it is that a particular piece of writing is about. I would even argue that words that spring from our brains like Athena fully armed from Zeus’s forehead are often without merit, just so much fluff.

Writers need to struggle with their thoughts, with their intentions. A piece of writing that begins in one place often justifiably ends up somewhere far, far away, mainly because we are often not sure of what with think or what we feel about our topic. Our students might begin writing an argument against the current education system because that is what they heard on Fox News, but as they warm to their subject (and begin researching and actually thinking), they might discover the problems in education can be traced to poverty. If they had limited themselves to writing what they thought they knew, their writing would have merely parroted a single source. Their first draft might have followed the rules of argument and grammar, but it would not bring the students to a better understanding of the problem.

Writing is not about following a pattern to get to a predicted outcome. It is about struggle and discovery. It is about the joy of putting together words in a unique way, a way that only this writer could express herself at this particular moment. It is about telling our own stories in our own words. When we share our writing, it is inevitable that we find something we would like to change, but if we wait for perfection, we will never be a part of the discussion.

Thank you for letting me be a part of the Slice of Life discussion.

A Quilting Metaphor

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.

Happy writing!