Category Archives: Creativity

Rabbit holes and other distractions

Can dropping down a rabbit hole be a necessary pursuit? Or does it always imply time-wasting?

Whatever the case, two deep rabbit holes yawn constantly at the writer’s feet. They are: research and editing.

My story begins in 1738. I had no idea how little I knew until I stumbled along, inserting obvious anachronisms like electric ceiling fans and ice cubes. Yes! But even once you get a certain fluency for your period, quick dips into research are needed — often to remind me of things I learned and then forgot.

How many rebels died the morning after the Stono Rebellion? How many were executed the following week? And the number rumored to have evaded capture, again – remind me?

How is Beaufort rice bread prepared?

What were the prevailing views on homosexuality in the low country in the 18th century? Surely not the same as in the Puritan northeast?

Editing is also necessary and can go on and on and then on some more. Few and far between are those golden passages that come out intact. Most require a lot of work — in fact, an astonishing amount of work — things like making a flashback stand on its own in real time, fixing inconsistent tenses, eliminating peripheral characters, and always — paring away words that clutter the page.

There’s always the danger that editing will keep the writer from the business of original writing. They use such different parts of the brain and one is so much easier to access than the other!

Editing also poses the danger of wiping out distinctive cadences and phrasing. That’s part of why when I back up my manuscript, I don’t write over the previous version (not that I go back and read them, but — I could).

Useful distractions include working in other media (and reading. Always reading!) Most creatives will tell you that switching media feeds the work.

This morning, I played with magazine scraps brought from home. Whether it was a useful distraction or not, I’m not in a position to judge. Here are the results.

The first one speaks directly to a storm scene I’m editing in which the slaveholder loses both an entire crop of rice and a key slave in a boat accident. The scene exposes dissonant responses to the loss (white vs. black). The white response wonders which is the greater loss — the twenty barrels of rice or the valuable slave? — highlighting in a sharp way the slaves’ status as property.

(In the era my novel describes, the enslaved wore ragged tunics and head rags. The portrayal of the two African Americans above, therefore, is to my mind, romanticized).

Today is Good Friday. The Christ figure removed from his cross last night will be processed from the top of the hill down to the Basilica of St Francis. People mobbed the statue last evening once it was in repose in order to touch it.

This morning when I attended Mass at San Rufino at the crack of dawn, the 500 year old wooden body was adorned with flowers.

My digs are a little cold, so midmorning I found a patch of sun near St Clare’s Cathedral and stitched for a while.

The beauty of this place fills me up!

PS. That moon picture was taken out of my window between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m.

Reflection

How long before I realize that it makes me truly happy to feed the birds?

How long before I act as though kindness mattered above all else?

How long before I realize that I don’t need (or even want) most of my belongings?

How long before I fully recognize that working on a miniature scale is right for me?


How long until I feel that I have a right to the workings of my imagination, no matter how the cultural dialogue is unfolding (though ignoring the dialogue is impermissable)?

What if I could act as if everything was happening, not according to plan per se, but in its right and true time? In other words, what if all delinquencies were forgiven or rendered irrelevant? How liberating a thought!

** A huge thanks to all the recent lovely and thoughtful comments. Thank you. It really means a lot to me. Thank you, again.

Dog walk and pin boards

There are a lot of words I could say. Like it’s 70 degrees.


Like: I resisted taking a book from this Free Library kiosk. Ta-da! (Don’t be impressed — it was mostly full of crap).


Like: the light is decidedly spring-like today. Or, I’m worried about one of my kids again. Or, my sister has inexplicably stopped ripping my head off and handing it to me (my theory? She’s a walk-in now).

Or: it’s crazy to hand quilt a blanket I won’t be able to charge much for and anything I DO charge will probably keep it from selling. Or: how good deadlines are but how loathsome selling is.

But! I’ve got to save most of the words for those other pages. Which are coming. Which continue to draw me in. Which I cannot wait to be able to share with you all.

Too big a wobble

Do you see the big wobble on the right? It got me thinking
about the improv method of quilting.

If you are not a pattern follower, chances are you’re in possession of a certain amount of ruthless decisiveness. Ruthlessness is not, as I may have previously thought, a virtue — something akin to bravery.  It’s more of a necessity.  With the improv method, you simply have to be willing to cut, re-order and switch out sections, live with uneven edges, and throw shit out.


It can be frustrating — abiding by the tweaking redo’s that don’t work, the major botches that can’t be saved. There is frequently the feeling of running in place, or worse, traveling backwards. Photo-documentation, while a boon for recording the process & sharing online, has the unfortunate capacity to reveal that previous iterations of your quilt were better (sometimes, way better) than what your repeated tinkering’s produced.

If you work this way, there’s no point in getting too hung up on these frustrations because the alternative is too awful to bear (i.e. following a pattern (even your own), upholding precision as a goal, suppressing ideas along the way). Plus, for some, it’s simply impossible to do it any other way*.

Have you worked on a quilt for two months and suddenly need to see how it takes to the indigo vat? Hold your breath and dunk! Fed up with the progress on a large pieced Global Warming wall quilt, perhaps also two months in the making? Cut the fucker up! Can’t sort the edge of a composition? Walk away and work on something else for a while.

Cutting off worked sections of cloth to true up an edge is routine and I generally do it without much more than a twinge of regret. This week, however, the idea of removing an inch of edging along half the quilt’s length feels like sacrifice. Sacrifice.I’m left wondering what to do.

Have I changed? Has my cloth-making changed?

I can pinpoint two material reasons for my hesitation. One, I am piecing smaller bits of pattern together these days. A corrective slice now potentially subtracts an entire little world of color and geometry! Ouch!

Two, I now apply hand-stitching to pieced sections as I go, meaning that a long cut-away would cut through rows of stitching, with unknown result. Anchor later? With what effectiveness?  It’s a quandary.

I’ve slid two pieced sections under the edge to see if I could avoid the cut. One section came off the top of the quilt and the other came off the bottom, so the cloth is consonant with the rest (there’ve been times when I’ve had to use poorly matching fabrics to fudge something). But, even well-matched, it looks like shit.

 Is there any way to tinker with a long stretch of raw edge applique on a quilt that is otherwise pieced so that it doesn’t look like a botch job? Any ideas? The moon is the only other appliqué. 

*This is actually, for me anyway, an oversimplification. Even as I’m finishing this piece, I’m drawing on a photo that may become a pattern.

Let your freak flag fly

This work-in-progress garnered the comment, “I love it when you let your freak flag fly!” on Instagram yesterday. After pressing back to make sure it was a compliment (it was), I’ve decided that the phrase makes a pretty good working anthem.


Maybe articulation will follow, but for now I’ll rely on that old Supreme Court ‘definition’ of pornography: ‘I know it when I see it’. Probably something about voice and style.


Is this square with woven strips and indigo moon ‘letting my freak flag fly’? No. Or, not yet. It is too derivative – persistently, dismayingly derivative. On the other hand, the newly assembled cloth collage below lets me announce: “I’m letting my freak flag fly!”

The early stages of composition nearly always more closely capture my ‘style’, such as it is. I have to figure out how to bring more of the free and pleasing (to me) beginnings forward. This is a question of technique, but not exclusively. To be continued…

Losing things and finding them

Are you a person who loses things a lot of the time or just now and then? A recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz takes a beautiful wander through the topic. Subtitled, Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss, Schulz examines not just the business of losing things, but also what it means to lose our minds and loved ones.

Things go missing so much in this house that I have categories for lost objects, not unlike the childhood game of calling out ‘warm’, ‘cold’ or ‘HOT HOT HOT’. I usually can tell that I’m going to retrieve a lost object before I find it and often sense its general vicinity. Lest you think that gives me some sort of advantage, know this: even a ‘hot’ lost item with a felt sense of place can take DAYS to find.

In my early twenties, my checkbook went missing so often that the bank tellers on North Street rolled their eyes to see me coming. I’ve gotten somewhat better. Medication helps.

In spite of my incapacity, family members are right to ask me where things are, since in addition to being an over-the-top loser of things, I’m a good finder. Is that uncommon? My mother used to call me “old eagle eyes” and ask me to round up her scissors.

When the “where’s my” question is posed to me, it feels like more of an imposition that it might otherwise, because I’m kinetic. Being kinetic means I have to take notes to remember anything and that to find a lost object, I have to move my body. When both boys were home over Christmas, I really enjoyed cooking for them and felt neutral about loaning the car and picking up. But the “where’s my?” routine was annoying.

“Where’s my jacket?” “Where’d I leave the fob?” “Did you move my paycheck?”

I was asked to find things I hadn’t used, touched or seen. Being winter, I’d have to unearth myself from a blanket, heating pad and lap top (that’s two cords and a lot of fabric). My joints hurt sometimes. I’d groan. Then I’d wander around the house, maybe finding their lost thing, maybe not.

Objects can move from one category of lost to another. ‘Fucking vanished’ is a category, but believe it or not, a mutable one. Some things that I could swear after a vigorous, multi-day hunt have been taken by leprechauns do in fact show up. (‘taken by leprechauns’ is a whimsical name for ‘fucking vanished’). It is especially hard when something that feels retrievable shifts into the ‘permanently gone’ category.

Frequently losing things teaches you about attachment, sharpens intuition, and inspires resourcefulness in coming up with substitutes. Humility is involved. But those are topics for another time.

Let’s instead descend into my studio, which is really messy (also a topic for another time). Yesterday when I went downstairs to find some xerox color copies I’d gone to some trouble to make a few months back, I wasn’t sure how readily I would find them. That they were pretty much right where I’d thought they’d be felt like a gift.

There are about forty-five collages ready to be mounted to card stock. Then, at last, they will be SoulCollage cards.

Because I hate to measure and really suck at it, it took a good long while to mount just five of the collages. At five a day, I’ll need eight days to get through the pile. But guess what? After an especially demoralizing day of writing, the task actually satisfied. I took my time. I enjoyed working toward a goal with manageable and discrete steps — so unlike finishing a novel (am I finishing? is it a novel?)


Off to walk Finny, then back to my laptop (wish me a more productive day!)

  • (thank you for posting on FB Michelle ! Even though we get The New Yorker, I might have missed it)