Saturday, July 11, 2015

Writing Process Update

[Photos taken around Portland.  Some friends embarked on a collaborative photo project where we'd mail each other images of our daily lives.  It's been really cool getting their photos in the mail!  Thought I'd share some of my set.]

Hello hello!  Popping back in to put down some of my evolving thoughts on the book writing process.  In particular, I was thinking about the distance between what authors often start out intending a book to be about, and what it actually winds up being about, when everything is said and done.

Let me back up.  At the start of the year, I joined a writer's group comprised of 5 writers immersed in various stages of writing a book-length project.  We had memoir, we had mysteries, we had fiction.  Every other week we'd get together to chat about a 30K word submission from one person in the group.  That meant we'd read the 30K words, left notes on the manuscript itself, wrote out a summarizing set of comments to the writer, and then got together for 90 minutes to talk shop.  What we thought worked, what didn't, what questions we had, our overall feedback and suggestions.

So in writer's parlance, this is a "workshop" experience.  People read your work, they tell you what they think.  After spending hours on a story where it's just you and the page, your story in your head, it can be a revelation to hear other people's reactions to your story.  Both in terms of what they like and what resonates, but also and perhaps more tellingly, where they were confused or skeptical, what they thought was missing, the parts they identified as trouble points or weak spots.  Now, you never have to take everybody's feedback or even anybody's feedback.  Often, I've found that readers will disagree - somebody thinks it's too slow and somebody else thinks you need to slow things down even more, somebody wants more action and somebody wants more romance.  You just cannot please everybody.  Stephen King has a rule: If there's disagreement, the score goes to the author and they get to do whatever they want; it's only if all of your readers are in agreement that you, author, should listen carefully to what they're saying.


In my (off-and-on) years of workshopping, I've found it helpful to heed Mr. King's advice.  Otherwise you find your story stretched in all sorts of different directions, and things get thin fast.  Also, other people may be reading things into your story that you hadn't intended.  Which is fine, as everybody comes to a story with their own set of experiences, but that doesn't mean that you should bend the direction of your writing to accommodate what they're reading into it.

Which brings me to another lesson that I've found quite helpful, and one which comes from several writing instructors.  Write the story that you want to tell.  So what if I wrote a piece about my grandmother and everybody is commenting about the sibling rivalry?  If I wanted to explore the life of a woman who never had a childhood, then damnit, keep writing that story.  At the end of the day, you're the one writing the story.  And as my brother pointed out - they'd probably latch onto the sibling rivalry regardless; I don't have to change the focus of the piece, they're going to notice that anyways.

Which leads to a third lesson I learned from that group: be mindful of the source of the feedback.  Often, feedback is tainted by the type of reader and writer that we are.  One of the members of our group was a first-generation Indian-American who is really interested in culture, so he always wanted more history, more culture, etc.  Another woman loves medical memoirs - memoirs about disease and health - and she also hates non-linear storytelling, so she was always hating on flashbacks ("I'm so confused!  What are we doing here???") and always wanted people to play up the nitty gritty medical aspects of their stories.  So that's another grain of salt.  I knew Cathy was going to hate that I started my book in my 20's and then dipped back into my teens and my childhood, but that wasn't going to stop me from writing it my way --- it just meant I wouldn't put a lot of stock in her commentary about my flashback scenes.


But what was most interesting about this group was that every time we sat down to discuss, inevitably one member of the group would say, "I feel like we really have two books here."  A coming of age memoir set in South America set around a back-breaking (literally) fall from a bridge?  In the iteration we read, it was part medical memoir, part travelogue, part coming out/coming of age story.  A Hindu philosophy, love story with a murder and ... unbeknowest to us, a mystery surrounding that murder?  Oh heavens, was this about love, about philosophy, or a mystery?

Often, I think, writers will sit down with an idea in mind.  Some idea or relationship they want to explore, some story they want to tell.  And so they start.  A first-generation Indian-American is approached so many times by second-generation Indian-Americans who want to know about Hindu philosophy that he decides to write a book that will be his vessel for explaining the religion and philosophy.  Absolutely.  Except he loves reading and writing mysteries, so he decides to make it a mystery.  And part of the mystery involves a love story, which is tangled up in the reasons for the murder, which in turn is enmeshed in Hindi thinking around action/reaction, cause/effect, morality, etc.

As readers, we said, "OK, we think that it's working to use this book to explain Hindi philosophy, we like the love story, we see how all these events could culminate in a murder.  But the mystery?  That might be one element too much, especially if you don't introduce it until 30% into the book.  Because everybody who loves the philosophy is going to say WTF??  And everybody who wants the mystery is not going to wait 100 pages to get to it."

And there's the rub.  He wanted nothing more than to write a mystery centered around a murder.  Yet the story was evolving into an interesting work of fiction where a calamitous murder would set off a chain of philosophical re-examinations that complete the protagonist's journey through understanding Hinduism.  (This is where write the story you want to tell runs up against Stephen King's rule --- all of us told him we didn't think it was working, but he REALLY wanted to tell his story his way.)


Most writers I know face this quandary at some point.  I know I'm there at this very moment.  That thing you intended to write about - that most sacred piece - might just be the very thing that you need to discard.  Because what's evolved out of the writing process, what your subconscious has instead pulled to the surface, is vastly different and many times cooler.

So what do you do?  Do you let go of your original impulse?  Or do you turn away from this really cool thing that has instead emerged, and go back to your original idea ... the one that is flatter, less compelling, less magical ... and likely, less of a stretch for you to tell.

Of course, there's also this tricky business of recognizing the "Houston, we've got two stories here!" problem in the first place.  That can take ages.  It can take eons to figure out what your story is becoming, what it's actually about.  A couple weeks ago, at my writer's conference, our instructor told us it took him 3 full book drafts to come to this shifting point.  He started off wanting to write a series of essays about post-modern Japan, but his writing group kept saying, "More narrative, more YOU."  He kept saying, "I don't write memoir - I'm an essayist and a poet."  And of course, what he needed to do was to write a memoir.  And his career changed when he published that first memoir, it's what provided all of the artistic opportunities he's experienced since, and set his writing off in new, groundbreaking directions.  But he had to first let go of that initial impulse - and as you can see, it took him 3 full drafts to do that.


As for my book?  Augh.  Part of me gets that it's not working right now, in large part because two half-formed stories do not make for a compelling book, it's like a two-headed monster but neither head has all of it's eyeballs or bones or muscles, so it isn't the least bit scary, just ... uncompellingly blob-like.  And what it's evolving into is scaring me.  Stuff I don't want to write about. I'm so tempted to ostrich it, just keep churning out drafts that refine my original idea - except of course, that's not really going to get me anywhere.  I spent the week in Florida working with my instructor about what my story is actually about, and since returning, I haven't written a word since.  I don't know that I'm personally ready to make that shift yet.

So I'm actually going to step away from it for awhile.  My whole life, if there's one thing I've done very well it's been to work REALLY hard.  The thing is, some problems are not meant to be solved that way.  I mean, you can muscle through but boy, do you make life a heck of a lot harder for yourself.  I've never been good at listening for the right time to tackle the hard stuff - maybe I need to change or maybe the circumstances need to change before it's the right time - and for once, I'd like to try a new way of approaching life.  Maybe one that will be a little kinder to myself.


I'm fairly certain that this resistance is a very clever form of avoidance.  But knowing me, I'm also fairly certain that I won't let this project lie in the bottom of a locked desk drawer forever.  In truth, I'm rather sad about stepping away.  I've worked intensively on this project for two years now.  I think, in my mind, I could justify calling myself a writer and switching my career to the slow lane, if only I could say that a book would result from all of this.  And now?  That elusive pot of gold has to be buried indefinitely.  I'm also saying goodbye to my original ideals for the book - what it's about, what form it'll take, what it'll be like.  And that's sad.  All of it is sad.

And yet, in the midst of this vacuum, I'm guessing that the seeds of something else may slowly, slowly, begin to find sustenance ...



(By the way, before I forget - in case you missed it, I had an essay in the June issue of Seamwork.  It's about my grandmother.  She passed away one year, to the week, from the publication of the essay, and it seemed such a fitting tribute.  Love you grammy.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Two blue dresses

I really did have every intention of posting more unblogged projects in honor of MMM, but I guess you'll just get this second batch in June instead!

I think I've mentioned before that when I moved to Portland, my style started to shift towards blues and purples?  The colors I favored as a child.  Anyhow, here's a dress I made before I left (so yes, two years ago now -- wow!  How time flies)


Once reason I first started sewing clothing was that I kept seeing all these great children's dresses in the blogosphere that were made out of adorable quilting cottons ... and I wanted me-sized versions!!  With this dress, I think I've finally made good on my threat to make an adult version of a 6 year old's dress, haha.  This is my ubiquitous Fauxbetto pattern - the Colette Sorbetto, heavily modified and made into a sloper of sorts.  I only had 1.5 yards of this fabric, hence the yoke:


You can see that I inserted some ric rac into the yoke.  This was a design detail.  This was also because I was way too lazy to pattern match ... so this way you can't tell!  Haha.  Ha.  Anyways!  This is a fairly stiff quilting cotton so I finished the hem with super wide (like 2"?) hem tape to give the dress some body.  I also lined it with rayon bemberg, which is perfect for fall as it prevents my tights from sticking to the dress.  I like to pair this with teal or brown tights.

One dressmaking tip that I need to keep relearning is that when you have an eye-catching print/color, it usually helps to hem the dress short.  Otherwise the print overwhelms everything and it just looks ... off.  I keep forgetting this, though, and continue making knee-length (or longer) dresses and then wondering why it looks so crazymaking.  Anyways, the owl print, while adorbs, definitely benefits from the shorter length (roughly 3" above the knee).

And dress #2, an Alder ala Grainline:


Made up in a summery cotton-linen blend, perfect for summer.  This dress looks OK in these photos, but whenever I wear it, I feel like the dress is 1 size too big.  I cut a 6 front and 8 back (my lazy version of a broad back adjustment), tapering to a size 4 at the waist and 2 at the bottom hem.  This is hemmed to size 8 length.  I need to shorten the armscythe by 3/4" - I think this is a standard Grainline adjustment I need to make - and I think I could stand to shorten the back hem as well.


I think I'd like to have another crack at my Fauxbetto sloper (the back fits funny and it definitely needs a broad back adjustment), and mash it up with the Archer to create fall shirt-tunics, maybe with a half-placket thingie instead of a proper button-down, and potentially using a modified Tova sleeve since that seems to work well for me (as opposed to the free Sorbetto sleeve pattern from Mena).  I keep wanting to make fun and floating and fripperous summer garments, but we really only have 3 months of summer and I have plenty of summer clothing, so I've been trying to channel that sewing enthusiasm into fall sewing instead.  We'll see.  Maybe if I bribe myself with some blue/purple fabrics?

Anyhow!  I think I'm mostly caught up on posting FO's now ... the sewn variety at least, I have a couple sweaters I have yet to blog about.  Hope your late spring/early summer is off to a good start - in 2 days I fly to Miami for a weeklong writer's conference, super excited and yet simultaneously nervous.  See you on the other side of that!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hemlock #1, Archer #2


Once again, in honor of Me Made May, I am not participating in the strictest sense of the word, but playing along by wearing handmade as I usually do, and using this month as an opportunity to post a couple FO's that I haven't blogged about.


Hemlock #1.  I accidentally printed this pattern off at 92% (oops - public library printer settings!), but that gave me a shirt with a bust measurement of 40" or 4" positive ease, which seemed like enough for me.  Shortened the sleeves and the hem, and flipped the neck binding on its side for the contrast-y stripey look.  My friend said, "You made that?  It looks great - like you could've gotten it at Gap for $80."  Is that really how much they're charging these days?  It's a good thing I'm making my own clothing.  This is a lovely, soft and drapey cotton striped fabric that I'd originally intended for a summer dress, but let's be honest - I'll get a lot more use out of it this way as it layers well under cardigans, making this a 2- or 3-season garment instead of just one.  It's super comfortable and fun to wear around - Jen's patterns are really growing on me.


Archer #2.  Apparently, as I seem to continue making Grainline pattern after Grainline pattern.  My second Archer, also refashioned from a thrifted men's button down.  It's amazing how fast these things go when you salvage the button band, hem, and collar stand with collar still attached.  Like 40% of the time, really.  You can't see it too well in these photos, but I even left the pocket on (and, ha, the tag!  This was not designed in France.)  I like that it has a bit of a menswear-y vibe going, something about the pocket and the hem length.


I had a brain fart about which was the right side of the fabric when making the pleat in the back, and figured, what the heck, we'll call it a design feature because I don't feel like pulling out my seam ripper.  Do you ever do that?  I'm getting better about not being so nitpicky about my sewing, especially when it comes to the "nice to, not need to" elements.


Ran out of fabric for the yoke, so I used my favorite Liberty fabric ever instead.  It provides a nice little contrast pop that makes me smile every time I see this shirt.

Hope you're having a wonderful May!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Slowly, slowly ... a little bit of sewing






Today I took a break from my regular schedule to kick back and do nothing.  Which, in my corner of the universe, seems to involve prepping sewing projects.  Self, really?  On the other hand, as I've mentioned before, I don't craft much when I'm writing, and sometimes I really just itch for a lovely dive into the tactile, beautiful, satisfying world of garment making.

Pictured above, left to right: the makings of a refashioned Archer (with a peek of my all-time-favorite Liberty print), a quilt for a friend, a summery Alder.  Grainline Studio appears to be my pattern company of the moment!

It was nice.  Nice to putter - slowly, slowly, never hurry never rest.  Nice to sink into the intricacies of cutting and ironing and prepping projects for the machine.  Nice to think about my friendship with the woman for whom I'm making the quilt (we go back to 14, which is over half a lifetime ago, eep!).  Nice to think about the coming season and what I'd like to make - not too much, a couple garments, enough for my evolving style, things that will work well in a streamlined wardrobe.

I used to feel this great big rush to craft.  Get something up for the blog, work my way through my stash.  In the last year or two, my financial situation has fluctuated quite a bit and so I now think of my stash as a lovely place to shop for fabrics that I currently can't afford to purchase.  (I do splurge now and again, but for the most part, stash shopping it is!)  Fabric choice really is important to how much I like the final product.  And I think that's something that sewing my own wardrobe, and my current slow-clothing approach to garment making, has gradually cultivated, namely an understanding of what is most important to me in the making process and final product.

In two of the financial management/simple life books that I own, the author talks about the "fulfillment curve" and finding that sweet spot that defines "enough."  For me, this question applies not just to money but also to crafting and the size/composition of one's handmade wardrobe.  Just how much is enough?  What elements comprise enough?  What are the pieces that bring me the most joy and satisfaction, are the most important to me, and how do I try to focus on those in the moments when I do spend crafting?  Given that my time for crafting is now somewhat limited, I find it increasingly important to hone in on these "high impact" areas.  If this hobby is going to be an escape, a creative outlet, a way for me to kick back and relax, then I'd certainly like to maximize my chances of finding just that when I do finally clear off my table and haul out my sewing machine.

After a good number of years and experimentation, I think I've hit upon the formula that (currently) works for me.  Quality fabrics in colors and prints that I enjoy, and that also play well with the rest of my wardrobe (a great way to avoid wardrobe orphans!).  Silhouette, style, and degree of ease that work well with my lifestyle and personal preferences (I hate tucking in my tops, which not only rules out certain blouses but also certain types of skirts and pants).  At present, patterns that are neither too fiddly/fussy nor too complex.  And there are certain types of garments that I enjoy sewing more than others (pants = ugh, dresses = yeay!) so I am perfectly content to focus on the ones that I like and then hit up the thrift shop for the rest.

And most importantly?  Take it slow and take it easy.  Part of this means thinking hard about which project I really want to tackle next.  Could I see myself wearing it once/week for the upcoming season or two?  Am I in the mood for something simple or something more involved, for a new pattern or to dig out a TNT, for fiddly fabrics like silk or easy fabrics like cotton or wool?  Part of this means accepting that I'm just slow - I probably crank out a finished object every month or two, and I need to be OK with that.  Part of this means working with fabrics that I absolutely love, which are paired with patterns that I'm either reasonably sure will be a good match, or else willing to leap into that hideous/fabulous territory that I seem to love so much.

And part of this means accepting that the current pared-back state of my wardrobe (which I actually quite love, and which really is not "pared back" at all when one considers how 90% of the world lives!)  My parents were up recently to visit, and my mom seemed a bit surprised that all my clothing actually fit into one closet.  Ha, I'm not that bad, am I?  I guess I am.  Was.  Whatever.  I guess this is part of locating "enough," too.  Some days I feel quite bored with the clothing I have on hand, but the flip side of the equation is that it only takes one or two new garments to suddenly make me feel like I have so many more choices and a nicely refreshed wardrobe!  Which is a great feeling to have.

Here's wishing all of you a beautiful spring, happy moments spent in your leisure activity of choice, and the permission to occasionally chuck responsibility and instead opt for that very thing that your heart, or soul, most craves ...

Monday, March 02, 2015

Toasty Warm Toes



My growing sock collection!  With a ball of Crazy Zauberball thrown in for good measure.  I’ve posted some of these before, but wanted to showcase one of my new favorite things about winter.  Handknit socks!


 My “vanilla” socks.  As I often knit sweaters and rarely can resist the temptation to go offroading when I do, it’s a real treat to have one type of knitting project where I can fall back on safe, boring predictability.  Especially of late – I seem to have less and less patience for fussy crafting.  I just want to knit rectangles.  Even hats, with their decreases and brims – oh heavens! – can stall for weeks on end.  One thing I like about these is the reinforced heel flap, as that is often where my socks wear thin.  Mmmm … so warm and comfy.


Vanilla with sprinkles on top.  You’ve might recognize the pair on the far left.  Gosh I love this pattern!  The fit is superb, the pattern is simple enough to memorize but incredibly neat and fun.  It really is about as easy as a vanilla pattern, but with a very light twist to it.  I highly recommend.  I actually knit up a fourth pair for Grammy before she passed away.  She always delighted in wearing them and looking at the bright pinks and purples and reds, but my parents never let me leave them with her at the nursing home because they thought the staff would just lose them in the wash.  So I brought them with me whenever I visited her, and when she passed away I slipped them into her casket during the viewing.  Is that morbid?  Personally, I like the thought of my grandmother going to the next world with a warm pair of socks that had been stitched with love.

Roo posted up an interesting sock pattern that looks like it could become my next vanilla-esque sock pattern.  Chocolate chip, perhaps?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Green + brown instead of gray + gray


2015 has proven to be eerily sunny thus far.  Believe me, I will take the break from gray, gray, and even more gray (I mean, I'm embracing the gray but sometimes it is hard), but at some point it starts to feel like spring and I worry about our planet, I really do.  Also, selfishly, you cannot flirt with perfectly blue skies and 60 degree weather and not make me long for spring, full on.  Dipping back into gray and cold is going to be a sad affair indeed.  Sadness for me, relief for the planet.  I guess I can handle that tradeoff.


I've been taking advantage of our sunny days to spend more time on my bike.  Portland is known as a bike friendly town, and it truly is.  It's only a couple miles from my apartment over to the Rhododendrom Gardens near Reed College, a twisting path under tall trees and past ridiculously picturesque houses.  Portland, why are you so photogenic?


I really like these ferns growing out of the side of a stone wall.  It just seems so romantic, and also a testament to the life that will remain once humans disappear from this planet (as I imagine we will one day, as so many species before us have done).


I mean, really.  This looks like California in February.  California is a thousand miles south.  We're so far north that the sun's rays purportedly can't even convert Vitamin D within our bodies, that's how weak the rays are.  It cracks me up to think of these rationalizations for spending time in the sun.  I grew up with a father who has a strong aversion to the sun.  Whenever we're out, Dad can be counted on to head for the side of the street with the most shade.  (This is the man who is already wearing one of those floppy brimmed hiking hats for a turn around the block)  "Like a homing beacon," he jokes as he jaywalks towards the shade, angling his steps to maximize his time in the shade on this side of the road, and then to catch that tree halfway across the concrete.

Inevitably, some of this has rubbed off on me.  Then I moved up here and realized that if one did not log an adequate amount of time in the sun while it was here, one would end up with a severe, severe case of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  The solution?


Knitting in the park.  Exactly ;-).


The second time I came, my friend and her daughter joined us.  Z was born a month before I moved up, and R+T were the only 2 friends I had up here when I moved, so this past year and a half I've had the privilege of watching her grow up.  Amazing.  I do hope for a family of my own one day, but as I don't seem to be moving very fast in that direction, I've taken it upon myself to put Plan B in motion: ingratiate myself into the families of my friends with children via the role of Spinster Aunt.  It's been good so far.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Handstitched Undergarments

In the last four months or so, I’ve stitched up a number of undergarments.


Leggings, using this tutorial that Ali swears by.  I can see why she’s made up four pairs of leggings from this pattern.  The drafting is straightforward but fun, and the pattern is easily customizable to include a calf measurement should your calves be wider than your knees, as mine are.  Other great things about these leggings: cuddly soft bamboo, and no more uncomfortable waistbands digging into my sides!  I’ve already got two more pairs cut out, which should tell you something.


Tap pants, using this 1930s pattern.  These are scrumptuously decadent, frivolous, luxurious, and impractical – when I wear them over in lieu of a half slip, I have to undo four pairs of snaps every time I go to the bathroom.  And yet, in the last 2 winters I have yet to wear my half slip once, whereas the instant I finished these up I wore them three times in a single week.  That’s sayin’ something.  Also, at a mere half yard of silk charmeuse, they’re a lovely way to slip a little treat into your daily life.






I’ve also been playing with Ohhh Lulu’s underwear patterns.  This is the Lola pattern, which I love in theory.  I especially love the look of stretch lace in the back.  However, this pattern needs a backside that is smaller and perkier than mine is, and as it has been 15 years since my tush was that small or perky, I will be retiring this pattern.


One reason I started sewing underwear was that I felt guilty about all my jersey scraps.  At least with wovens I can delude myself into thinking that one day I’ll use my extras as facings, pockets, linings, or in a quilt.  Underwear makes good use of those itty bitty leftovers – and since the Grace panties only use jersey for the side panels, I can use up ever smaller bits and bobs.  Sweet!  Also, this pattern uses not just jerseys scraps but woven scraps as well.  These are so much fun to make up.  I’ve seen a number of elegant versions online, but I happen to be partial to color explosions.  I admit I wouldn’t wear these day in and day out; the woven sections, though cut on the bias, doesn’t quite feel the same as pure jersey.  Still, once or twice a week they’re fun to reach for.  There will definitely be more of these.