Today, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about writing and embroidery and life that have been bouncing around in my mind lately.
As you may know, in my upcoming debut novel with Sword & Silk, my protagonist Marguerite has the gift of Skeincraft. This is a manifestation of Air magic, put into practice through embroidery but can be woven through all sorts of cloth and thread.
Embroidery has been portrayed as that stuffy, restricting activity women force girls to do when they’d rather be outside. There is definitely a point to that, but there’s been a resurgence in fiber arts of all kinds in the past few decades as women reconnect to this ancient art form. Just wander onto Pinterest and type in knitting, embroidery, tatting, or crochet and you’ll find hundreds of pictures. I have over 4,000 embroidery pictures on one of my boards . Some are simple. Some are elaborate. Some have witty jokes stitched into them, or cute cartoons. Some are amazing, life-like portraits of people, animals, or the natural world. One thing they all have in common (other than needle, thread, and cloth) is the time, planning and skill it took to make these marvelous little works of art.
Many people have taken up needle arts during the past year because it is a lovely way to relax instead of binging on Netflix. Or while binging on Netflix. It has helped with the numbness or grief. Some say because of the meditation-like Zen that comes from stitching. Or maybe from being able to stab something over a thousand times without going to jail.
All of those are valid reasons. (All of them.)
Honestly though, I LOVE seeing the picture unfold, the image come to life after hours of stitches. Yet, once it starts coming together, I get sooooo impatient. I want it to see it, in all its glory, NOW. I want it to be done NOW. Even if I’m enjoying the project, I’m restless for it to be finished so I can look at it in wonder and exult in my creativity and skill. I want to show it off and share it with friends…and I can’t do that when it’s only three-quarters of the way done, darn it!
Also, I’m a little impatient.
Hard to guess, right?
So, let me add another thread to this. Last weekend, I was in a Zoom meet-up with some writer friends and we were talking craft and keeping each other accountable. I needed a little help with my current work-in-progress. It’s still pretty new, and I’m trying to figure out what shape it wants to be. I asked for my ladies to help a girl out. They asked some questions. I gave some answers. And some more answers. And some more thoughts. Went off on another tangent. Finally, my bestie, Heather, interrupted me.
“Amelia. You know where you’re going with this story. You have all the guideposts marked out. But it seems you’re trying to write the whole book all at once. Slow down. Remember – how do you eat an elephant?”
I laughed. “One bite at a time.”
“Exactly,” she said. “One bite at a time. You have the outline. You have chapter one written. Stop worrying about chapter seventeen, when you haven’t even written chapter two.”
“Yeah, okay. Good point,” I conceded.
I have all that I needed for chapter two, I just have to write it. Yet, I was already anticipating what would happen after chapter two and three and on down the line. I wanted to do it all at once. So, when I logged off that Zoom meet-up, I took the next step.
That’s all I did.
I wanted to do more because writing is fun. It is the thing I get lost doing because I get into the flow. I love
imagining the dialogue and getting it all down. I love imagining the settings and the dynamics in the relationships. I revel in all that. And part of the reason that I wanted to do-it-all-now, is because currently I don’t get to write as often as I want to.
I started a graduate degree program in January. I’m getting my Master’s in Public Administration. It’s like an MBA for people who work in government or non-profits which is where I am occupationally in my day job. So, I try to stuff all my writing energy into about two days a week, while the other days are filled with night classes, homework, and all the regular stuff of daily life with a family of seven. Whew!
So…a day after that conversation with my writing pals, I stumbled across something in a dry essay written over a hundred years ago regarding efficiency and organization in government administration that made me blink. I went back and read it again.
Luther Gulick explains that when one has a task that must be done, there must be a division of work to make it happen quickly, efficiently, and correctly. One man CAN build his own house, but it will take much longer than if he hired experts to lay the foundation, then frame the building, then run the pipes and wires through the house, put in the doors and windows, then finally “plaster and paper the walls.”
It was the phrase he had at the end of the house explanation that made me blink: No man may do it all, because of the limitations of human nature, of time and of space.
It sounded like I’d wandered into a Physics class, or a Dr. Who episode in which, of course, they do defy the laws of human nature, time, and space.
But here, in my life, in 2021 (okay – really ALL of my life) I have wanted to DO IT ALL. And I want to do it all RIGHT NOW.
And that doesn’t work with writing. It doesn’t work with getting any kind of education, whatever level you’re at. And it certainly doesn’t work with embroidery. It rarely works with just about anything in life. Yet, we somehow have come to the conclusion (or maybe it’s just me) that we must have it all, do it all, be all the things right now.
My mother blamed the glossy magazines of the 80s and 90s. She would laugh at their articles. No woman could look gorgeous, raise great kids, fulfill all their boss’s expectations, keep their house clean, cook well, and be amorously fulfilled. It wasn’t possible despite Melanie Griffith or Andie MacDowell saying so. (They have nannies and housekeepers and go out to restaurants, she’d grumble.)
Yet, I still fall for the myth that we can have it all and do it all right now.
Life usually sets me straight pretty quick, but the practices of writing and embroidery remind me more gently. In any project, one must plan and imagine what it could become. Then, figure out how to break it down. This might be chapters or plot points. This could be choosing cloth and thread, figuring out what stitches to use. Starting in on the work, you may discover that you don’t have the skills necessary to finish. It’s time to reassess. Can you learn that skill? Usually, yes, but it can take time. If there are schedule demands, it’s time to reassess again. What if it’s done a different way, with skills you already have? A detour, or an unplanned change can make the piece more meaningful and filled with a different kind of beauty. Sometimes though, you must watch a Youtube tutorial and do the best you can in the time frame permitted. Then give yourself grace. The stitches may not be perfect, the phrasing may still be a little rough, but it will be fine.
When writing or doing needlework, there is a lot of “unpicking stitches.” Literally, this is what you do in embroidery when you’ve botched something. For writing, this is where you delete the words that were genius yesterday but fall flat today. (Actually, don’t delete. Paste it into a different document labelled: Outtakes, or Cutting Room Floor, or Trash/Treasure. Because that stuff might truly be garbage, but…it may haunt you if you need it later and it’s gone. Just saying.)
However, I must mention that there are two ways in which writing, and embroidery are COMPLETELY different. When you are writing a first draft, you do NOT need to do much unpicking of your stitches. Because you are just getting the words down. You may have plotted the heck out of the story, but you are still just figuring it out at the sentence and paragraph level. So, if it feels like garbage, don’t worry, no one will see your first draft. The real writing is in the REVISING. This is where you go back and fix that description, or change the argument so they go west instead of east, or cut whole scene and plotlines. Or add them in.
If I told a bunch of needlecrafters that they would be stitching and unstitching those projects over and over again – or maybe start the whole thing all over again on a different piece of fabric - they would say I didn’t understand the nature of the art. It’s almost impossible to remove just one stitch after you’ve used that same thread to stitch fifty other stitches. But with the wonder of computers, you can take out a sentence and it all realigns in the document as if it never had been there. (How did writers do it when they only had typewriters? I don’t even want to know!)
Yet, just as layers of stitches build up to create a beautiful masterpiece, so too do layers of revision add up to make a beautifully written story. The writer didn’t just sit down at their desk and put all the nuanced emotion, lovely imagery, and tight conflict in there at once. It was done over time with numerous passes. Each time focused on a different issue to fix or improve. Sometimes, after we think the piece is “done,” we get another idea of how to make it better. This might come like lightning while we’re walking the dog. Or after a critique partner shared feedback. It might come as we’re reading for pleasure, observing how another author worked her magic. It might come after wrestling with a plot or character problem for months with no idea how to fix it and finally, after deconstructing yet another scene, it’s there, right before us. (Ask me how I know.)
My Young Adult Fantasy, UNRAVEL, took years to write. I wrote it while raising five boys, getting my bachelor’s degree, working part-time, then full time. It was read in parts or its entirety by friends, critique partners, agents, editors, and was loved and rejected by many. I had two requests to revise and resubmit it (R&R). One to an agent and one to an editor. They both loved it enough to want it to become the best book possible, and both eventually rejected it. When Sword & Silk Publishing told me they wanted to publish it, I was astounded and elated in about equal measure. It was what I’d hoped for and given up hope for. When I got my first pass of edits back, there was a phrase in the email with it stating that, “overall, it was very polished.” Those years gave me time to improve as I got feedback, critiques, and rejections. I found ways to improve and tighten the story so that it feels epic and immediate at the same time.
One of my favorite improvements came to me after maybe the one-hundred-seventeenth draft. I had just finished reading a novel with chapter headings that were quotes. Though intended to draw you in, they were so philosophical they were confusing and lost the momentum from the last chapter. I was thinking about these chapter headings as I walked around my neighborhood, and by the time I got home my brain was buzzing. I added little headings to each chapter that is a definition of an embroidery term. Each holds a note of foreshadowing. When you open your copy of UNRAVEL next year to Chapter One you will see:
Blackwork: a form of embroidery using black thread on white cloth. Historic examples are rare, since the iron-based dye is corrosive to the thread. No known conservation techniques can stop the decay.
Other chapters have definitions of Crewelwork, Mordant, Slip Stitch, Fugitive, etc. It was such fun adding these embellishments that help the body of the work shine.
But, as I have to remind myself as I work on my current work-in-progress (my fourth full-length novel) that it didn’t all happen at once. It took time. Word by word. Stitch by stitch. Adding to and taking away.
Adjusting the project…and my expectations.
Giving myself enough grace to see the process through until the end.
So, if you are like me, a little impatient, a little frustrated, ready to go, yet scared to make a mistake, remember that it is impossible to do it all at once because of human nature and that of time and space. Give yourself permission to figure it out as you add stitches to your projects. Give yourself grace as you seek for improvement. It will come. Remember that refinement is a process and you can’t skip steps. Or if you do, you’ll have to come back round to them eventually.
I wish you all the best in writing, in art, in life, whatever it is you’re pursuing.