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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Sewing

Domestic Doldrums

Unbeknownst to many, I am not domestically gifted. Now that I’ve told you that, however, my domestic ungiftedness will be beknownst to more people than ever before; so I could go back and delete that first sentence. Except that I really wanted to use the word “unbeknownst.” Thus, the statement stands as is.

Anyway, I don’t have a whole lot of talent when it comes to household stuff. I’m big on eating healthy, but I don’t get a thrill out of cooking. I could probably improve my skills in that area if I really wanted to — but why cook, when I could be writing instead?

Though I consider myself a clean person who’s better organized than average, I put off housework until I just can’t stand the chaos anymore. I alphabetize books, CDs, and DVDs…yet I don’t vacuum until the carpet threatens to start growing things.* I make the bed every morning when I get up, but I have to clamber over mountain ranges of clothing to do it.

What is woman, if not a fascinating collection of paradoxes?

But, in spite of it all, I do accomplish the occasional accomplishment of 1950s-style domestic bliss…and today, the accomplished accomplishment just happened to be mending something.

Domestic Do-Re-Mi…

…Fa-sew. With a needle and thread, that is. (Please forgive me. I worked out at the gym this evening; there must be something wrong with my brain. Endorphins! Gotta love ’em. I know the Julie Andrews seamstress set-up is cheesy — I just couldn’t help myself.)

There is a room in our apartment that serves the following functions: business office, writing nook, art studio, amateur radio station, and storage facility. The room itself is really only large enough to fulfill one of those roles. This might explain why, though it is also a sewing room, it rarely gets used as such.

In my “sewing room” (which is really only a sewing shelf, but who’s counting?), I keep a pile of Things To Be Mended. The turnover rate in this pile is not high. I add something to it perhaps once every three months. I might mend two or three items per year.

But today, I got ambitious.

I mended three shirts. In one day. Dearest inklings, I so rock the world of household chores today.

*ahem* So. First, I mended my Alice in Wonderland T-shirt. (I couldn’t find mine on Amazon, but this one’s pretty cool too.) The hole was tiny and had started a runner. Easy enough. Next, I tackled (figuratively, you understand; why would anyone tackle a bit of mending?) one of my favorite tees, a little lilac number in vintage soft, stitched with flowers. That hole was a bit tricky, because the material is so delicate. But I managed, because I’m just awesome like that.

Then came the challenge: Ed’s red, black-trimmed work shirt. I asked him how it happened, but he says he doesn’t know. To me, it looks for all the world like someone gave the shirt a couple of quick, horizontal nicks with the tip of a box cutter.

I don’t know why anyone would be gallivanting with a box cutter through the showroom floor of a car dealership, but if that’s what actually happened, I’m sure Ed would remember it.

The red shirt! Right across the front, two holes in a straight line. I turned the shirt inside out, equipped my trusty needle with thread of a near-perfect shade of red, and bent to my task.

My goal was to knit the edges of the holes together, so as to avoid an inny pucker in the front of the shirt. With the image of aging, near-blind seamstresses in my mind, I held my work about an inch from my nose and squinted as I guided the needle through tinest loops encircling the holes. Some loops cooperated, some did not. But I figured I was catching enough of them to prevent them from transmogrifying into future runners.

With this first step behind me, I then criss-crossed the hole with stitches, gathering each far edge with the tip of my needle and marrying it to its counterpart. Bit by bit, the holes closed up, and I created only a millimeter’s worth of inny pucker in the process. I crowed in my triumph.

After tying off my final knot — as tiny a knot as possible — I turned the shirt rightside out again to inspect the final result of my efforts. Meh. It didn’t look as perfect as I’d envisioned; instead of immaculate smoothness of material, what greeted my critical eye was a definite, horizontal bump. But it was less of a bump than it would have been, had I gone at this project with unabashed abandon and less attention to detail.

All in all, I’m satisfied with my handiwork. I don’t recommend that Ed wear this shirt to work anymore — the mended spot is far too obvious for business wear — but it’ll do nicely for a casual everyday polo from now on.

In Which I Run Out of Relevant Alliterations…

…but I don’t think the “D” deficiency matters too much — I’m still going to bring it all around to the point. And the point, my dear inklings, is this: Often, working on your story is like mending a hole in a shirt. Please to be following my sewing train of thought…

We of the storytelling craft often use the term “thread” when we talk about the thematic elements that hold our tale together. It’s a perfect metaphor, because we do, indeed, weave those elements in and out of the plot, binding characters and events together into a unified whole. But problems arise during the weaving because — especially in early drafts — we use the wrong threads. What we create then is not a whole but a hole.

Or, betimes, several holes. Unfortunately, we’re holding the material of our story about an inch from our noses, which allows us to focus on what we’re doing but prevents us from seeing what we’ve done. Only when we take a step back — and maybe give the whole thing a mental inside- rightside-out flip — only then do we gain enough perspective to see where we guided our thread in the wrong direction.

It’s a painful perspective…because usually, it reveals the necessity of unravelling some threads we thought were in just the right place. Picking apart the seams of our story is never fun. On occasion, we even have to rip the seams out, and whole scenes and even vibrant characters end up in the scraps basket.

We might use them again. We might find a future story in which those scenes and characters fit perfectly, as though tailored to that future story’s exact measurements. But then again, the scraps pile is what it is. Some scenes and characters never rise from it again.

Sew, sew, sew…fixing plot holes requires detailed, exacting work. With single words, fitting phrases, and the trusty copy & paste function of our word processors, we painstakingly stitch the edges of our story back together. Sometimes, when we’re sitting there, straining to knit it all back together again, it seems as though the damage runs out of our control, threatening to mar even the sections of story that are actually sound. The key here is not to panic.

Take a deep breath. Step away from the story (hear that in a deep, booming voice). Don’t pick it up again until your pulse has calmed and your hands have stopped shaking. You can do this. It just takes a little time and a lot of patience — with yourself.

In the end, like my husband’s work shirt, your story might not be presentable enough for business use. But guess what? That’s okay. Maybe you just want to show it to friends and family — y’know, keep it handy for easy, comfortable use. Or maybe you want to take it to someone with more experience and say, “Here’s what I got — can you recommend some more detailed, less conspicuous stitching?”

Either way, gentle readers, we do what we can with the skills we’ve acquired at any given point in time. In the writing life, experience is everything. And if you stitch plot holes together, leaving the material of your story puckered and rough, all it means is that you’ve gained valuable experience for next time.

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

*Some facts might have been stretched to increase the wittiness of this post.

(If you click that Alice link and buy that T-shirt — or anything else within the same browser session — I might eventually get enough cash out of the deal to buy another Alice tee for myself. It’s your call.) 🙂

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

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