Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chuck The Quilt

Imagine this:

It's a  mellow late afternoon, the worst of the summer heat gone, the first leaves drift on the lawn, stirred by a gentle breeze. Among the last roses a couple of butterflies dance, slowly, as if they are in a trance, as if the scent and color of the flowers has  hypnotized them. The sun is soft, yellow, milder than maple syrup, not as cloying as honey, and the sky that deep, brilliant blue of a very clear day just before the first frost hits.

There is not a lot of room on the porch for the quilting frame, let alone the quilt and the sewing basket.  We have to move the coffee table with the jar of ice tea, cake and bowl of Life Savers before we can sit down.

I put the quilt into the frame. This is a first for my publisher, and she watches as I stretch the material, but not too tightly, so we will have a good grip. The needles are tiny, the yarn relatively thick. I have to help her with the threading.

It's very peaceful on that porch. Across the front lawn, across the street, a school team is having a football training session. The boys are still young, about twelve, and they look a little lost in their helmets and gear, t-shirts flapping around thin, immature bodies. Their coach is making them run for the warm-up, quarterback in the lead as is proper.

"Tell me," she begins, "About yourself. Did you always want to be a writer?"

The quilting pattern is an easy one, a beginner's one. "Small stitches," I say, "Ten to an inch." She groans and puts on glasses.

"I remember writing my first story when I was eight," is my reply, "We were supposed to write an essay for school, about dinosaurs, and instead of writing something pseudo-scientific I made up a story about a fight between a T-Rex and some kind of flying reptile. They even shouted insults at each other. My Mom loved it, but my teacher was not so pleased. I think that was when I got hooked. Then in 6th grade I had a teacher who really loved my stories, and she used to read them out to the class. It was pretty mortifying, but also very cool. I was hooked."

The sound the needle makes as it passes through the layers of fabrics has always held a special satisfaction for me. Every stitch is a tiny step toward completion. It's like a mantra, one grain of sand after the next poured out.

A bumble bee comes to visit. He draws three circles around us, takes a dangerous dip toward the ice tea jar and bumbles away in the direction of the flower shrubs. From the football field, we can hear the shouts of the children, the sound of the ball being caught, cheering.

"If you were compared to another author, who would you like to be, and why?"

Who would I like to be? Now that's one I've never thought about. Never. "I want to be myself. The best writer I can be. I would like to have the scope of Vikram Seth, and the lyricism of John Galsworthy. But I would still like to be myself and write the way I have to write. I don't think any writer can be anyone else."

A short glance over the rim of glasses, and a small pursing of lips. Her thread is knotted, and I reach over to untangle it.

"How do manage not to stick yourself and bleed all over the quilt?" This is asked with a trace of impatience.

"I don't! I DO stick myself all the time. There is blood on every quilt I've made." And to prove it I point at several red spots, well hidden among the flower pattern.

"Your characters." The hand with the needle sinks onto the rim of the frame. "Do they tell you what to do, or do you tell THEM?"

This is interesting, and it has been on my mind for a while now. There was an insight a while ago that quite surprised me. I don't outline. My stories start with one idea, one scene, and then the rest falls into place. Only sometimes, and I don't know how to explain this, things happen in hindsight. I write one scene, and then much later, after having written several other chapters, it occurs to me that the scene I'm writing NOW is just that way because that other one happened way earlier... only I did not even think of it when writing the later one... oh, I give up. So, "I think," I answer, "My characters know their own story. In fact, I think by the time I start writing it, it has already happened for them and they are sitting in a cozy bar, with a sparkly drink and some nice snacks, and they tell me about it, and laugh in reminiscence."

She lays away the needle and picks up one of the pineapple life savers instead. "Why do you like these so much?"

I shrug. Dunno. I just do.

A slow smile, and then, "I told you to chuck the quilt. Why are we sitting here, quilting? Do you still quilt, at home? Or do you write all the time now?"

I put the needle and thimble away too. This is so easy. My life is so easy, now. I don't do anything else anymore. Writing, it is like flying. It is like a pebble skipping over a pond, a breeze rustling in the leaves, a gull soaring in the wind. Writing is freedom, and who does not want to be free all the time. The words flow from me, they are everywhere. The stories are everywhere, even in my dreams. It feels as if someone has opened a big wide door for me.

"I write all the time. All the time. If I'm not typing away on the laptop the stories are building in my head, and everything I see, everything I experience, goes into them. The stories are all out there. They only need to be visualized and then written down. Writing the first book was like stealing. Stealing time, strength, energy from my family. It was egotistical and single-minded, and I felt bad about it. And yet, despite feeling bad, I could not stop. Only once it was finished, to start another, I needed vindication."

A nod, in silent understanding. So I go on: "Getting signed by a publisher set me free. It gave me the license to write. I still can't believe I'm really allowed to write, and all the time, that someone actually wants me to do it, thinks I'm good enough. But.." I have a feeling the quilting session is over. There are better things to do here. "But getting signed by you was an incredible piece of good luck. So, let's chuck the quilt."


  1. Beautifully written, Mariam. Very lyrical and evocative. I was on that porch with you, my friend.

  2. Thank you, Nettie. :) It was easily written, I know that porch.

  3. They say every picture tells a story and a painting paints a thousand words, well your stories paint a thousand pictures, images so vivid I am there. Going to read it again. I want to be back there again.

  4. There is so much in your writing - this post is like a quilt, the more that I read it the more that I see. Your blood spotting the quilt, embellishing the florals. The child in the classroom shocking her teacher with a freefalling flight of imagination. But most of all this speaks volumes:

    "Writing the first book was like stealing. Stealing time, strength, energy from my family"

    The theft is defensible - just to read your words exhilarates and transports me and inspires me to write more myself. We all owe your publisher (and your family) a debt of thanks.

  5. Outstanding, Mariam. There's something about working with the hands that inspires the art of writing in a profound way. It allows the mind to clear, and one can ruminate on the possibilities. Oh, the possibilities...

  6. Beautifully written, and I have BEEN on THAT porch with you :-)))

  7. Wonderful transported me to that porch and I was sitting there listening to you. beautiful writing. glad I found your site. look forward to more regards x

  8. What a wonderfully written post! Beautiful writing and I'm so, so happy for you - the turn your life has taken!

  9. I love the conversations between you two. Thank you both for this!