Sunday, February 16, 2014


My mother was never much into sewing, and I'm not good enough at math or at thinking in three-dimensional shapes to be any good at tailoring clothes, but I do have a use for my sewing machine -- I've been teaching myself (with a little help from the Internet) how to sew patchwork for quilts. For a craft born out of desperation and frugality, patchwork is remarkably beautiful. Most traditional patchwork square patterns have evocative names -- Drunkard's Path, Road to Tennessee, Broken Dishes, Corn and Beans, Bear's Paw, Dutchman's Puzzle -- that suggest the creativity of the anonymous women who first pieced them together. There are even legends about certain kinds of quilts, especially the charm quilt -- a patchwork blanket with no fabric repeats (the legend says that if you sleep beneath a charm quilt, your dream will come true). And the more patchwork squares I learn to sew, the more connections I see between good patchwork (careful cutting, color matching, precise seaming and sewing, ripping and trying again if it doesn't work the first time, and making the best of what you have on hand) and good writing.

I tend to think of myself as a patchwork writer -- finding and collating the snippets of ideas that stick in my head, figuring out how they can successfully connect to each other, and eventually stitching them together into one story. If you know me well enough, you can see evidence of this in my writing. When I needed an art gallery owner for a story, I went back to my California childhood, took the memories of my teenage next-door neighbor (the one with the hippie mom), aged her about 15 years and moved her to an alternate version of Park City, Utah. She fit in there as though she were born to it. The natives of the planet Shintenchi are based on what I've read about kitsune folklore; somehow it seemed right on a world settled primarily by Japanese transplants. And of course, the mysterious communication aphasia that afflicts the characters in Plain of Shinar is just a modern variant of the well-known story in Genesis, chapter 11.

There's nothing unique about this process; I suspect most fiction writers work this way. You can see it in George Lucas' naming conventions (the character of Nute Gunray has an amalgam name borrowed from politicians Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, and the name of the planet Kamino was likely inspired by El Camino Real, the "king's road" that stretches most of the length of California). You can see it in quirky fictional details (a family friend who writes gave one of her characters hundreds of little red moles on his back, borrowing from her own husband's dermatological oddity). And you can see the heartbreak of real people mirrored in the heartbreak of fictitious characters (Harry Potter's vision of his dead family in the Mirror of Erised -- the only part of the series that made me tear up -- surely reflects J.K. Rowling's longing for her own mother, who died of multiple sclerosis at age 45).

Because I see the nature of most creative work as closer kin to collage than to weaving, I think the idiomatic expression "a story made up of whole cloth" -- i.e., creating a fictitious account -- is a wildly inaccurate description of the creative process. Actual works of fiction are rarely if ever made up "of whole cloth." Instead fiction writers usually fussy-cut the most interesting bits and pieces from the whole cloth of reality, painstakingly sewing them together to create something new.

Fiction is patchwork. You really want a tale made of whole cloth? Read history.

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