“Bird by Bird”: How I Use a Book on Writing to Train Fabric Collage
Creating is scary. It’s intimidating. It’s lonely. It induces self-doubt and procrastination.
No one I know of speaks more honestly and memorably on the fights of being an artist than the writer Anne Lamott. In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life , Lamott offers advice to writers (and other artists) in how to overcome the blocks that we put in our own way, preventing us from actually doing the work we love so much. Lamott’s clear-headed and humorous counsel encourages artists of all types.
My «well-loved» copy, finish with coffee stain.
During my classes I often read selections from «Bird by Bird.» Especially for beginners, creating a fabric collage quilt can be intimidating. Students often have little or no formal training in art. Translating the vision they have in their goes to fabric and thread can be a steep climb up an icy slope. They need both implements and encouragement to reach the peak. I give them the tools—Lamott helps me give them encouragement.
The title of the book itself urges us to put the task at palm in decent perspective. Lamott relates the story of her ten-year-old brother, who had put off to the last day his assignment to write a report about «birds»:
We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, «Bird by bird, pal. Just take it bird by bird.»
My students often need to be reminded that when confronted with a blank lump of muslin their task isn’t to create a finished quilt. It’s to put the very first chunk of fabric down—and then the next—and then the next. Use whatever terms you like—step by step, bit by bit—but since reading Lamott I always very first think «bird by bird.»
Sometimes a student remains unconvinced. Perhaps they’ve always worked from a pattern or even a accomplish quilt kit. They may be used to knowing exactly what the quilt is going to look like before they even embark. That just ain’t the way fabric collage (the way I do it) works. Helping them overcome this mindset then becomes one of my most significant jobs.
Here’s a passage I sometimes refer to:
E.L. Doctorow once said that «writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the entire excursion that way.» You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything that you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
In a previous blog. I talked about how I didn’t know exactly what my quilt «Crocodylus Smylus» would look like when ended. Sometimes you just have to «leap before you look.» I had to have faith that if I kept going I would reach my purpose.
At twenty-one and a half feet long, there was no way to know exactly how «Crocodylus Smylus» would turn out when I began on the journey. I could only see as far ahead as my headlights would shine.
As we shine our headlights down this winding road of creativity, there are signposts along the way. As a writer, Lamott thinks in drafts, with each indicating a stage of the journey, which helps discourage excessive perfectionism too early in the process. In fabric collage, it’s unlikely to know for certain whether that very first lump of fabric you use is actually the right one. It might not be. It might have to be covered up or substituted once you make some progress. But that very first chunk of fabric is significant even if it turns out to be wrong:
Almost all good writing [or fabric collage] commences with terrible very first efforts. You need to embark somewhere. Begin by getting something—anything—down on paper [or muslin]. A friend of mine says that the very first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The 2nd draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You attempt to say [demonstrate] what you have to say [display] more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s liberate or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
The finished quilt, «Golden Temple of the Good Damsels,» but of course, it had to commence with a «down draft.»
You have to commence somewhere, and it’s often the hardest part. So you put a lump of fabric here, and another one there, and it starts to look like it’ll never work. I refer to this beginning of the down draft as the «messy-scary» stage. And it can be daunting.
Kali the dog at the messy-scary stage is hard to imagine as a adorable white mini-Schnauzer. It’s at this point that some novices run into a wall. Heck, I do, too. It’s hard to believe that it will ever look any better.
But when we keep going we eventually reach—or pass through—the down draft. The chunk is blocked in. The big picture is coming clear. The muslin is covered. Here are Djinni the cat, Kali the dog, and Kiiora the budgie at the finish of the down draft:
Art—whether writing or visual—isn’t formulaic. My quilts—and I suspect Lamott’s books—don’t always go after a structured and organized path to completion.
Kali the dog hit each signpost pretty much on schedule—down draft, up draft, and dental draft.
Up draft on the way to dental draft. Using white spotted netting to add highlights and to bring out her white wool. Fixing up what I put down. Finished. The dental draft (third draft) switches are usually pretty subtle but significant. You should be able to see a difference in her eyes if you compare the two. Subtle, right? But made all the difference for our Kali.
Kiiora the budgie flowed together with hardly any hitch. The down draft and updraft happened almost at the same time. Then it was on to the final tweaks of the dental draft.
It may be hard to see, but I always knew that in the end, I’d add some sparkle tulle to each of my good ladies during the dental draft. It would provided the ending touch to each of them, dainty little women that they are. And yes, those are eggs. Kiiora’s laid over a hundred of them by now. And no, they don’t hatch, and no, we didn’t make mini omelets.
Pictures that flow together like Kiiora the budgie did are the exception. Often, at some point, there’ll need to be a fairly major revision. I revised the front gam of «Crocodylus Smylus» three times before I was sated. Djinni cat was another example. While working on the background, it became clear to me that her tail blended in too much. What to do? Where are my headlights? Ahhh, I see, it needed to be moved to a different angle.
Djinni’s tail vanishes into the background. So cut it out and stir it to a better spot! This is fabric after all. Then patch up the background and reattach her tail to her assets. Voila.
Once the tailectomy was accomplish I could work on completing Djinni as I had the other two, adding final detail, and boosting highlights and shadows with tulle and other translucent fabrics. Plus that sparkle.
Adding her fresh pink cangue was part of the dental draft. The cangue, in real life, is studded with rhinestones. Djinni must appreciate the bling since it hasn’t disappeared like her previous four collars (none of which were almost as pretty).
Each subject in «Golden Temple of the Good Girls» followed a different path to completion. I’m sure Lamott would agree that that’s the nature of creativity. If the practice of creating were the same each time, it would cease being art. It would be manufacturing.
On the other mitt, being an artist isn’t all about the mystery of creation. Much of it is simply hard work. Choose your metaphor—birds, headlights, drafts—whatever inspires you to stick to it. There are no shortcuts. In the end, there’s no substitute for just doing the work.
«But once I’ve done the work, how do I know when a lump is done?» Students ask this all the time. Only they will know for certain.
Lamott gives us a vivid photo to help us make that decision. She says it’s like «putting an octopus to bed»:
You get a bunch of the octopus’ arms neatly tucked under the covers…but two arms are still flailing around. But you eventually get those arms under the sheet, too, and are about to turn out the lights when another long sucking arm cracks free… if you know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now—well? I think this means you are done.
Well? I think this means I’m done. I’ve put the octopus to bed on this blog post.
NEXT WEEK: Using Value to Create Whimsical Color Palettes
A follower of this blog asked if I would talk about how I use non-realistic colors in my quilts while making the subjects «lifelike.» Next week I tackle this topic.