Of late, I find myself thinking about sewing patterns: those brown-tissue sheets with dotted and forked lines meant for making clothes that look for all the world like a map of an alien land. My memories of these go back to around the Pleistocene Age, aka Pre-Internet Age, when we had to go to the local fabric shop to browse and buy the patterns for our frocks. For us, in 1970s-80s small-town Arizona, the shop was Cornet (other shopping venues: Revco, Yellow Front, and Bashas’, names that I wish I could take credit for making up). We bellied up to the counter and flipped the pages of the heavy Butterick and McCall and Vogue catalogs, running our fingers on the sketched illustrations of slim, slouching models and the A-B-C variations of cuts and hemlines. We wrote down the call number and then turned to the giant metal file drawers to dig out the fat, squishy envelope, not unlike digging through a library catalog (ask your parents or grandparents) to unearth a book entry. For me, the instructions on the envelopes were like another language, with their sizing requirements and list of fabrics and notions: bias tape, straight zipper, with nap/without nap, front and back darts, topstitching, button closing, pinking shears, crepe de chine, pique, broadcloth, not suitable for plaid.
This curious language was one spoken by my mother, who sewed many of our clothes as well as curtains and other household odds and ends, and who passed that language on to me. (I also took sewing in Home Ec, where I additionally learned to measure a teaspoon of baking soda to within an inch of its life and “got my colors done.” I’m a summer). Unlike Mom, who seemed to intuit the curves and designs on that pattern tissue, who held stick pins in her mouth without swallowing them and sent fabric through the sewing machine with nary a bunched seam, I had a little more trouble in translation. I got tangled up in the instruction steps, or cut out a front section on the wrong line, or sewed together pieces backward. When the sewing machine would jam or my hemlines would wobble and wave, I’d melt to the floor in the fetal position, wailing at my lack of patience, my lack of skill, at the mess I’d made of it. I couldn’t see the steps. I couldn’t see my way from beginning to end.
I haven’t held a sewing pattern in my hands for years, and I never did get any better at it, but for some reason my brain today wants to connect those old sewing days to the writing process. I’m thinking about how we do use patterns in writing, but they are of our own making. In other words, we don’t usually start out with a prescriptive set of 1-2-3 instructions on how to write a story (if someone tells you these steps exist, be very, very skeptical). We have craft elements and examples that guide us in development, yes, but the pattern for every story differs; a skirt is not a vest is not a pair of gouchos, even if they are all cut from the same plaid gabardine cloth. Also, we don’t move step by step through a pattern. Story writing sometimes starts at the end — with the zipper, if you will, then switches over to early stages of cutting out the front right bodice, then shifts to the middle of pinning, then returns to that g-d zipper that you had to rip out, then focuses on ironing a seam flat for awhile. There is no beginning-to-end in the process. There are no set steps. There’s only the pattern that we discover as we go, the one that works for each particular writer and for each particular story. We are both the pattern maker and the seamstress.
At the same time, patterns in the sense of forms can be incredible productive. Using a pattern/form as a way into a story– as a “constraint” as Alice LaPlante calls it — can catalyze creativity better than a blank page; it counter-intuitively frees up the writer to forge ahead in unexpected ways. Right now, I’m teaching a Forms of Fiction class, in which students are trying their hands at a number of forms based on model stories. Thus far they have read and tried out monologues (internal or external), letters, diaries, how-to narratives (second-person), photographs, plural first-person (“we”), exaggerated repetition, and lists. Next up: folk tales or supernatural, science fiction, speculative, or post-apocalyptic story. The stories that these writers are coming up with are wildly fresh and original, with impressive improvements in imagery, characterization, voice, and other craft elements. I had a hunch that this would be the case, but they are far surpassing my early expectations.
With forms, writers start with the pattern but then make their own version of it. From the tissuey paper, they cut out the parts they need, even veering off the dotted line. They pick colors and fabrics that defy logic, lengthen a sleeve or shorten a hem on a whim, turn a Dickie into a cravat, change the empire waist into a dropwaist with a sweetheart neckline, add a row of buttons just for the heck of it. Voila: a new story. The stitches may be loose, and the hem might be crooked, but that’s okay. We’re also the tailor, but that’s a wacky analogy for another day.