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Chandra's Blog


Entries in craft (6)


Writing the Crazy Quilt

Recently I got to sit down and chat craft with my high school creative writing teacher. We have been sharing work in the past year, and my children are enthralled by her simple, heartfelt and other-worldly stories of the Moon Darlings. She conveys meaning with a sparse prose, ethereal imagery and language that hints of another place while deeply tethering the reader to the characters.

She listened to me explain what I have been working on this summer, a revisiting of a dual narrator novel that explores the relationship between two women on either side of a man. I rambled on with a plot summary, and explained it as a study on natural beauty and its merit, and the moral compass, and undoing the damage of the past and ... I paused for a breath.

Janna nodded. She then said diplomatically, "I think you would do a very good job writing for a television series. Something complex and intricate, that spins out for many seasons. I'm not sure a novel is the right medium for this kind of writing."

Basically, she said again what an agent who was considering CHOSEN told me years ago in a thick, gravelly Brooklyn accent, "You don't got to be so tricky, doll!"  

Janna went on to say that perhaps, this is the outcome of me knowing that I am talented--see all these balls I can keep in the air!--and intrinsically insecure about the actual merit of what I have to say. A 'don't mind the man behind the curtain, now look over here! she's about to get on another plane/in bed with another man/wreck her life in a new way!' Maybe I'm afraid my story doesn't stand on its own, in the same kind of beautifully simple voice that carries Janna's stories, so I heap on layers, and plot twists and funny side scenes, quirky characters, sex scenes and dredge up some backstory. 

I was reminded of my quilting. I don't actually know how to quilt, and I'm not particularly interested in learning. I don't want to be hemmed in by the rules of quilting, don't want to fuss with ironing interfacing to fabrics that don't have the same amount of give or pin before I sew every little bit. I want freedom to use anything I like, slash up and incorporate a fabulous thrift store find, whether or not it will hold up to a washing machine. Because of this, I rely on the medium of the crazy quilt, where my shortcomings and lack of quilting skill can be covered up with another overlap, another layer, some top stitching or embroidery. In the end, I hope that the person looking at the quilt will see the beauty in the midst of the chaos, because I do. 

(You can read about my daughter's Incentive Quilt, here.)
Piper's crazy quilt

Janna's writing advice: step back from this rolicking, wild, plot-heavy story. Tone down the neurotic characters I have woven. Write a scene from this story in simple prose, and see if the heart is there. There is a reason I am stalled out--see if this is why. I'm excited to try. She may be on to something that explains why I keep circling this story, never feeling like I understand the essence of it.

And on the other hand, I'm not sure that my methodology is totally problematic. Instead, perhaps it is simply my style? There are things I am good at in both mediums. It's not that I'm hasty or sloppy or can't write/sew something beautiful. I hand-embroidered thirteen painted ponies for Piper's quilt, with carefully blanket-stitched edges and flowing, colorful manes and tails, and they're lovely. I can craft dialog that rings true while conveying character and moving plot along all at once. I can seamlessly incorporate elements of pop culture that lend verisimilitude to my work.

I don't only crazy quilt because I'm too lazy to iron before I sew--I do it because I am attracted to this style more than perfectly symmetrical calico stars. I feel inspired by the beauty in layering and odd angles and textures and riotous colors. I am drawn to Murano glass, and cherish J's aunt's miniature layered collages. One of my favorite descriptions of our home was 'Pee Wee's Playhouse Grows Up' because of the bright colors and ecclectic mix of styles that somehow ... work.

Maybe this is true of my writing too. I cringe every time I feel myself edited towards chicklit, pat or formulaic writing. I demand that my characters be messily three-dimensional, with ugly, wobbly, secret underbellies and defining backstories and childhood friends and ex-boyfriends and snarky coworkers and things they do when they think nobody is looking. Maybe I write this way because I am attracted to the beautiful chaos of real life? 

I'll let you know how it goes this week.


Girly Craft Day

the Mini Boden inspiration

I am forever looking at things in catalogs and craft stores and design mags and thinking, I could do that. Today, I did. 

The boys are in an all-day ice hockey camp so Piper and I ticked a bunch of things off our To Do list and then rewarded ourselves with some leftover won ton soup and the tackling of a craft project. 

I saw the inspiration T-shirt in Mini Boden, a UK based clothing company that I usually enjoy browsing because I like their style and what's more, they interview their child models. I have bought some slouchy skater pants for my boys there but mostly feel it's a little overpriced for kids clothes.

But when I saw these shirts, I thought of the piles of leftover felt in my craft closet after the owl project. I started with the circles, because it was easy. I'd picked up a few blank T-shirts on sale at Old Navy and continously browse our thirft store for decent basics. Note: this project would also work with some favorite T's that got the dreaded grease stains. 

I made two circle templates and cut them out, then played with pinning them in position until I got a pattern I liked. 


circles pinned in position

While I did this, Piper tackled the regluing of glitter polka dots on a pair of really hideous Old Navy leggings we'd snagged for less than a dollar when I was fresh off the plane from Utila and desperate to cover her chilly little legs with anything. I warned her that the gold polka dots or their friends the big hideous rhinestones at the gathered ankles might not stay on through the wash. I was right about the polka dots. 

Pip set to gluing and sprinkling the fabric glitter my brother gave her for Christmas while I fired up the sewing machine. It took about seven minutes to straight stitch the felted circles into position. 

pip in action

I seriously didn't think her pants could be much uglier than they were when I bought them. They are, but infinitely more important, she is thrilled with them. 



The fruits of our labors can be seen below. Next, Piper has to do the backside of her leggings, and I think I'll try either the butterfly or the pear shirt. Total cost $4. Total time: 20 minutes. 

A successful afternoon of crafting with my girl: immeasurable. 

Piper's leggings

Piper models her finished shirt



Beach House (in photos)

This post is for my good friend Linda, who writes some of the most honest, from-the-gut stories, including This House. She may be the last person I know who has not sold their soul to the Facebook devil, so she is missing out on the photos I've been posting to my author site there. On our Sunday check-in last week, she said she feels like she is having trouble picturing me where I am. This post is for her, and for Cherry, who always dreamed of a house on the beach.

(NOTE: Some photos have already run on Facebook.)


the marina (photo by Briene Lermitte)


The house is accessible only by boat, through a network of canals or a dock on the beach. This is the marina where the boat lives, where pufferfish and upside down jellies hang out in the dock and the dogs greet you. 


Piper and Bine on the road to home





the dock at Coral Beach Village



the beach out frontHayden playing flying squirrel in yard








Piper and Amigo at sunset

H watches J kitesurfing on a windy day















view from the master bed

Our rental house is made of Honduran pine, with a long, screened front porch on the southern facing front of the house that opens into both the bedrooms and the main room. Our bedroom faces east, so we get great morning sunshine, the wind frequently blows from that direction, and ocean views. 


my nightstand


Piper's room is on the other side of the house. It is also the only room with an air conditioner. Some nights when there is no breeze we all drag our mattresses in here and crash. Eleven years later, the family bed lives on!

The boys have been waiting their whole lives for their own bedrooms. They were so excited to hear that this would come true for them in Honduras, that there were two separate sleeping lofts on either side of the living room, each with its own full-size bed. Their clothes and the two foster kitties are really enjoying having their own rooms upstairs; the boys sleep with Pip. 

Piper drawing in her bedHaybes in his perch outside his sleeping loft












 The main room of the house is hard to photograph. For one, there is an abundance of rattan, etched glass, wicker furniture and rust-speckled brass ceiling fans that are nothing I would choose. Also,the sun that pours in through the front porch backlights everything. Just know there is a big room, that looks out to the porch and the ocean, some furniture nobody sits on, a dining room sideboard loaded up with our school stuff, and two sets of staircases leading up to the sleeping lofts, and above that, to the aerie at the top of the house. 

The boys turned our kitchen island into a ping pong table

Bringing the outside in 





the coffee station in our kitchen










Piper in the aerie








We spend a good part of every day out on the screen porch. Kids lounge on the bed or in the hammock, we exercise here, play chess, craft or paint at the outside table, and basically enjoy the breeze and the views. 


the writing bed

We frequently have mango smoothies and cheese and crackers out here, drink our coffee on the porch, and store our multitude of watersports equipment and growing shell collections here.

It is definitely the most used, multipurpose space in the house. 


painting and craft table











craft prep table

The most recent art project was inspired by a funky piece of driftwood Piper found, and the dozens of little glass drug vials we find on the beach. Using wire, sea glass and shells, we created La Medusa, a funky jellyfish windchime. 

We have also made four huge found-art glass bottle, shell and driftwood windchimes that hang in the trees out on our beach. The sound these make when the wind blows from the east is like a very festive dinner party with lots of toasting. I immediately associate this with good things, since windy days mean no bugs.

The windchime project also gives an ongoing purpose to any glass we find washing up and a way to display treasures.




La Medusa Two at sunrise

La Medusa One

our sea biscuit collection


















 kids pose under their trash-to-treasure creation










When the weather is good, we spend more time outside than in. Pelicans and egrets fly by regularly. The dogs hang out and the kitties take dust baths. 

We snorkel and visit the three octopi who live in the shallows right off the house. Max practices cursive in the sandy front yard with sticks. Piper collects treasure for our crafts. They all catch geckos and hermit crabs while I hang laundry. We make campfires, do sun salutations, climb trees and roast coconuts. I am loving our beach life on the quiet side of the island. 

backyard clothesline


we have plenty of trees for climbingand hammocks for relaxing...

















Writers on Wednesday--Leah Stewart

This week I have the musings of Leah Stewart on the process and craft, the delicate art form, really which is editing. Since I'm up to my eyebrows in revisions and spent the better part of this afternoon helping my senior student reshape her flash fiction, this couldn't be more appropriate. Enjoy!


In my experience the more convinced writing students are that not a word of their work should be changed, the worse their writing is. That resistance to editing is usually a sure sign of an amateur, someone fervently convinced that writing is about the pure rush of inspiration and expression, and not about the hard work of learning a craft, of taking editorial advice, of revising and revising and revising. How to explain, then, the much-admired and well-known writer who told me that when he got the marked-up manuscript of his last book from his editor, he sent it back in the box it came in, saying he couldn’t bear to have it in his house? They published it exactly as he’d written it, to much acclaim.


It’s worth noting that he himself said that, had he not been too “raw” to look at his editor’s suggestions, he might have been able to make it a better book. Still, even as a young writer, he chose not to publish a piece rather than take the editor’s suggestions, a choice it’s hard for me to imagine making, especially at the beginning of a career. When my first agent sent me the marked-up manuscript of my first book, I called a writer friend in despair over the changes he wanted me to make. My friend said, “Well, you know you don’t have to do everything he says.” No, I didn’t know that. I was an unpublished writer. He was an established agent willing to take me on. The notion that I didn’t have to do everything he said had honestly never crossed my mind.


In the end, thanks to my friend, I didn’t make every change my agent suggested, especially on the sentence level. But I did make at least one rather significant change I still regret, even now, ten years after the book was published. I went against my instinct to make that change, because he insisted on it, because he seemed so sure. My own convictions about my work waver. I have faith in myself as a writer, but not always in the writing I produce. There’s incontrovertible evidence, after all, that even the best writers write bad books. And then there are those supremely confident students as proof of the lack of relationship between certainty and skill.


My books are better for being edited. When I think about the changes I made to my second and third books, I feel no regret, only gratitude to my thoughtful, conscientious editor, who helped me make the books so much better than they were. I’m lucky to work with an editor like her, someone who offers feedback on plot points and lines of dialogue and everything in between, which not all of them do these days. There are times when I do exactly what she suggests, and other times when I balk. Some of her ideas might work for the novel at hand, but not for the writer I am. When I don’t want to make the change she suggests, we talk until we determine why she’s suggesting it. If we can pinpoint the problem, most of the time we can come up with a solution I can execute.


My better students, the ones so riddled with self-doubt they might actually become writers, sometimes come to me after workshop confused by their classmates’ contradictory assertions. They ask how they’re supposed to know which comments to value, which to ignore, where your own convictions about your work should give way to other peoples’. My advice is vague and clichéd, if accurate: Go with your gut. You have to doubt yourself to get better, but you have to have faith to write at all.


Did the writer who sent his book back to the editor act out of faith or doubt? I don’t know. Some writers are high-wire artists; some are bricklayers. He’s a high-wire artist, and maybe having reached the other side of the wire he couldn’t bear to tempt fate by stepping back on.


I wish sometimes that writing was like math, precise and indisputable, instead of the messy, subjective thing that it is. I’m a believer in pragmatic advice, of the “move this scene here” variety. But there are places where technique alone fails you. Writing well is not math but alchemy, a disputed and mysterious science, a chemistry of faith and doubt.  

* *** *


Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.


MONDAY MUSING--Is the magic in the ritual?

Christmas is all packed up here, less than 48 hours after the event. Part of this is because we are taking our annual winter journey to worship the sun and sea in Grand Cayman before New Years. But another truth is that I can't stand having the accoutrements around after the magic has happened--it's like being the person who comes to sweep the set of a beloved stage or screen show, to see that the furniture and props are just... things. When they are part of the magic, the buildup, the advent stockings hanging on my staircase are festive. When there are no more anticipate-the-holidays activities scribbled on slips of red cardstock and chocolates tucked inside them, they are just drugstore felt stockings stapled to ribbon cluttering up my house. 


And as you know from my post on Christmas books, we pack these and their friends the holiday movies away with the ornaments and nativities. I am militant almost about safeguarding the 'magic'. To be honest, there is a part of me that is completely cringing about writing about Christmas on December 27. Shouldn't we be moving on, writing about resolutions or our new snowfall? part of me thinks. But I have been thinking about the ritual of Christmas a lot this year.

My sister and I were up texting after midnight on Christmas eve, our sewing machines humming along. Her two-year-old had sleepily said she hoped Santa would bring her a snowman, so Linden (who lives in the Caribbean) was up making a snowman for Quinn out of felt and buttons. On my end, I had sewn a modified "Ugly" doll for Hayden out of his old hockey pants--part stuffed animal, part hot-water-bottle holder for his night pains, and when I saw it set out by his stocking, I just knew Max was going to feel gypped, so I was whipping up a blue fleece bat/owl type creature. We were texting back and forth photos of our projects, and expressing the hope that the Christmas magic we grew up on had been created. 

For us, a huge part of this magic was the heavy, unaltered and beloved ritual my parents created around Christmas.

The Christmas of my childhood has weeks of lead-up that I won't bore you with--everyone has things that bring the season to life for them. We did too; songs, Tableaux, and the traditional goose dinner with my grandparents on my mother's blue and gold wedding China, new Christmas flannels, and reading aloud from Clement Moore. But the real ritual began Christmas morning, in a near-sacred order that stretched every Dec 25th until mid-afternoon.

My four siblings and I woke each other up and waited in our bedrooms, peeking across the hallway at each other, until the appointed time. I made sure everyone had brushed and gargled--my hyper-sensitive sniffer wanted nobody's morning breath wafting my way on the next part: waking my parents with a serenade of "Merry Christmas Bells Are Ringing." A quick cuddle in their bed, and then on to stockings in the living room. My mom knit all of our stockings, beautiful, matching and personalized, but they were never where we hung them on the fireplace. They were tucked into a pile, a bounty of stuffed animals and presents and extras. These we opened as my Dad laid a fire in the fireplace, calling out grateful 'thank you Santas'.


I marvel about the next part of the ritual as a mother: breakfast. Somehow, my mother managed to clean up from a full goose dinner for at least ten people on Christmas eve, and on Christmas morning, the table would be re-set with that same classic China, grapefruits halved and sugared at each place setting, holly sprigs in the napkin rings, homemade sticky buns in the oven. My dad made coffee and scrambled eggs with cream, and there was stollen and bacon. My sister-in-law and I were shaking our heads over this as we cleared the table Christmas eve this year, my mom shuffling around, HELPING, with her walker as she learns to walk after her shattered femur last June. How did she do it, all those years? How did she prepare these incredible meals, and clean, and do the wrapping and the stockings, and make all that magic? A wonder woman, we decided, who was also willing to do what we are not: all-nighters. 

After sit-down breakfast, we had worship--a reading aloud of the Christmas story, a few carols. If someone had learned a religious piano song (seven years of lessons, and the only piano song I can play from memory is Greensleeves) they played it. 

Between stockings and a sit-down breakfast, by the time worship was over, it might be ten, or even eleven. At long last, the deliciousness of presents could begin! We had appointed places in the living room where we sat, year after year. The elves--my brothers--would distribute the presents from under the tree to each person's station, careful to avoid or sometimes employing the aid of the clickety-clacking LGB train. 

Presents were opened in specific order, SLOWLY, one at a time, youngest to older, in repeating circles, until we were finished. With an original family of seven, this could go on until the afternoon, when the ritual ended with wrapping paper tossed in the fireplace, and my mom doling out our laundry baskets to carry our loot back to our rooms. 


Magic. Memories. Ritual. One Christmas four years ago, when there were just the two boys and my in-laws were here for the holidays, we let Hayden and Max tear through stockings and presents in a hazy, frenzied, fifteen-minute blur. No appreciation, no thanking the giver, adults milling around making coffee and trying to get the boys to eat something other than chocolate Santas for breakfast. No candles lit, no reading of the Petersham's The Christ Child, no carols. Just hysterical, rampant gimmes. 


I felt sick afterwards, stuffing torn wrapping paper into trash bags, the boys looking up at me like, "that was it?" It was barely eight-thirty. I took a walk that afternoon and vowed that I would bring the ritual, the magic to my children. I've been doing it ever since. As we set out the stockings on Christmas eve, I heard my oldest, my nine-year-old fellow Virgo reminding the other two how it would go: stockings, then breakfast, then worship, then presents, ONE AT A TIME. 


I don't do China or a big sit-down breakfast--our wedding China is still in its original packaging in our basement. And we've added our own flair; letters from Santa and reindeer chow debris greet them first thing, and a departure note from "Cheese", our elf on the shelf. I light candles scented like pine and poinsetta. My Dad comes over and makes scrambled eggs with cream, Jon brews excellent strong coffee and we have gluten-free sweet potato waffles with Nutella. This year, for the first time, my kids were so much more excited about giving than getting, desperate for everyone to open the gifts they had made or selected. Slowly, (okay, semi-slowly), one at a time, in order of age, while the LGB clickety-clacked around the track.




I think now, that the magic is in the ritual, and in the sentiment, maybe, in the care of creating and preserving tradition. I hope your Christmas was merry. Now, pack it up and let's move on.