What L.S. Johnson learned about writing from sewing

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by L.S. Johnson.

sewing structureSewing and Structure

by L.S. Johnson

I quit writing in 2006. I just stopped, cold turkey. I had spent a ridiculous amount of money on a MFA, only to find that no one wanted to publish anything I had written … and in retrospect I can understand why. We had spent a lot of time massaging things in the program: scenes, descriptions, egos. We hadn’t spent much time at all on how to write something publishable.

Instead of writing, I took up sewing. I have a lifelong love of vintage fabrics, and I had accumulated a small hoard of scraps and yardage. I had made one quilt in my youth, by a long process of trial and error; now I threw myself into my newfound art form. I took classes, I read books, I practiced and practiced. I learned how to finish a seam and how to press properly, I learned how to read a pattern and even modify it. I graduated from a beginner’s repertoire of pillows and pouches to garments—perhaps not the most tailored, but things I would actually wear in public.

During those long years, however, I was still writing in my head, usually late at night when I couldn’t fall asleep. Slowly the two processes began to overlap in my mind. For the first time in my life I found myself thinking not about pretty sentences or exciting scenes, but about the structure of a story, the bones beneath the flesh. Just as I was learning to build a garment correctly, so I began to understand that I had never really learned how to build a story correctly. Occasionally I had hit the mark, but it had been a matter of chance and instinct, not conscious deliberation.

There are specific steps for sewing anything, born out of common sense and generations of practice.  You don’t sew seams willy-nilly, you assemble your project in a certain order, be it a basic quilt or a ball gown; you watch the directions of your grain and your seams and you make choices accordingly; you press, press, press every seam and edge; you never hem a garment without letting it hang first . . . All these steps and dozens of others, and you had better know what you’re doing before you decide to work a different way, otherwise you’ll end up with a useless mess.

And useless mess is how I would describe much of my MFA work now. Oh, there are some lovely sections in there, some great writing, but it had never added up to anything. Sewing brought me back to basics, and when I finally started writing again (the 2010 NaNoWriMo, and it was like a dam breaking) I did so with an actual story arc in my head, not just to hear the sound of my own words.

The funny thing is? Structure, whether in sewing or writing, doesn’t just give material a useful shape. The pretty fabric on my shelf not only looks better made up into something, but it acquires an added dimension: purpose. In storytelling, I would call that dimension meaning.

L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Long Hidden, Fae, Lackington’s, Strange Tales V, and other venues. Currently she’s working on a fantasy trilogy set in 18th century Europe. Find her online at http://traversingz.com/.