Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ten Things I Learned about Writing from Working in a Fabric Store

Currently I make my living off of part-time jobs and freelancing my theatre skills. My main source of income is a fabric store where I might spend more than I actually make. During these days, I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing, and thus connections are bound to be born.

1.) Subjectivity is a real thing.

This year we had several showings of local quilters’ works, one in which we had the opportunity to vote on the best. We had three categories: Best of Show, Color, and Student. I helped to tally the votes at the end, and the ones I chose? They were on the lower side of choice, having some marks, but less than most.

The ones that won I understood a little bit. Color had the most colors (and I don’t like colorful; I chose the combination I liked best), Best of Show was the hardest to make, and the students was the only one that was not just a bunch of typical squares and stars. We had all predicted the one that would win—it was obvious—but I would have thought the ones I liked best would have done better.

Some of the ugliest quilts I’ve ever seen get a great deal of compliments—without the creator in the room. Color combinations I would never use, colors in general that I couldn’t make appeal to me with all the fabric options in the world, are some of my costumers and coworkers favorites.

Unlike in writing in which I—insanely, if not accurately—attribute many people’s love of a “bad” book as lying. You do not like Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac and Fitzgerald. Bullshit. Or my friend who thinks that she’s better read than her classmates. Both of these things can be true, but they aren’t necessarily true all of the time, and nothing shows the objective truth of subjectivity when it comes to favorite colors.

Some people like things other people don’t.

2.) Never ask stringent rule follows how to break rules.

I work with a lovely woman who is much older than me, and a completely different personality. She is a longtime seamstress, a perfectionist, who is very good at what she does. She knows how to do practically everything. But God forbid you want to do something weird.

I hesitate to ask for her help on things because it will generally be prefaced by “Why are you doing it at all?” I want to change a pattern, trace a pattern, move something, reorganize something, try something new, and I’ll have to explain to her my reasoning behind it. In her mind, we should never change unless there’s a reason to.

This is pretty common in writing sessions, but less obvious. Unlike sewing in which there is a pattern for, a clear rulebook, and logical standards of protocol, the “rules” on writing are pretty vague. And I’ve never met a writer who was willing to admit that he liked doing what he was supposed to.

But you’ll come across smart, experienced people who you disagree with in every way, or will question you on your choices, but will never outright admit that they don’t like rocking the boat. Hell, you might be one of those people. In these scenarios, the receiver of advice might not realize what is going on. I, for one, never even considered that people would balk at change or originality. I consider any criticism on such—always—as them saying, “You’re trying too hard to be original.” But no, there really are people who want things to be formulaic, who don’t want to break the rules, and who will actually say the words, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before,” as though it’s a bad thing by itself.

There is a thin line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, but when someone starts questioning why you would bother, making suggestions that you don’t agree with, it’s important to consider if maybe, just maybe, they’re a rule follower. If they are, and you aren’t, it might be the cause of the disagreement, and maybe you don’t just have your head up your ass.

3.) Comparison is important.

I would love a fabric. I would love it from afar, never having a reason to use it, never having a reason to pick it up. Then, one day, that would change. I’d take it out, cut off a piece, throw it in my box to make a display, only to pull it out a day later and go, “I liked this?”

Writing, like fabrics, is often evaluated by what it’s being compared to. On the shelf, a color is defined by the colors it’s next to. Books are defined by the others a reader is seeing at that time. Ideas that are great on their own change when put into context. How well something is received sometimes has nothing to do with what it is, but rather what it is being compared to.

4.) By making one arbitrary decision, great ones will follow.

When you walk into any fabric store for the first time, there’s generally a sense of overwhelming decisions to be made. If you have no pattern, no color scheme, have no idea what you want to do, it’s common to try and keep options open. As soon as I pick that fabric, I can’t pick this fabric, and many don’t like to limit themselves like that.

Authors do this all the time. Many people who want to write a novel say to me, “There’s just no idea that I want to commit to yet.” Many who start to write a novel then quit, say, “I just get in and then change my mind about what I want to happen.” People don’t like limiting themselves. They want to see all the options before they make a decision. They want to make the right decision.

This is, however, impossible. Because writing is subjective and because there are too many choices and possible combinations available, trying to wait for the right idea will often lead to nothing happening.

The moment, however, that we make a concrete decision—say, “red”—obvious decisions follow it. I can’t use orange, but I love black with red. Is orange bad normally? Not always. But in this context it is, and it’s easier to skip the orange section and get ideas without being worried about skipping the orange section.

It is far better to make a decision and change your mind than it is to wait around for the right decision to come along. Mostly, because making that first decision is more likely to help you understand what you want—or don’t.

5.) What I like best and what I am most impressed by is not always the same thing.

Back to the contest, I suggested to my boss that we have different option for favorite and for most difficult. She said she had something similar, but the costumers got too confused how to rate it.

I wanted it, however, because the quilts I liked best I knew weren’t that hard to make, but the ones that were impressive, I probably wouldn’t have in my house. Should I vote based on my honest feelings or my logical “shoulds”?

What is hard to do in writing isn’t always clear. The best authors make everything look natural and easy. Sometimes the most complicated and thought out moment is the one most glossed over.

That being said, there are a lot of books that I love that I’m not really impressed by, and those that I’m impressed by that I don’t really love.

Do I think Beckett is a good writer? Yes. As a person of study, to take him line by line, he is interesting. I think he was a fun writer, a good wordsmith, and analyzing him is a blast. His stories, however, would be something a theatre in hell might play.

I find him very, very boring.

It is helpful for every author to remember that they are not intrinsically connected, and that he might be prioritizing one that a reviewer or contest judge is doing the opposite. While, I believe, most people would like to have both, sometimes it helps to remember that not having one doesn’t mean a complete failure.

6.) You’ll get better without even realizing it.

Free motion sewing is a quilting process in which the seamstress becomes completely in charge of moving the needle. She pushes the fabric around with nothing to regulate her seam length or direction. The process would be akin to tying a pen in place than trying to draw by moving the paper. It’s hard.

When I first started, my coworker—a great quilter—said, you’ll be surprised at how much better you are by the end of the quilt.

She was right. I free motioned, making up flowers and leaves all along the edges of the blanket, and you can definitely tell where I started and where I finished.

This is true for everything, whether it be writing, drawing, playing an instrument. With writing it’s hard to tell because it’s not visual or audible, but abstract. What is good and bad is so indistinct that sometimes all we know is “I don’t like it.”

It is typical to feel like you’re never going to like what you do, or that it will take far too long to get there. Many times you don’t want to ruin the project you’re working on with your inevitable mistakes. But the only way to learn is to practice.

7.) You will disagree with people on what is “supposed” to happen.

I walked into my boss’s office to see new fabrics lined up by her desk. I’m not a necessarily a horse person—I like them, sure, but I’m not as obsessive as some others—but immediately I wanted to make something out of it.

Because we live in a tourist town in Wyoming, we sell a great deal of western fabric to quilters looking for things they can’t find in their hometown. (Yes, that actually is a pretty common thing for quilters to do.) These horses, however, weren’t really all that western. Running through a blue winter plain, they were unique.

When I put them together, I mostly used fabrics from the same line (a “line” is a series of fabrics deliberately designed to go together), but for the cornerstones (small squares of fabric that—usually—go in the corners of the quilt) I chose a pattern of blue horses from elsewhere in the store. Well, a coworker didn’t like it, so I let her pull out a great deal of alternative options. My boss came out and we asked for her option, to which they agreed on a brown one. I was asked, “What do you think?”

“Well, it’s okay. My only problem is that it’s kind of western, and I like the fabric because it is about horses, but isn’t so western.”

“It’s not western!” my boss said. “It’s just brown.”

Well, my lovely coworker from above came in soon after to give her opinion, to which she said, “I like this one.” (pointing to the majority’s favorite) “It makes it look more western.”

I started laughing, and my boss explained, “That was the wrong thing to say.”

When my boss explained way, my coworker was so flabbergasted; she couldn’t even form her thoughts into words.

“It’s about horses!” she said. “It’s western! Deal with it!”

Everyone makes assumptions about the way things are supposed to be and what other people are going for. She could not comprehend how I could possibly want a horse not to be western, and I could not comprehend why that wouldn’t be incredibly obvious.

All writers will have this conversation at one point or another. A reader will make the assumption as to what the author’s going for, as to how things are supposed to be, about personal tastes, and the writer has to decide if he agrees or not. Whether it be mixing genres, morals of the story, or just little, unpredictable details, at one point in time someone will say something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

8.) What seems like common sense to you isn’t always that common.

A guy came into the store a few days ago needing a thin strip of felt, 60 inches long. He had a worse temperament than most of the men. It is common for them to be uncomfortable, hostile, and abrupt in a fabric store. (There are a lot of men who aren’t, of course, but who notices them?) He gave me that same constipated, monosyllabic tone reserved for someone who just underwent surgery, and kept staring at me, waiting for me to deliver whatever the hell it is he wanted.

He said he needed felt, so I pointed the direction it would be in. He waited. I walked over with him, saying, “This felt is 72 inches, and we cut width of fabric, so you’ll take the whole 72, but it will be long enough.” I showed him the felt bolts (cardboard wrapped in about 15 yards of fabric). He stared at me. “Do you know what color you want?”

“Don’t you have anything else? I just need a strip.”

“Well, we have felt squares, but they’re only a few inches wide and long.”

“Don’t you sell it in ribbon form?”

I didn’t expect this. “Nope.”

He eyed the felts and, deciding that it wouldn’t work for him, “Can you tell me any other options?”

At this point in time, I had no idea why he couldn’t use the felt, and he was so abrasive, I didn’t care.

“This is all we have. I don’t who else would sell felt.”

“I just need a thin strip.”

Now I just stared at him.

“And that’s too much,” he said, gesturing at the bolt.

“I can cut as little as one-eighth a yard, which is about four and half inches.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He lightened up. Then he stared at me.

“I’ll do that then.”

And he stared at me.

“What color?” I said finally.

Selling fabric is a weird business, and it’s understandable why people are uncomfortable and confused. The problem is there are so many different possibilities as to where they might be confused, I don’t know what they don’t know. Now, having worked there for a while, it seems like second nature to me. I knew he was concerned about something, but I couldn’t figure what. In hindsight, it’s obvious why he wouldn’t know how little I could cut, yet I have no idea how much he thought he had to take. It seems like common sense that the bolt would have worked for him, but because he didn’t understand anything about the process, he couldn’t even begin to ask about the miscommunication, and I couldn’t begin to guess.

The number one reason I don’t understand feedback is when the peer glosses over something “obvious.” Instead of saying, “I’m confused who’s talking here,” they say, “Just use their names.” Instead of telling me, “I don’t know who I’m supposed to root for, so I root for no one and don’t care,” they say, “You have too many characters.

By assuming “common sense” neither party is able to understand where the miscommunication is happening. Of course, you can’t explain everything to everyone without sounding condescending as hell, but when miscommunication happens, you can start by considering what you don’t know.

9.) Many customers won’t understand that what they want is unique to them.

I’ve worked there for eight months now, and in this time I’ve had a few costumers upset that we didn’t have what they wanted. Most handle it pretty well. If you’ve lived in Jackson for more than three seconds, you know this is a small town and we have nothing. Go to Idaho Falls if you want a Furby.

But there are those who—usually due to procrastination—are very upset about not having it. I had one man give me a ten-minute long rant about how he keeps coming in there and we have nothing he wants, and I need to be sure to deliver the message to my boss. Because, yeah, what she really needs to hear today is some old jackass complaining we don’t have the color of Velcro he needs. I’m sure that will change everything.

The funny thing is that in all of these situations, the person complaining is often the first person asking. I’ve never been requested for it before, and I haven’t been requested of it since. The items that we do get a lot of requests for, the people haven’t been alarmed about not having it. The tantrum throwers want something that, while not unique, is not something I picture being sold in bulk.

I’ve had people like this in writers’ groups, where they tell their fellow writers what their book needs to be or needs to change, completely unaware that their request is unique to them. A man once started by saying, “I don’t like detective novels,” then telling the mystery writer what she shouldn’t do to fix that.

Unless she was writing mystery novels for non-mystery readers, this is advice that probably isn’t that useful.

10.) People don’t like labeling themselves.

When someone comes up to buy a lot of fabric, I ask, “Are you a quilter?”

What I really mean is, “Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost?”

Nine times out of ten, they hesitate.

“Well, I’m a beginning quilter,” they say.

“I quilt,” they say, “But I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘quilter.’”

Like calling ourselves “writers” people have a problem with putting a label that they don’t think fits them fully. It becomes a big step for us to admit, yes, I am a writer, yes, I am a quilter, and the amount of pressure we put on those labels can be funny.