The experience and wisdom of a high school teacher is not a thing to take lightly.
I learned to sew in Mrs. Patterson’s Home Economics class. We spent the semester making pin cushions, mastering the slip stitch, making pillows, and learning the art of the sewing machine. Our final project: an apron, complete with a neck strap, ties, and a cute little pocket with decorative stitching.
The other students brought in fresh-from-the-store, crisp cuts of fabric. I brought in a scrap from home that I’d raided from my mom’s fabric stash from a previous project. For one embarrassing moment I thought there wouldn’t be enough. It had seemed like so much material at home. But in the classroom the pattern pieces dwarfed my fabric. Fortunately I was not left to figure it out alone. Mrs. Patterson conquered the odd shape and found a place for every pattern piece.
After pinning the delicate paper to the fabric, I was free to cut away. I love the sound of scissors cutting fabric on a solid wood table . It conjures images of my mom humming a tune while she cuts fabric out on our dining room table. It’s the sound of potential. The promise of great things to come.
I worked hard on that project. I struggled to get a decorative stitch just right on one side of the neck strap. I picked out thread with a seam ripper several times until I was satisfied the stitching looked good. I was thrilled when my pocket actually looked like a pocket on the face of the apron. I used more pins than necessary on the hem in order to get it as straight as possible. I worked on this apron for weeks. It was not a fast process.
At last I reached my moment of glory. With a snip of the scissors I clipped the last thread and held up the finished product to admire it.
The apron was upside down.
How had I managed to work on the wretched thing for weeks and not once noticed that the fabric was upside down???
This is what writing is like. I spend so much time trying to get details right that I can’t see the entire project for what it is until I step back and realize that sometimes the whole thing is upside down.
I recently submitted a piece to a stranger who had offered to do a critique. It was an awesome offer on her part, and because of the circumstances it seemed fairly safe so I went for it. When I got her critique back it had a lot of comments. No problem. I was prepared for feedback. I had my thick skin on.
But when I made the revisions I found my enthusiasm diminishing. The more I worked on it the more discouraged I became. I actually slumped back in my seat at one point, arms folded, pouting at the screen. If I had to read this page one more time I was going to scrap the entire project.
I moped and stewed and sent off my revisions to one of my critique partners. She was awesome. She helped me analyze every change, every nuance, every thought she had about the piece. I just wanted to flip pencils at the computer screen. What was wrong with this stupid page? Did it mean the entire story was stupid? Should I trash the whole project and start on something new and fresh?
“I actually liked the image the original ending left me with.” My critique partner was still trying to muster up some enthusiasm for me.
Then the thought I’d had all afternoon and evening came out of my mouth. I tried not to sound too pathetic. “Does it even sound like me?”
And that was the problem. It wasn’t me. I’d been trying so hard to impress this stranger with how well I could apply her feedback that I’d lost myself along the way.
We finished our session and I never looked at that page again. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I hated it that much. Like the day I brought my apron home humiliated and mad. My mom worked hard to convince me it was great, and the fact that it was upside down didn’t matter. I didn’t believe her. I wanted to throw it away. She insisted on hanging it in the closet with her other aprons. I insisted she never wear it in my presence.
After meeting with my critique partner I knew what I had to do. I opened a new document the following day and got to work, this time with a new resolve. I shut out the other voices in my head and vowed to only write what I loved, no matter the consequences. This piece was going to be mine. Even if the writing was stupid. Even if I broke all the rules. It would be mine.
An amazing thing happened. It was good. And more importantly I really liked it. Do you know how often that happens? I send things off to my critique partners irritated at the quality, knowing it’s mediocre at best. But not this. This was good.
I sent this page to my critique partners just to make sure I wasn’t too close to it. I didn’t need another upside down apron on my hands. Their responses told me my instincts were right.
I sent it back to this generous stranger for a second critique. Would she see that I had listened, but applied things in my own way? Would she understand how much stronger this was because it was my voice? I hoped so, but I knew that it didn’t really matter because it felt authentic, and that was more important to me.
Her feedback came within an hour of sending it. She loved it!
My mom gave me my apron when I was in college. When I saw it I had to chuckle at the blatant upsidedowness of the thing. I slipped the neck strap over my head and tied it on. I fingered the stitching on the pocket. It really was pretty decent.
This wasn’t just a beginner’s attempt at basic sewing skills. When Mrs. Patterson laid out those pattern pieces she must have noticed the fabric was going the wrong way. A woman with her experience would not miss something like that. Yet she never said anything. She guided me through the process and allowed the experience to be its own authentic thing.