So here’s something fun: this is my embroidery on Creativebug!
Waaay back in early March 2020, in the last gasp of the Before Times, Rebecca Ringquist of Dropcloth Samplers mentioned she was looking for test stitchers for a sampler to be used in her upcoming Creativebug class. I love Rebecca’s samplers and had taken several of her other Creativebug classes, so I was delighted to be chosen as one of the stitchers on this project.
Although we had never met, I knew Rebecca lived in my corner of Portland. She left the sampler on my porch one day, but I wasn’t home. Remember not being home? That day seriously was one of the very last times I wasn’t at home for a year.
The second-to-last very last time was March 10th. Even though my nose was still recovering from a harrowing-if-fascinating surgery to remove skin cancer, I went to the Tuesday night singalong of my beloved Low Bar Chorale. On my way into Show Bar at Revolution Hall, I passed some women sitting at one of the patio tables—and did a double-take, because I recognized Rebecca!
I think I sort of shrieked at her? I’m excitable that way. I introduced myself and we had a good laugh about it. She thanked me for testing the sampler and I told her I was already having a fabulous time with it. Then we went inside and sang with the band: a roomful of joyful adults shoulder to shoulder, mouths wide open, masks undreamed of.
Rebecca started a group text with her four test stitchers, and we spent the rest of March and April adjusting to lockdown and finding ourselves with LOADS of time for embroidery. Our deadline was late April, because Rebecca was supposed to film in May, I think. I loved working on the sampler, especially the alphabets. When Rilla saw the palette of floss colors I’d chosen, she laughed—they’re the same hues of Prismacolor pencils I always wear to a nub.
Covid, of course, changed Rebecca’s plans to fly to Creativebug’s studios in 2020 and film the class. But this year she was able to go at long last, and her class—Schoolhouse Sampler: A Daily Embroidery Practice—will begin on Saturday, aka January 1, the best day of the year.
(I love love love me a fresh start.)
The Schoolhouse Sampler is available at Rebecca’s Etsy shop, and you can sign up for the class at Creativebug. I’m a Creativebug affiliate, but I’m also a longtime subscriber, as you probably know if you’ve been around Bonny Glen for any length of time. It’s where I learned how to draw!
September 19, 2021 @ 11:36 am | Filed under: Books
This is maybe half of my stitching projects currently-in-progress. Plus a pair of middle-grade novels, a picture book, a blog/essay collectionish thing, a nonfiction project, and Brave Writer Dart #5 of the 10 I’m writing this year. (Yep, that’s the whole year’s Dart lineup. The books are SO GOOD, y’all. A joy to write about.) This is why I’m not very good at promoting the books I’ve already published—the ones I really really hope people will keep buying because I love them and want them to stay in print—and I’m low-level worried all the time about neglecting them, but I would always, always rather be working on the next thing than promoting the finished ones.
And buried in this pile are two hoops from a project I am truly over-the-moon excited about, a set of original designs, and it would be awfully nice if someone could rustle up a way to fit about six extra hours into the day. I’m not greedy—five or six will do!
And the whole time I’m stitching, I’m thinking about the books, the middle-grades* mostly. Or, well, that isn’t quite accurate, because at night I listen to audiobooks while I stitch. But reading is a big part of writing, too. So in a way it’s all in service of the work.
*(I can’t decide which to focus on so I’m mapping out two at once, set in the same world. I told a friend on Friday that I’d like to have proposals ready to send to my agent by mid-October. Which is maybe a reasonable goal if I kick the clean-out-the-garage project down the road until, like, spring??)
I love Charlie Gilkey’s book Start Finishing, and I’ve truly taken his advice to heart this past year, but BOY do I have a hard time with the crucial first step in his road map, which is recognizing that most of the time we can’t be actively moving forward on more than five projects at once.
And that’s if all systems are go, no health issues, etc. (In this house, there are always health issues. I’ve had a miserable time with asthma this past month. Which is partly why I’ve managed to do so much stitching: too fatigued for all the household projects I’d envisioned barreling through this fall. Silver linings.)
Anyway, five projects. Words that send me into helpless laughter petering out with a rueful groan. When I try to narrow down All the Things, I cheat a lot.
1. Homeschooling (an ongoing project, decades deep now)
2. Client work. Lots of it. Counts as one big ongoing project with many, many subtasks.
3. Books in progress. A major cheat to count them as one project. At a certain point, I have to tuck a bunch of ideas away and focus on just one manuscript. But this is not that point.
4. A wild card spot. Any kind of household project bigger than basic daily chores. OR: the ongoing project of navigating Wonderboy’s medical appts and services. There are periods where this becomes intense, with several appointments in a short span of time, and that’s for sure when other things on this list have to be back-burnered. OR: a biggish reading project; research; study.
5. Book outreach — the one I’m forever neglecting — my newsletter and blog posts and reaching out to podcasters & teachers. I mean, this is really a whole job by itself! There are, like, professionals who make their entire living out of it! But the vast majority of published authors can’t afford that kind of help. We’ve got to champion our books ourselves. Which is…kind of excruciating? I would rather champion OTHER PEOPLE’S books. (Like Tanita Davis’s new one. You should buy it!)
But what about…?
Stitching, you’ll notice, doesn’t land a spot on my Five Projects lists. Which may seem a bit bananas, since I’m obsessed with it and pretty much want to stitch all the time. But there’s a reason for it—a mini-revelation that gave me a lot of peace.
The thing about Projects is they require focus. Charlie Gilkey defines a project as activities that require time, energy, and attention. (TEA.) Most projects have some kind of Admin component, but to really move the work forward, the critical need is for Focus blocks. (What Cal Newport calls Deep Work.) Good-sized chunks of time—90 minutes to 2 hours is a good target, although for writing or, say, garage-cleaning, I prefer a 3-hour Focus block.
Most of us can only manage one, maaaaybe two Focus blocks in a given day. In Start Finishing, Gilkey notes that the rest of our time goes to routines, and admin, and social blocks (meetings, outings, phone calls), and…if we’re being good to ourselves, if we’re being wise: recovery blocks. Down time. Rest. Fun.
It was this Recovery part of Charlie’s road map that helped me make peace with the Five Projects (at most!) reality-check. Yes, I think of my stitching projects as projects. And they do take time and attention. But—here’s the glorious part—they don’t drain my energy. They restore it. They exhilarate me, thrill me—and they provide me with something I rarely experience otherwise.
I’m sitting still, stitching. My mind is still. I mean, it may be roaming, exploring the valley where my little book people live, or chewing on a post I mean to write—but it’s a contented, calm state. Not agitated. Not hyper. Not stressed or worried. Not holding mental arguments with That One Friend on Facebook. Not tacking items onto an endless to-do list. For me, stitching is a meditative activity; a vital part of my writing process; a means of rest and, yes, recovery.
A few years back when I was feeling a bit desperate over a too-intense workload, my brilliant coach friend Helen McLaughlin suggested I make a list of activities that drain my energy, and activities that give me energy, to make sure my days had a reasonable balance of both.
Tops on the refueling list were: reading to my kids, singing with Low Bar Chorale, and making art. At the time, I was only just beginning to venture into embroidery. I was filling a lot of sketchbooks, trying to learn to draw and paint. Sketching stills my mind in much the same way stitching does. But the stitching high lasts longer: I like the way my embroidery projects come out more than I like my drawings. Gradually handstitching took precedence.
Interestingly, I find there’s an admin component to a stitching project, too. Cutting fabric, transferring a design (my own original one or a purchased pattern, depending), choosing colors, assembling supplies—this is the busywork part of the process that I usually save for weekends. That leaves me ready to sink into the bliss of a recovery state after a workday’s Focus session. If I time it right, my background mind can go on untangling whatever knotty problem may have popped up during the work, without me really noticing it. I think I’m puzzling out which stitches to use, and all of a sudden I discover I’ve written the next paragraph, the one I was sure I’d never get right.
Writing this post (which believe it or not, started out as a simple Instagram Story caption—hahaha) has untangled its own kind of problem. The garage is going to have to wait. My much-avoided Project #5 needs some time in the spotlight. I’ve got to put my needle down and spend a little time joining the chorus of authors and booksellers who are encouraging readers to place holiday book orders as soon as possible. Worldwide shipping delays have the publishing world in a tizzy: everything (not just books) is taking a much longer time than usual to get from Point A to Point B, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
Independent bookstores are begging customers to order holiday gifts early—like, NOW, no time to lose!—to ensure deliveries by December. Which means we authors need to make that plea, too. If you’d like to give one of my books (or Scott’s! They’re awesome) to the kids and teachers on your gift list, now is a perfect time. Same goes for any other books. Especially backlist titles that may already be in stock on the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore. Snap those up and everybody wins!
Prairie Thief and Nerviest Girl are middle-grade novels, great for kids 8-12. Fox and Crow is a Level 3 beginning reader (also a fun readaloud for younger kids) and the Inch & Roly series is Level 1, for kids just beginning to read on their own (and good read-alouds for toddlers and preschoolers, because: roly polies! Inchworms! And of course all children’s books make excellent gifts for the teachers in your lives.
If you order online from Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland, they’ll ring me up and I’ll zip over to sign your copies before they ship.
batman adventures, book orders, cal newport, charlie gilkey, comics, creative practice, deep work, early readers, embroidery, five projects rule, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, global shipping delay, holiday shipping, Inch and Roly, nerviest girl, prairie thief, Scott Peterson, start finishing, stitching, Tanita Davis, writing
It’s early, and I’d like to be stitching. But my fountain pen leaked all over my fingers and even after scrubbing off the ink, there are stains. I worry about leaving black marks on the piece of linen I’m—ah, and now I’m derailed by the search for a verb that accurately describes what I’m doing to the linen. Not embellishing, ornamenting, decorating—all too ornate, too fancy. Ferning, perhaps. Covering it with ferns.
I’m handstitching a drawstring bag (this pattern) because handstitching, including and especially embroidery, is one of the very few activities that quiets my mind enough for real thought. Gardening works, sometimes—if I don’t fall into a swirl of longing for plants I have neither time nor budget for—and has, in the past, yielded entire books while my fingers occupied the rabbity part of my brain. Mopping wood floors works: the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, the light gathering on the boards, the repetitive motion. I miss the job I had for a couple of years in San Diego, cleaning the floors of a yoga studio on Saturday mornings before it opened. I did some of my best writing while vacuuming or mopping those bare floors in empty rooms.
The thing about floors is that cleaning them doesn’t take terribly long. And then they’re finished. You rinse out the mop head, put away the bucket, and you’re done. Gardening is never finished, and neither is stitching, really—I may finish one project but there are a dozen others clamoring in the wings. Lately I find myself dreaming of an interval in which I could tip the balance in the other direction: spend the afternoons stitching instead of writing. What’s with that? I baffle myself. But I have these ideas, you see…
And if there’s anything slower than writing a novel, it’s handstitching! Ha!
We finished our readaloud of The Firelings yesterday. Oh, how I wish this were still in print! If you ever come across a copy at a library sale, snatch it up. I’ve read it at least twenty times since my dad brought it home from a used bookstore when I was eleven or twelve. Probably more. It explores, as I wrote here some years ago, “the relationship between custom and reason”—a tension I have always found intensely fascinating, as anyone knows who has heard me refer to the “ham in the pan.”
I didn’t get my hands on Carol Kendall’s other books until I was older—gosh, much older, my archives tell me. I posted about The Gammage Cup in 2010, shortly after reading it for the first time. (Scott, when you see this, skip the blockquote—I know you prefer to encounter a new book with a totally blank slate. I’m probably starting Gammage as a readaloud today.)
Kendall is one of those writers whose voice I just plain enjoy. She’s a quirky storyteller with a taste for misfits. This novel is about the Minnipins, a tradition-loving people who live in small villages in an isolated mountain valley. Their distant ancestors settled here after escaping from terrible enemies about whom little is known, now, except their names: The Mushrooms. A few centuries ago, one of the Minnipins journeyed over the mountains and back via hot air balloon. Most of Fooley’s souvenirs—and memories—were scattered when he crash-landed back at home, but the remaining fragments have been carefully enshrined in a village museum and in the customs of his descendants. (You can tell them apart from the rest of the villagers by their names, which are taken from a scrap of paper that survived the crash and is now presumed to be a list of the friends Fooley made on his journey: Ave., Co., Wm., Eng., etc. “The Periods,” as these folk are reverently called, run the village.)
Folks in the village like things to be done just so, and they have little tolerance for eccentrics like Gummy the poet or lively Curley Green, who recklessly paints images of things from real life, in disregard of the proper classical style. (My kids love Kendall’s work, but her character names drive them up a wall.) When Muggles, the reluctant heroine, and her misfit friends begin to suspect the terrible Mushrooms are preparing for another attack, they have to persuade the rest of the villagers that the danger is real. Instead, they get kicked out of the village.
Whoops—time to accompany Huck to his garden gig. I’ll come home with strawberry juice on top of the inkstains. You see why I need afternoons free for stitching!
Booknotes: The Gammage Cup
September 21, 2020 @ 8:55 am | Filed under: Books
Oh my dears, what a time we’ve had! All of us—you and I. Our ten or so days of unbreathable air really did a number on me. Losing our daily walks, and my ritual of walking around the yard and literally stopping to smell the roses—brutal. On Friday the rain came at last, and the air went from Hazardous to Very Unhealthy to the miraculous-seeming Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Imagine celebrating a designation like that! Especially since three of us in this household fall in that Sensitive Group.
Today the AQI readout is green, glorious green. We can breathe deeply once more. Scott and I went for a walk yesterday evening and of course the world had changed during our days of huddling indoors. Summer slipped away and autumn is coming in: air quivering with golden light, trees tinged with color, asters and brown-eyed Susans stretching out their arms. All over the neighborhood, we saw giant sections of tree trunk sawed and awaiting removal—very likely casualties of the fierce winds that ushered in our days of smoke. Just around the corner, an entire treetop is sprawled on the side of the road, cordoned off. Scott and I had a moment of retroactive alarm, imagining what might have happened if our next-door neighbor hadn’t taken down the dear old dead birch in the sidewalk strip right next to the boundary of our yard. We were sad to see it go—but it kept dropping larger and larger limbs, and safety demanded its removal. Just in time, I think. If the winds had taken it down, all the power, phone, and cable lines would surely have gone with it.
This morning feels like a fresh start. I love fresh starts! I began a new embroidery piece during my creative-practice time—a Sarah K. Benning design, a tumble of fall wildflowers. Usually when I work designs created by someone else, I like to change up the colors to put my own stamp on the project. But this time I think I’ll stick to Sarah’s palette, which is full of yellow and gold and orange and brown—colors I seldom reach for on my own! Those brown-eyed Susans are insisting on it.
I like to use up all my spare bits of floss from other projects on this Dropcloth sampler. It’s one of several hoops that live in a basket beside my writing chair. I pick it up often to occupy my hands when I need to think about the work for a minute. I have magnets stuck to a tin candle jar that sits on a shelf in arm’s reach, and whenever I have a long tail of floss left in the needle after finishing a section of another project, I stick the needle to one of the magnets. That way it’s easy to grab one when I hit a tricky spot in whatever I’m writing. This red-stripe sampler has accompanied me for months—through the final revision of my novel, a slew of Brave Writer Arrow literature guides, a dozen poem drafts, and any number of posts. It’s my mental scratch pad! Every stitch represents a moment NOT spent scrolling a feed and killing my flow.
I think what I love most about this practice is that each bit of thread is tied to concrete experiences. I can glance at a row and recognize the color I was using up from another stitching project—oh look, it’s that flower petal!—and the work I was puzzling over when I added stitches to the row. It’s a kind of coded journal. Unintentionally, serendipitously. Turns out my best writing hack was a total accident. The happiest kind!