Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teaching: Sewing, writing, whatever

(BTW, Happy Moonwalk Day.)

I have undertaken to teach a friend of mine garment sewing. She's handy and crafty and makes other sorts of fabric and leather items, but she thought she didn't know how to sew clothes because her technique has been to eyeball things on the rack, say "That looks simple," and proceed freehand. This worked for her on things like drawstring bags but not on things like harem pants. (She is of the fen and has places to go where harem pants are appropriate attire.) I told her she could too, and all we needed to do was get a simple pattern or two under her belt and then she'd know she could do it and could proceed from there.

So I took her to JoAnn's and she picked out a simple blouse and a simpler skirt from the $2.99 rack (always look in the $2.99 rack first; that's my philosophy). We already have (probably) enough fabric from a past failed attempt for the blouse, so we got fabric and notions suitable to make a skirt compatible with that. Two weeks ago we put together a rough draft of the skirt using some god-awful flimsy aqua stuff she doesn't remember acquiring (I'm thinking, garage sale, $1 an acre - who hasn't picked up crap like that?). T is too big to wear misses' sizes and too young to wear women's styles, so I showed her how to scale the pattern up, how to read the pattern, and how to lay out the fabric. I could see the light bulb go off over her head a couple of times as she realized why her freehand attempts hadn't worked. She hadn't known about things like grainline, or how the selvage isn't always perfectly straight, and without experience of the way a two-dimensional pattern translates into a three-dimensional garment she'd been cutting everything too big.

And she nailed it. She even got the zipper right first time. Today's the first day she's been able to come back to put together the real skirt, and then we can move on to the blouse, and after that I expect she'll be pattern drafting while I'm still plugging away at the same handful of patterns that I know how to make. But -

I picked up the notions while she stood in line to have the fabric cut, and I couldn't find the right kind of tape. The package said "twill tape" and I could only find bias tape and hem tape. I couldn't tell from the outside of the package what it was used for, and I figured twill is woven on the diagonal and bias is cut on the diagonal, so I got bias tape. When we did the rough draft, I learned that the tape was for the waist stay. I got worried about it, because the point of the waist stay is to, you know, make the waist stay. Bias stretches. And it's a bias-cut skirt, very flippy, and it's really cute on her, but it won't be if the waist stretches out. So I got onto the Stitcher's Guild sewing newsgroup and I asked. The lady who responded said yes, we needed to ditch the bias tape, but if I couldn't find the right kind cutting the piece so that the waist was on the selvage might work instead. Somebody else said a ribbon could be a waist stay, too.

I've now found some twill tape, in not quite the right color, and today I'll explain it to her and she'll decide whether to try the selvage idea or use the off-color tape, and that will be another bit of knowledge she has. Maybe my status as the sewing guru will be damaged, but that's okay. One of the things I'm teaching her is that you don't have to be an expert to do this. All you have to be is not afraid of failure.

That's one of the things I want people to understand about writing, too, but apart from one-day workshops I've never taught writing and I'm never likely to. I'm game to try if someone wants to pay me, but the fact is, writing is so easy for me that I'm afraid to teach it. I understand instinctively, or at least absorbed so long ago I can't remember learning, many things about writing and reading that other people need to be taught. I barely had to be taught to read, and from the start I was reading books in a different way than the people around me did. I always knew I was going to write these things, and from the moment I read my first word ("Exit," in the hall of my kindergarten on the first day. I had no idea what it meant and I'm not sure how I'd absorbed enough about phonics to sound it out.) , I've been doing so as a producer rather than as a consumer.

When I'm confronted by someone who is so intimidated by the blank page they can't start, someone who doesn't know how to choose which scene to write or how to get out of one scene and on to the next or how to make dialog sound natural or how to choose a point of view, I don't know what to tell them. When I start breaking down a work in structural or thematic terms during revision, a person who is at the stage with writing that T is with sewing gets a scared, glassy look, not because the material's too hard for them, but because it comes so naturally to me I don't know how to guide them past the notion that "I don't know how to do this so it must be hard."

This does not mean that these people are less talented than me, or that they won't in time write books that make mine look crude; it means I happen to have a knack for something they have to learn, and you can't teach knack. I jump right in and they need somebody to guide them in step by step. If I try to do that, I guide them down the wrong steps, or I skip steps, or I sound like I'm talking down to them. Because I completely lack the knack for teaching, and nobody taught me to write. Or rather, "Carolyn Keene" and Louisa May Alcott and Diana Wynne Jones and Shakespeare taught me by example, and I was equipped by nature to absorb those lessons.

I have no knack whatever for sewing. My mother taught me to do it and I continue to teach myself, with much recourse to advice from better sewers, much seam-ripping, and reiteration of patterns till I understand how they work. My favorite pattern, the one that made me into a person who sews rather than a person driven to sewing by necessity, has this funky stuff going on with attaching the neck band that I have to relearn every single time - I can't retain it.

Nobody's going to be intimidated by my way of showing them how it's done. They'll probably wind up feeling superior to me. And I can live with that. One reason I'm teaching T is so I'll have someone nearby who can help me when I'm stumped! All my sewing "experts" (who would all deny being experts if you called them that) live in different towns.

I don't need writing patterns because I understand how stories work, but I could no more break that down into teaching terms than Thai could explain to me how to fall asleep in the middle of the day. (I can barely fall asleep at night and daytime is impossible even when I'm desperate; I'm as unskilled a sleeper as you'll ever meet.) Lots of other people, especially beginners, need patterns, and it's not because they're lesser writers. They just have different knacks and have to come at the process in ways unfamiliar to me. Someday we'll all be sitting in critique as equals discussing structure and theme and character and whether the POV needs to change.

'Cause everything's doable once you know how.

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