I’ve spent a lot of my life making things. Stories are my favorite production, but I’m aware that I use my writer’s impulse and M.O. in many other activities, This is particularly true when it comes to my use of material (or materials) and, really, it dates to my childhood and to my parents who were often abstemious and yet, with a very limited income, always managed to check the boxes for food and clothing and shelter, for contributions and gifts, for education and a car that was never fancy but always mint. My father had the obsession with thrift, my mother the singular ability to achieve it.
In practical application, this meant there wasn’t a margin for waste at our house. We turned off lights when we left a room. My father’s clothes lasted forever since my mother mended the holes in his socks and turned the cuffs and collars on his shirts and pressed his suits with the aid of a dampened dish towel. The blankets on the bunk beds were the ones he’d brought home from the navy–G. i., government issue—while lace trims inherited from my grandmother waited in the cedar chest to be recycled, and Sunday’s rump roast became Monday’s hash and Tuesday’s dry sandwiches on white bread.
Rather than considering it a virtue, I chafed at this cautious household standard. I longed for our family to spend money for Scotch tape or the prettiest Christmas wrappings, for clothes that didn’t come from the sale rack. I wanted a sweater that cost more than $2.95; I longed to go out to dinner; I wished my mother owned jewelry. Mostly, I wanted things to be more varied, to be exciting and beautiful.
My escape route found a surprising avenue. While there were occasional glimmers of something extravagant—a luncheon in St. Louis with my mother’s wealthy New York cousin (she’d been a Rockette), a miraculous pale green organdy dress from a great aunt, its only flaw that it was last year’s size, those were the enticing anomalies. Yet my mother, who was friendly with everyone and also intuitive, knew a young woman, oddly nameless all these years later, who could not only sew hems and cuffs, but every conceivable kind of clothing, much of it fun and surprising.
I was seven, and my mother arranged sewing lessons for me. Mostly, I remember a slim woman seated in shorts at her sewing machine, hair falling down her back while the engine whirred and she demonstrated some aspect of construction—the correct width of a seam, setting a sleeve. I tried simple things myself and, though I don’t know when I made my first attempt with the sewing machine, I remember there was a difficult conversation at home before my father—convinced I would sew the end of my finger—reluctantly agreed.
There are many pieces to my sewing story. In the early years, it was mainly about making mistakes while I learned new skills, most of them under my mother’s guidance, uncertain seamstress as she was. Eventually I had moved from doll clothes and saddled myself with the job of making almost all my own clothes and, though I worked mostly from patterns and never gained a tailor’s skill at fitting, I became good at solving challenging construction problems. I also modified patterns with my own details and pieced fabrics or experimented with color. Building on my mother’s use of what was at hand, I progressed to making things that were unexpected and as welcome as a $7.95 sweater.
I was unaware of it then, but I think now I was in training as a writer. I was confronting the question for everyone who makes things that is also the particular question for writers—what materials do you put together and how do you put them together? In theory, in the world of language and ideas there aren’t any limits. Yet for all the freedoms and leaps that may enliven work, it starts with its own strictures that are as real as the limits on material goods and the mandate to live with care that were part of my parents’ home. Or for me it does. Creativity, as I’ve lived it, has a precision and discipline at its core that rises from the recurrent question of my life: what can I make out of this? It’s the clarion call, the starting point for shaping ordinary things into something that might be wonderful.