Writing Lessons from an Ugly Quilt
Written by
Amy Isaman
October 2011
Written by
Amy Isaman
October 2011

I’ve completed one quilt that is truly ugly, and that is because I decided to use only what I had on hand to make it. It's hideous; there's no other word for it. I used a focus fabric that had teals, rusty oranges, some purples, and pops of yellow. I actually liked that fabric. Then I hit my stash. I pulled out a whole bunch of fabrics that I thought would work well with it.

In a pile on the floor, they looked lovely. In the quilt? Not so much. I had not yet learned about the importance of value. The entire quilt is in medium values with one or two darks and no lights. It desperately needed something else, but at the time, I didn’t really know what it needed. I was also trying to save money and make a baby quilt by using just what I had on hand, so I never even visited the quilt store to see if I could fix the problem. Instead, I relentlessly stuck to my goal of not spending a dime on this quilt. Big mistake as I ended up spending money on another (read not ugly) baby gift anyway.

While the experience frustrated and annoyed me, I did learn two important lessons: 1) Do not limit myself to present parameters as it dramatically hinders my creativity and the end product won’t be what I want it to be, and 2) It is crucial to pay attention to value as well as to color in a quilt. My ugly quilt still sits in a tote underneath my bed with other quilt tops that are pieced but not yet quilted. I would put a picture of it here, but I can’t. It’s that bad.

A few weeks ago, I pulled it out. As I looked at it, I realized how helpful its lessons have been with my writing. As a writer, I am definitely a planner, an outliner. When I started this whole novel project, I plotted it all out, made outlines, and sketched out scenes and characters. I’ve followed my outline generally, but my characters have taken me in directions I never suspected, directions that I didn’t have on my outline. At first, this panicked me, but then I remembered my ugly quilt lessons: 1) I cannot limit myself to sticking with my outline, and 2) I must vary the levels of tension in each scene I write, just as I must vary the value of color in each block I stitch.

I’m finally thankful for the time and energy spent on my ugly quilt. Perhaps I might even quilt it, hang it near my writing space as a reminder of the lessons it taught me, and also as a reminder that my writing, like my quilting, will improve. That’s a good feeling.

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