Slow-Cooked Sentences

A thread through the labryinth

Rachael Conlin Levy

“We thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first.”

— Plato’s “Euthydemus”

I’m taking a short story writing class and am three thousand words into my first story and going strong. This is an accomplishment in itself because I tend to come up with an idea, happily motor along for a page or two, then run out of gas. Hah, I say to myself, your empty tank is because you’ve no imagination. Then I mope about and make life miserable for myself and my family. I spend lots of time filling my notebook with why I’m dull and why I have no talent and why I’m unread, unpublished and unhappy. This time, though, when I wrote into a place where the story seemed to peter out, I forced myself to continue writing on fumes.

And I’m still at it!

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Alleluia, right? The words appear to come from nothing, just like the empty oil lamp burned for nine straight days for the Hebrews, or like Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. But this took no leap of faith on my part, only a sleight of hand taken from the author Louise Erdrich, who said she writes her novels like a quilt, stitching a narrative from images, scenes, bits of dialog and description often written in longhand over 20 years. So when I hit empty, I went to my notebooks and this blog, and sifted through my writing to find old threads to weave into the story I want to tell.

“I always had a sense that I was sewing everything together as I went along,” Erdrich said in Poets & Writers magazine. “I keep lots of notebooks — and sometimes, when I’m writing a story I realize it’s actually about this piece that I abandoned years ago. And so I go back to the notebooks or to an accordion file of notes that I can’t even remember having made, and suddenly it fits together. With some of my novels it was like putting together pieces of paper, literally. I’d have everything on the floor of my writing room, and I’d crawl around on the floor, arranging things until they made sense to me and until I felt the narrative take shape, almost physically.”

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Writing isn’t the only stitching I’ve been doing lately. I’m teaching myself sashiko, a form of Japanese embroidery from the 17th century that involves repeating a pattern in a simple running stitch. It’s often done over multiple layers of indigo fabric using white thread, with beautiful and lasting results. This form of hand-sewing was used by poor peasants and farmers who needed to mend and reinforce their clothing, futon covers and cushions, and evolved into decorative artwork, while remaining grounded in practicality. I like making these tiny stitches, and find the repetitiveness soothing, almost meditative — similar to knitting and running.

So, with small stabs, I stitch through the darkness.

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7 responses to “A thread through the labryinth”

  1. Andrea says:

    Wow, that’s great–the writing and the stitching. I can’t imagine anything in my many scattered notebooks, blog posts, etc. could ever fit together into anything of interest, but I guess that’s a failure of imagination right there.

  2. Rachael says:

    Andrea, I’m not saying my story is anything of interest, only that it continues to unfold. 🙂

  3. Beth says:

    Rachael,
    I hate to be contrary but I’ll stand my ground in writing that your work is anything but “dull” and “unimaginative”- your blog is one of my favorites because of your insightful perspective and the manner in which you place your thoughts on the page- I hope you never stop writing! Besides, artists are their own worst critics, isn’t that the truth?!

    Kudos for tackling sashiko (it’s beautiful) and braving through the short story class- gas fumes or not, I’m so happy for you.

  4. Rachael says:

    Thank you, Beth.

  5. This really speaks to me today, Rachael. I’ve been crawling around on the floor with my pages for years. Just when I began gaining momentum and feeling some control over it all it was time to visit my family in Arizona. Now I’m used up. Arizona has its own special way of depleting me. All I seem to be able to do today is walk into brick walls. I need to master your new writing on fumes technique, or just lay down on top of these pages and take a long nap.

  6. And…I want to play around with sashiko too. Thanks for the inspiration and the link.

  7. Rachael says:

    Denise, be gentle with yourself on returns. The desert can suck it out of you — whether there’s family there or not.

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