In 2003, I took a 5-day class on quilt design from Erika Carter at the Quilting by the Lake retreat in upstate New York. I was nervous because I’d never taken such a long class and I had no idea what kind of teacher Carter was. Fortunately, she turned out to be unusual in the best way possible. She taught me an important creative lesson that applies to more than just quilting.
My anxiety while taking this class was through the roof. I had never done anything like it, and I was a ball of nerves the first few days. Only after I had a long talk with Carter and discovered she understood the challenges I was facing was I able to relax into my work.
The class focused on using poetry for inspiration. After two and a half days of exercises based on poems she read to us, we switched to working from poetry we’d brought in order to make a large piece or a series. This being me, I’d brought along Shakespeare.
I chose Polonius’s famous speech in Hamlet that ends with
This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Little did I know that I would be learning a lesson in class that related back to this pithy advice.
I made an abstract scribble for my human form, then sewed it together with fabrics that I hoped would look like overlapping, semi-transparent pieces. My goal was to make a glowing figure that would stand out in a crowd.
I got the central figure made but got stuck on the background. (This is where I got a little crazy.) The other students in the class were all working improvisationally. I watched them cut and stitch, then play with the pieces they’d made and do more. They had no plan, no pattern. They just cut and sewed and their pieces were beautiful.
So I tried to do the same thing to make my background. I auditioned different fabrics, then laid my figure on top of them. I stitched fabrics together at random. I cut and sewed, but I couldn’t get it to work.
I spent the entire last day of the retreat struggling to slap together a background, but nothing looked right. Every time Carter walked through the room, she’d stop to look at what I was doing. She’d nod, say, “Mmm hmmm,” then walk on.
While I wasn’t thrilled by this reaction, I wasn’t dismayed either. I figured it meant I should just keep trying. So I did.
Finally, when the workshop was nearly over, I went up to the desk where she sat as we worked. “I can’t get an improvised background to work,” I said. “I think I need to draft and piece it, the same way I did with the central figure.”
She smiled at me, a warm, friendly, proud smile. “I’m glad you figured that out,” she said.
Wait. What? She’d realized I was in trouble long before I had. She’d known the solution to my problem, but she hadn’t said anything about it to me.
While this seems like a great opportunity to get annoyed, I was relieved. Her verification confirmed what I had discovered for myself. It took me a lot longer to realize I needed to change my plans than it appparently took her, but I know it wouldn’t have helped if she’d told me what to do first thing that morning. I wouldn’t have been ready to do it, nor would I have been able to see the rightness of her suggestion. I had to come to the realization on my own.
The whole reason I got into trouble in the first place was because I ignored the advice of the quote I was using for my quilt. I was trying to be someone else. I’ve learned over the years that I prefer complex projects and that they take planning. Improv is not my thing. If I’d been true to myself from the start, I wouldn’t have run down the dead-end creative alley that I did.
So I learned two important things that week. Shakespeare’s lesson is one we are learning our whole lives: to thine own self be true. The second one was more subtle but one that was impressed on me by the way Carter taught.
It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, how much we want to help, or if we have the solution a struggling creative person needs. If we rush in with answers that someone isn’t ready for, all we do is slow them down. Creativity is a process, and that means working things out for ourselves, no matter how long it takes.