What Sewing Taught Me about Creativity (Pandemic Edition)

I started sewing when I was a little girl under the watchful eye of my mother. Watchful, because she knew I was accident prone. We made dresses and curtains and costumes and pajama pants out of the fabric stash she kept in a giant tote bin in our basement. I have a whole category of warm memories dedicated to crafting with my mom.

When I started (slowly) working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, I was challenged to draw upon those good childhood memories and retry some of the hobbies that brought me joy as a kid. So, I got my sewing machine out.

During this time of uncertainty, it has felt nearly impossible to be creative. My short stories have all been about being trapped in the house or the airport or other various locations (they say write what you know), and I’ve been left feeling frustrated with myself.

I picked up sewing again out of desperation, to do something with my hands when my brain felt numb from constant stress. As I regain some semblance of our new “normal,” my clumsy sewing projects have taught me a lot about myself and my creativity.

Creativity is a practice…but doesn’t look the same every time

Something I always tell my students is that creativity is a practice. The more you engage in creative activities, the more creative you feel.

Where I went wrong in the past was limiting myself to literary-related activities. Don’t feel like writing? Read a book. Don’t feel like reading? Do a writing exercise. Pretty soon, the activities that I once enjoyed now felt like work.

Recently a senior writing student asked, “Will I ever feel like writing again?” My response to him was, “Give it time.”

Sometimes, we need a break even from the things we love to do. Having an additional option for creative expression during these times becomes vital.

Sewing has become that third option for me (that and taking care of my Animal Crossing island). I still try to schedule in reading and writing time every day, but adding in other creative activities has made me feel excited about being creative again.

Maybe for you that’s painting or cooking or gardening. I’ve started making a list of activities that give me that spark of creative energy. When the stay-at-home doldrums hit, I run down the list. If all else fails, I take a walk (in my backyard) and start again.

Making mistakes is part of the process

I never considered myself a perfectionist, at least not where other people were concerned. It wasn’t until I was hit with a months-long crippling writer’s block that I realized I might have a problem with myself.

During those months, I had started and stopped a dozen stories and essays because they weren’t “good enough” or they weren’t going the direction I wanted them to. I would start a sentence then erase it ad nauseam.

When I launched back into sewing again this year, I went into it banking on my childhood knowledge. I thought I remembered how to thread a sewing machine until the thread started to birdnest and knot. I thought I would remember how to read a pattern, but after several YouTube tutorials, I recognized I did not. I made mistake after mistake, ripped out seams and sewed them again only to realize that I sewed it with the wrong side in. I tried, without previous attempts, to pleat something…which is all that needs to be said.

In the frustration, something shifted in me. Every time I made a mistake and chose to fix it rather than give up, I learned something. I became more aware of my process and the gaps in my knowledge. And I learned when to ask for help.

During this time of creative drought, we need to be open to failure more than ever. We need to take a few risks, try new mediums, and make room for play. Maybe if writing feels laborious, try it from a new point of view or in another form (a letter, a diary entry, a story in texts). And if it doesn’t go as planned, remember that the detours are an avenue to get us to where we need to go.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good

The most important lesson that sewing has taught me has also become my mantra for the year:

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

I wanted to make a skirt as my first sewing project. I should have started with a scrunchie because it took me over 5 hours. By the end of it, my workspace was covered in thread and the hem was not straight, but I put that skirt on and I looked in the mirror, overjoyed to see it completed. It wasn’t perfect. Not even close. But it was good. Who cares if it had thread tails and uneven seams? I still finished what I set out to do.

I think the desire for perfection (or at the very least, the fear of doing things wrong) has held me back from a lot of things in my life. It has most assuredly affected my writing life and it took a botched sewing project to help me to realize it.

 Maybe in the coming weeks, I don’t meet my word-count goals, but 20 minutes of “bad” writing is better than 0 minutes. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

Maybe my first draft has plot holes and typos in it. You have to have words to edit them! It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

Maybe you pick up a new hobby or work on a new story during your time at home or maybe you don’t. Maybe you just focus on staying healthy (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually). It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

Wherever you’re at in this creative journey, give yourself some grace and remember that your best is good enough during these unusual times.

-HEB 

Why Writing Identity Matters (and 3 Ways to Reclaim Yours!)

One of the most common phrases I hear teaching undergraduate writing courses is “Well, I wouldn’t call myself a writer…”

If you know anything about my story, it took me until I was 20 before I would identify as a writer, even though I have been writing since I was 4 years old. I thought that as soon as I used the term “writer,” someone would come out of the woodwork to discredit me.

Even as I was creating my business cards two weeks ago, I struggled with the wording, feeling like I couldn’t truly call myself a writer with only one tiny publication. What would the “real” authors say when I handed them the card?

In this moment, I realized that I still had doubts about claiming this identity for myself because I was afraid I hadn’t earned it.

In my short time teaching (and success coaching), I have found one thing to be true:

What we believe about our identity directly affects our ability.

I spend a lot of time affirming my students, helping them reframe their belief systems about themselves but I don’t often do that for myself.

So if you’re like me and you struggle with your identity, maybe it’s time for a reset.

Reclaim Your Identity

If you’re writing, you’re a writer. This means journaling, short stories, fanfiction, personal essays, thoughts in your phone notes, snippets of poetry. If you’re active and practicing, you’re a writer. Period.

If you dissect books and movies for plot, character development, dialogue, you’re thinking like a writer.

If you see a lonely pink sock lying on the sidewalk and you immediately think of a backstory for why it’s there, you’re seeing like a writer.

If you people-watch and eavesdrop and create the context and storylines for the conversation in your head, you’re listening like a writer.

And if you’re not doing these things, that’s okay. Slow down. Pay attention. Writing is a practice; sometimes that practice comes naturally, sometimes we need to sit down and be intentional.

Reframing the Belief

If you’re writing and you’re practicing, but you still consider yourself a “bad” writer, it might be time to reframe your beliefs.

I tell my students that I’ve haven’t yet seen a bad writer and they don’t believe me. But it’s true. What I have seen are developing writers in different stages of development. If you resign yourself to simply being “bad,” you won’t improve. But once your mindset changes and you’re committed to development, you will start to grow!

I have watched this happen in real time: students finally stop believing that they are “bad writers” and they stop hating their writing. Their productivity increases and some even begin to enjoy themselves (believe it or not!).

Sometimes to reframe your beliefs, you need to separate how you feel in the moment from the truth.

You’re still a writer, even if writing feels hard or even bad right now.

In those moments, we may need to develop a new “script” for ourselves to get us through the low points.

Developing a New Script

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say “fake it til you make it” at some point in your life. I thought it was garbage advice until just recently when I went through a season of extreme stress.

Over and over in my head, I was repeating, “I can’t do this. There’s no way I can get this all done.”

This stress “script” kept me up at night and brought my anxiety to a boiling point.

I talked to a friend who suggested that I combat these thoughts with the opposite “script.”

“I can do this. It will all get done. One day at a time.”

At first, it felt really stupid and I didn’t believe the words that I was saying. But slowly, as I continued the practice, my outlook shifted. As my outlook shifted, so did my attitude and the stress started melting away.

There is a practice that I walk my students through that is very helpful for developing a new “script” to combat the old one. We write and repeat affirmations about ourselves and our work that we know to be true (even if it doesn’t feel that way right now).

It can be a simple statement like, “I am a creative person,” or an intentional one like “Today I am making time to create.”

If you’re struggling with what to say, Writer’s Relief has a great list here: 10 Affirmations For Creative Writers—And How To Use Them.

You don’t have to use all 10. It could be one or two, but every time you start to doubt yourself, have a few in your arsenal to combat the old “script.” Write them on a sticky note and put them on your desk. Screenshot them and set it as your phone background. Look at them to remind yourself to keep up the good work and to believe that good work is being done.

These strategies aren’t quick fixes. They often require some work on our part to change our habits or lifestyle. There are seasons where I feel more or less confident in my identity, but I’m assured by those further along in their journeys that this is completely normal.

Wherever you’re at, I hope that today you’re encouraged: you are a writer. And when you doubt it, look to your reminders until you start to believe it again.

3 Things About Me (Welcome!)

Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here and I’m looking forward to connecting with you!

My name is Hannah and I am a writer, professor, and dog mom living in Lakeland, FL. Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, the snowiest city in the United States, I am constantly inspired by the contrast of my two “hometowns,” focusing much of my poetry and fiction on nature and a sense of place. In July 2018, I landed my dream job as a Creative Writing professor and I haven’t stopped pinching myself ever since.

My intention for this blog is for it to be a landing place for conversations about teaching, writing, reading, and creating. As an introduction, I wanted to share three facts about myself that might give you some insight into my journey (as weird and wonderful as it has been!)

I entered college as an Education major and changed it within two weeks.

I met with my advisor one time. One time and I decided education was not for me. She was a wonderful person and extremely helpful, but as she read off the responsibilities of an education majors (semesterly classroom observations and the inevitable student teaching internship), my stomach felt sick. I wasn’t excited by these opportunities; I was terrified.

I switched my major to Religion and learned how to read and write research, analyze text, and think deeply. These skills served me well when I eventually went on to pursue an MA in English and Creative Writing. Undergraduate Hermeneutics is what got me through graduate level Lit Theory.

I’m currently working on my third degree: an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction), and even though I’m flexing different learning muscles, I’m still using the skills I learned in the first two degrees in a new way.

The best part about all of this is I still ended up teaching…and I’m now in LOVE with it. Every step of of my journey was built on the last and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I have been writing since I was 4 years old but didn’t call myself a writer until I was 20.

Like many artists, I’ve struggled with my identity my whole life. Though I’ve been writing and submitting for a very long time, I didn’t get anything published until 2017 (unless you count the time my school used my script about Marco Polo for the school play when I was 8).

Because of this, and because until 5 years ago I only considered writing a hobby, I never felt qualified to call myself a writer. But I’ll tell you what, things began to change when I finally gave myself permission to use that title.

The way we speak about ourselves and the identities we claim make a huge impact on our abilities to create. I’ve watch this play out with my students.

Many of my students don’t believe they’re good writers (some have even been told they’re not good by past teachers which breaks my heart). We have worked together to flip the script. Instead of “bad writers,” we talk about ourselves as developing writers. We talk about writing as a practice and that every person in the room, if they’re writing, is a writer. Their perspectives changed and many began to actually enjoy writing (which is huge for freshman Comp!).

If you need to hear it today, I want to tell you: if you’re writing, you’re a writer. Own it. Claim it. And work at it!

I have 3 tattoos and 2 of them are literary.

I’ve been drawn to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis since I was a little girl. There is something truly magical about the world he built. Narnia brings me back time and again to that place of childlike imagination. This tattoo is a reminder that I was “made for another world.”

This tattoo is a quote from my favorite poet Mary Oliver describing her instructions for living life.

For me, it encompasses my calling as a writer and as a person. It is also a tribute to the poet who has impacted my life so much.

This is my only non-literary tattoo and it was my first one! In every climate exists some species of evergreen tree. They not only grow but thrive in whatever environment they are planted in. This is how I want to live my life too!

What about you? If you’re reading this, I would love to hear 3 facts about you or your journey as a writer! Leave a comment and let’s connect!

-h.e. benefield