Friday Five: Handcrafts Edition

Lest you think I’m throwing all of this autodidactic learning material at you because some thinktanker said it was cool, I thought I’d whip up a Friday Five to share with you my own self-directed learning origin story.

I grew up in a very crafty family. Both of my parents crochet and do some type of needlepoint. Mom does at least a dozen other crafts beyond that. So, it came as no surprise when I started making things, too. While I’ve tried my parents’ crafts (they were handy), I’ve played with some other crafts, too. While the list below isn’t exhaustive, these are the crafts I’ve done the longest, or that had some personal significance to me when I was practicing them.

1. Jewelry Design – This is probably the craft I’ve been practicing the longest. I started with friendship pins in elementary school. I gathered all sizes of safety pins and beads. I learned the symbolism behind the colors. (I was already pretty deep into children’s mythology books, so stepping out to other branches of anthropology wasn’t a stretch.) By middle school, I’d switched over to friendship bracelets, which were great for carting around on road trips and to summer camp. (Everyone in my cabin napped. I made bracelets, or taught someone in my cabin how to make their own.) In grad school, I dabbled in beading, which I didn’t enjoy, and then discovered chain mail and wrapped wire. My Etsy shop (which is woefully understocked at the moment) is home to mostly wire jewelry, but maybe someday I’ll make some macrame projects (the grown-up way of saying “friendship bracelets”) for the shop.

2. Crochet & Knitting – Many efforts have been made to teach me crochet over the years, but it never took. I really don’t know why. Maybe it was having to learn a skill by mirror (I’m left-handed), although I did that for years in ballet. Maybe it was just too labor-intensive for free-spirited me. Who knows? Last year, though, I decided I wanted to use up the drawers of yarn gathered from years of other projects, and so I snagged a crochet hook from my mom, set up an account on Ravelry and found a pattern, found a series of instructional videos on YouTube, and made my very first scarf. I’ve made more scarves since then, and they’re being offered in my Etsy shop…when I remember to post them. Knitting still remains elusive to me. After years of trying to make loom knitting work the way I think it should, I”m now in the market for my first needles. I’ve found YouTube videos, and am ready to completely frustrate myself.

3. Needlepoint – Needlepoint was probably my second craft, and it’s the one I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with. I have probably half a dozen or so (conservative estimate) projects started and stowed away in a drawer, and another dozen or so projects waiting to be started. I have a picture I want converted into a cross stitch pattern so I can make it and then frame it to look like a canvas painting. While these projects are time consuming, it’s fun to effectively paint with thread, to handle all those colors, to be able to make a wide variety of projects with nothing more than a needle, thread or yarn, and aida cloth or plastic canvas. I can’t tell you the last time I worked on a needlepoint project, but I should seriously think about trying to finish some of the projects in the drawer.

4. Polymer Clay – I used to love playing with Play-Doh as a kid. I’d make up a full playset, and then smoosh everything down and make something else. (Now you know where that metaphor comes from in the PLE.) To this day, I can’t handle a lump of clay without first turning it into a coiled mug, a throwback to a childhood spent poring over Childcraft books. So, it seemed logical that I would get involved with polymer clay. Except…the only reason I took up polymer clay was because I wanted to make a necklace like one I’d seen on television, and I couldn’t find stones that would work. (I should find that necklace and post a picture of it. It came out completely awful. Heh.) I’ve made canes, toys, and coasters, but I still just can’t make myself get into polymer clay. Perhaps someday.

5. Weaving – Ever since I was a very small child, I have loved Native American handcrafts. There’s a beauty in the work that I think is unrivaled in many other cultures. Mom had a small automated loom, but it was a bit much for elementary school me. When Fisher Price released their loom, I received it the following Christmas. I made so many things on it. I loved it. We still have it. I think I might even know where it is. But none of my current yarn stash is well-suited to it, so I guess I won’t be busting it out and working on it.

So, there you go. A collection of handcrafts I’ve learned, mostly on my own, over the years. When I tell you stories about self-directed learning projects, you’ll know now where I’m coming from…at least on this front. (I”m a self-trained digital storyteller, too. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

Find Five Friday – Girly Geek Edition

I don’t know how things have gone for y’all, but for me it’s been a week. Actually, it’s been a long couple of weeks, and next week will be pretty crazy, too. You may have noticed the blog’s been a little quiet this week. So has the social media. I’m not even sure I’ve done the bare minimum. What I do know is that this week’s Find Five Friday only has four links because things have just been that crazy.

Soooo…on with the show!

1. I have designed jewelry off and on my entire life. I’ve just re-opened an Etsy shop, and was strong-armed last week into a craft show that my work was not a good fit for. But because I have been designing jewelry my whole life, I tend to be fascinated when someone does something interesting with jewelry design, like creating a wearable light show. You can tell from the pictures it’s still a work in progress, but it’s an interesting idea.

2. I’ve also grown up interacting with music. I danced for a long time. I’ve done choirs off and on. In school and at LARP, I even played a couple of instruments. I frequently joke that music runs through my veins, and I can’t imagine not being able to read or interpret sheet music. So, finding out that people with dyslexia can find sheet music daunting was a bit of a surprise. A product designer who has experience trying to get dyslexia and a desire to play music to cooperate has designed a way to create and play music in a way that doesn’t trigger a war with her dyslexia. The Dyssonance looks like Colorforms on steroids, but the idea and implementation are pretty cool.

3. This has been a stressful month for STEM women. In 2013, Mattel released a 2-in-1 Barbie book where one half was called I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The Barbie line has a mission of trying to show girls all the doors that are open to them, and has come under a lot of heat over the years for the limited number of hard science/STEM professions represented in the line. I suspect this book was part of an attempt to address that. A pair of blogs discovered and shared the book this week, pointing out that while Barbie does design the game featured in the book (girl game designer = good), she then hides behind guy friends to code the game and clean up her virused computer. She then takes credit for both the game and saving the infected computer. Needless to say, women coders and their friends and supporters shredded Mattel, who has now offered a very half-hearted apology for the mess.

The book’s discovery comes only a week after STEM toy developer GoldieBlox announced their Barbie-like action figures. GoldieBlox still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths after the whole Beastie Boys incident, but their CEO was recently the keynote speaker at a Texas women’s conference where the themes included responsibility and presenting positive role models for up-and-coming STEM women. (I just about spit out my chai when I read that.)

4. While many made memes of the more troubling statements in the Barbie book and some mocked the pink tech and the flash drive necklace, one woman coder created a mock-up of the book (PDF) rewritten to reflect the message Mattel should have put out if they truly want girls to see what they could experience as a coder. The book is heavy-handed, but the message is much more positive.

Also, my inner jewelry designer couldn’t understand those upset about the flash drive necklace. It was completely appropriate to Barbie. But what do I know? I spent part of a season of Pretty Little Liars wanting Jenna’s owl flash drive necklace.

 

All right, there you go. Four links, but I tried to make up for it in the commentary. Hopefully, I’ll collect five links next week, but we’ll have to see what free time my workload gives me.

JewelryNiche: Learning the Rope (Chain)

This week’s look into the world of my personal projects won’t be nearly as exciting as last week’s, but it’s on my mind at the moment and it does fit in well. We’re going to take a look at my history as a jewelry designer, something I’ve done off and on throughout my life.

When I was a child, I loved to make wearable pieces. Over the course of elementary school, I made friendship pins of all sizes with all kinds of colors and types of bead. I loved playing with bead combinations. In middle school, I shifted over to friendship bracelets. Again, it was all about the color combinations and the patterns I could make with the threads. In high school, I still made friendship bracelets, but I expanded my interests to plastic canvas jewelry and barrettes to go with my wardrobe. (I would honestly wear them. Actually, there are a couple of barrettes I still wear, but I won’t tell if you don’t.)

In college, I was busy with volunteering in museums and dancing with local ballet companies, so my jewelry design went by the wayside. But in grad school, I got involved with live-action roleplaying (LARP), and was fascinated by the chain mail armor. I kept approaching armourers, hoping to learn the skills, but I effectively got blown off. I learned other crafts (including some basic beading techniques), but never found someone willing to teach me how to make chain mail.

Until the day I stumbled across a book on viking knit (which I still can’t do successfully) that just happened to have an entire section dedicated to knitting chains. I got some pliers and some rings and let the book teach me how to create 4-in-1, 6-in-1, the box chain, and the byzantine chain (my favorite knit).

And then my inner twelve-year-old kicked in. I used what I was learning to create jewelry pieces, often starting by making the basic pattern, and then making the next piece with some sort of variation, be it a blending of techniques or adding in beads and other components. I kept picking up more chain styles, eventually learning enough to create my own belly dance belt. (It’s still somewhere in this room, carefully wrapped up in a scarf.) As I learned each new knit, I stumbled through the first few rounds before figuring out an easier way to build that pattern.

I discovered wire jigs and started creating wrapped wire projects, expanding my ability to experiment and play with the materials. I started teaching the occasional class. I created jewelry for arts competitons, and even managed to sell some pieces. Eventually, I got brave enough to open a (long-dead) Etsy shop called JewelryNiche. I sold a few pieces, but other things got in the way and I eventually stopped designing.

I know what you’re thinking: If I stopped designing years ago, why is it on my mind now? Well, I’ve been clearing out my living space, which means going through all of my old crafting materials. Which means coming across all of my old jewelry design materials. I’m not going to lie. Part of me is looking at organizing them by material and offering them through Etsy. Part of me wants to make some kits out of those materials and offer the kits on Etsy. And another part is thinking, I could totally turn these into some jewelry patterns I’ve seen on Pinterest and some old favorites.

Time will tell what I actually decide to do.

All right, so much for Personal Project #2. Because July has an extra week this year, I have to come up with a third personal project to share. And an Etsy shop to plan for and stock. Keep an eye on the sidebar for an announcement.

Ideas on How to Get Creating…

The Writing Prompt Notebook
I’ve periodically taken to writing prompts or ideas on sticky notes and sticking them in my design notebook…but it’s rare anything actually happens with them. I tell myself it’s because I’m really trying to stay focused on Gemma Regina, but I’m honestly just not getting around to any of it.

But what if I did? What if all of the writing prompts I’ve collected over the years and all of the ideas I’ve generated over the years were on sticky notes…in a larger notebook than the one I currently carry around (which wouldn’t fit into my bag)? The immediate benefit is having the prompt right there in a writing space (since I’m more of a handwriter than a typist). And I could group ideas together if I wanted to weave them into the same story. I could add in more notes and thoughts as I explored groups of ideas…or a single idea for that matter. I could even move notes around to make room for works in progress…and it would be far easier to move unused notes into new notebooks as old notebooks ran out of pages.

It’s so tempting, and yet there’s a part of me that’s so certain I’d never actually get anywhere with it which is probably also what’s holding up…

The Inspiration Notebook
Part mood board, part dreams, part therapy. I have slowly started this project in a sense. I’ve been gathering images and such that appeal to me. Originally, I was going to post them into this old notebook that used to be my exploring notebook (before I became a hermit). They’re even grouped into pages and partial storylines.

Over the last month or so, as I’ve wrestled with various professional and personal woes, I started thinking about it in a different light. Along with collecting things that appeal to me, it could be an exploration of where I wish I was. Most motivation and therapy programs say that if you have a visualization of what you want, you’ll get there. It’s never actually worked for me, but I’ve thought about having fun with it and turning it into a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure activity. Pull in everything I have, but have some means (I was thinking appealing color swatches) to mark crossroads and paths taken or lost. Effectively, creating this bizarre little Mary Sue and enjoying building her world.

I don’t know…sounds stupid when you say it out loud, really. Could be fun, though. Maybe?

Starting a Story

In an attempt to thwart my project grief, I am slowly working on one project…but I gave it a research/learning bent so my mind won’t actually think I’m doing anything productive. So far, it’s worked. The formerly dubbed “zombie project” manuscript has become an opportunity for me to sit down and actually learn the elements of creative writing that I never actually learned. It’s been an experience, and I’m not that far into the project yet.

One of the problems with the manuscript is that I took what was supposed to be a mysterious beginning and covered it with a backstory that wasn’t supposed to be backstory, so I decided the learning should begin with fixing that. I spent a few days combing through all of my links, blog posts, notes, and books on writing and plot development and immersed myself in the conflicting information on how to build Act I of a story.

Actually, it’s really not all that conflicting. Regardless of the medium, most writers offering advice agree that stories should open with some action. And I was advised by someone I trust quite a bit that going back to my old mysterious opening would achieve just that for my story. But the advising writers also agree that in those opening pages of the story, you have to lay out the setting, the problem, and the protagonist who is going to fix the problem…not necessarily in that order. Everyone has their own ideas on that.

But I managed to beat my research into something resembling a nice orderly guide to help me build this new Act I, and I was all set to open with my old opening when I realized something: Not everyone does it that way. trying to get a feel for how some of my favorite authors handle this, I started reading through the first couple of chapters of some of their books…and found very few that drop you straight into what someone would call “action”. In one case (the author’s debut novel, no less), the main character wakes up to a gray day.

So, I looked at my pretty notes on building Act I, and I thought more about these authors, and I thought about the kind of people who write books trying to help out new and aspiring authors…and I realized I didn’t necessarily have to do what the notes and the books said. Of course, that gave rise to the brilliant idea to just move the new backstory opening to right behind the old mysterious opening, but I realized I use that technique (far more effectively) in another manuscript.

I have finally figured out the right compromise to redirect this revision round through, but I’ll have to remember as I’m writing and making new notes on how I’m applying the writing knowledge that I’m gaining that this is advice, and as such needs to be applied thoughtfully.

Dealing With Project Grief

At the beginning of August, I wrapped up five projects I’d been working on since January (except for the ones that were started late spring). It felt good to get that much work off my to-do list, but at the same time it left me trying to figure out what was next. In my usual optimistic manner, I told a friend that weekend that I’d be fine and working hard the following week.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

In the first couple of weeks that followed, I spent more time organizing and reorganizing to-do lists and working on silly little things than doing anything else. I just didn’t have the energy or desire to do anything else. Finally, I managed to start working on that novel rewrite I’ve been wrestling with for the past year or so, but it was a struggle.

And then the explanation came. Several productivity and creativity blogs and Twitter folk that I follow all started talking about “Project Grief”, that time after you’ve completed a project where you have to recover. Some compared it to being in a relationship: You’ve heavily invested yourself in this project, and when it’s over you need time to recharge. It makes sense. A project that means something to you becomes a part of you, so naturally you’re going to need down time to adjust to its loss.

Unfortunately, a couple even likened recovery time from a project to recovery time from a relationship: one week for every month involved. If that’s true, I may be in trouble…in several ways. For example, I had some projects that had been going for several months, and I completed them five weeks ago. These last two weeks of recovery time aren’t likely to be any friendlier than the previous five. Also, I was working on five projects, so part of me wonders if I have to recover from each of the five or if I’m recovering from them all together. If it’s the first, though, it’ll be at least a year before I’m ready to tackle the next batch of projects, and that’s a year I’m just not willing to sit through.

And of course, I can’t ignore the nagging feeling that the reason I’m even debating the difference is because I was “dating” five projects at the same time. Maybe I just need to force myself to get over it and keep working. A month should have been long enough to decompress, right?

Branching Out Into Creative Writing

I was trained in school to write essays and lesson plans. I teach academic writing. I have experience writing teacher guides and process documents, and have edited a variety of written materials. Creating nonfiction and technical documents really isn’t a problem for me.

I’ve dabbled in creative writing for most of my life. I’ve critiqued and edited original stories and fan fiction. But there’s always been some sort of block between creative writing and me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I started cleaning up my notes and bookmarks as I was reconsidering killing a much-loved project. And then the problem hit me.

I have never been trained in creative writing. I’ve never been formally trained in editing, either, beyond what was taught in my English classes in middle school and high school, but at least I’ve had that exposure, and it’s only been reinforced in my teaching. But there hasn’t been anything beyond my plodding on without reflection through my creative writing. I’ve had no classes. My editing is more technical than story-focused. There’s been virtually no catalyst to help me grow and develop better creative writing skills.

I follow blogs on creative writing. I’m starting to read books on game writing, which often cover some degree of creative writing. And that information is just being added to a weak understanding of what makes creative writing what it is. I’ve honestly just been taking my reading experience and applying it to my nonfiction training.

It really does explain so much, and it gives me a direction to move in my self-directed studies. It even gives me a project to practice what I’m learning! Maybe there’s some hope for me.

Prototyping

Prototyping has been showing up a lot in my reading lately. First, it formed the basis of a game design book I read. Then, right as I started wondering what prototyping looks like for writers, one of the blogs I follow linked to an article on prototyping. (I really should have saved it.) My first reaction to running into prototyping repeatedly was t0 tweetI need to develop a modeling/prototype habit.

Then I opened my design notebook, which is full of notes on all sorts of random things, including character and setting notes for various projects, and I realized that I do prototype, at least as a writer. I lay out these people and places and then experiment with their development until I find something that works or that inspires me to build a story. When I was trying to build my first branched story, I had a map for all of the scenes and puzzles I wanted to create. Every level and its connections to other parts of the story were carefully laid out and tested and adjusted as I went. I still have that map somewhere. If I ever want to pick up that project again, I have that early work to review and build from.

When I thought more about it, I realized that I’ve always prototyped in some form or another. When I was a child, I used to play with wooden blocks and Lego. I’d rebuild the same concept on a near-daily basis, making adjustments each day to the new version in an attempt to reach my ultimate vision. Sometimes, I’d succeed in finding the actual construction I was looking for. On rare occasions, I’d find a much better way to build my design. There were even days when I had to accept my vision was impossible and give up. (That happened a lot more frequently with the wooden blocks, mainly because there just weren’t enough to accommodate some of my grander plans.)

Even when I was pinning plastic necklaces to nightgowns to adorn them for a game as a child, I was constantly experimenting with attachment methods and ways to arrange one piece onto another. When I found a style I liked, it tended to show up in a number of my creations until I discovered yet another way to do it better.

I’ve been prototyping all along. But instead of creating physical models of my prototype (which doesn’t suit my current work), I’m doing it through sketches.

Prototyping is really experimenting. You build something the way you think it should go in your mind, and then try it out. As the problems you didn’t think of show up, you re-build and re-build until the problems become so tiny that you just don’t care anymore. Without thinking about it, a lot of us did it in our play as children, and those of us who haven’t lost our love of tinkering still do it without a whole lot of thought as adults. We often get so focused on looking for the “right” solution that we forget to have fun with it, explore, and find the right solution.

Riff Off Yourself

Being comfortable with different forms and genres can be useful sometimes. It can allow you to work through writer’s block in productive ways.

For example, when I hit a creative wall on two separate projects, I created side stories. I effectively wrote fan fiction for my own work. In one case, it helped greatly. It gave me the chance to explore a character I hadn’t fully thought out, and that was enough to help me see where to direct the story so I could continue. In the other case, I created a fun little standalone story that didn’t actually help. But once it was done, I was able to talk myself into going back to the main story.

There have been times when I’ve stared at something I’m working on and become hung up on the question, “Now what?” But I’ve got an idea on how to tackle that in the future, and it comes from creating fan fiction. The last thing I did when I was working on fan fiction was what I called Afterwords. I wrote the scene I thought should come next after nearly every single episode of a cartoon I was fond of at the time. I’m realizing I could apply that same approach to my own work. Read over what I’ve recently written and then ask myself what I think should happen next and write that scene. Who knows? Something might shake lose.

It may be a while before I get to experiment with it, though, because I seem to be trapped in editing or planning at the moment, but I’m looking forward to see what happens.

The Creativity Block

All right, so we already know I suffer from the occasional Creative Block, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, so how about a list of ways to help beat Creative Block?

First, there are always questions you can ask to help either jump start or refocus a project:

Then, you can build…on your work or someone else’s

If you keep a design notebook, a simple review of past notes can yield all sorts of work.

The possibilities are endless. You just have to leave yourself open to them.