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Quilting for Writers

From the Open Page | Selection by Randi Beck Ocena

First of all, I do not quilt. I have a number of artistic interests, probably too many artistic interests for my own good, but quilting is one hobby I have managed to avoid taking up despite a love of colorful textiles, intricate patterns, and craft projects best enjoyed by a fireside with a cup of tea. Second of all, I must admit that I did try to make a quilt. Just once. It quickly became a medium-sized, patchwork pillow. But I really loved that pillow. And this fact is relevant to why I love this exercise.

You might start out making an essay and compose a poem instead. It might start out being about your mother’s kitchen and turn out to be about your love of country music. All that is just fine. The main idea is to gather up a lot of material you’ve been holding onto for a while and see what you might make of it.

In my case, I devised this exercise many years ago when I needed to tell a story about a particularly fragmented period of time which I recorded haphazardly through single images, bits of memory, pencil sketches and half-remembered conversations. What I wanted to do was find a form that would let me archive some of the original material, fill in the gaps of my memory, and help me find a cohesive storyline between the seemingly random pieces.

Let's Get Started:

 For this exercise you will need a dozen index cards

1. Choose an address from any place you have lived or that is meaningful to you.

If you want to use your grandma’s old house, but don’t remember the address, that’s okay too.

2. Gather “scraps” of that place.

If you have actual photos from this house, go ahead and grab one or two. Don’t be choosy or get distracted with photo hunting. Just pick a couple from the first few you see as you dig through your photo box. If you have other items from that place, put them in view also. This could be a potholder, a journal, a Christmas ornament, anything. If you don’t have any, don’t worry, just move on to the next step.

3. Remember the house clearly as you can.

Take a moment to sit and remember the house as clearly as you can. Imagine walking through it. Try going through all the rooms. Notice the walls, the floor, the smells. When you feel ready, make the following lists on a sheet of paper

4. Make the following lists:

  • 5-7 people who lived in or visited the house or who you associate with it

  • 5-7 specific things visible outside the house (a neighbor, an animal, a particular tree, building, landform, vehicle)

  • 5-7 events or incidents that occurred in the house, big or small (dog had puppies, mom fainted, sister caught the stove on fire)

  • 10 smells that you would associate with that address, inside and outside

  • 10 active verbs/activities you associate with that address (baking, milking, crying, sleeping, practicing trumpet)

  • All the “scraps” you gathered in Step 2; if you didn’t gather any, write a list of 5 objects you can clearly recall or the color of the walls or some other detail

5. For each list, circle two things.

These should be the things that carry the strongest energy, memory, or interest for you.

6. Write each circled word on a new index card.

You should have 12 cards in all

7. Shuffle the cards together face down.

After you are done mixing them, turn he stack face up so you can see one word at a time. Now you are ready to write.

8. Use each card for a free write.

Beginning with your top card, write the topic as a subtitle for a new section (for example, “Baking,” “Aunt Agatha,” or “Puppies”). Now free write on that topic for 1-5 minutes. If you feel done with a topic after one minute, just move to the next.

You can write in any form: lists, a single scene, a rich description, anything at all. The idea is to let each topic evoke a new layer, color, texture, or memory of the place you’re writing about. Allow each new section/topic to take its own style, tone, and form if it wants to. Maybe some of them will be a single sentence, lyrics to a song, or a list of ingredients. Do this for all the cards.

9. Revise as you see fit.

After you reach the last card, you may recall other things from this place that you really want to write about. You may even find that there is a particular thread woven through that connects a number of sections together. If you end up with some writing you really like, you may want to consider rearranging the order of the pieces or expanding them.

Actively seek connections between the sections, and if you can’t find any, look for places where you can make new categories. For instance, if your "Baking" section feels like a place where you have more to say, try going more deeply into that. Make new sections based off that one topic, like “My Mother’s Apron” or “The Color of Flour.” Continue to revise as you see fit, cutting whole sections or pages and moving things around.

You can find this writing exercise, along with many others, in Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing's anthology:


About the book: This 300-page book collects creative writing exercises and award-winning stories, essays, and poetry from some of our most beloved instructors from the past 10 years, and captures the magic of our program in its pages. Both a craft-book as well as an anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, this book is the perfect way to bring the magic of MVICW with you into the coming year!

About the writer: Randi Beck Ocena was born and raised in Oklahoma where she divided her time between bookstores and horse barns. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly, Threepenny Review, Ploughshares and other journals. Her story, “By Morning, New Mercies,” received an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories in 2014 and was runner up for the Ploughshares Emerging Writer Award. In 2018, she was awarded a residency at Vermont Studio Center to complete her collection of stories, The Ground We Come From.


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