Most of the samplers people see today are decorative recreations of old ones. But a lot of early samplers weren’t intended for home furnishings: they were a practical record of techniques and approaches, as well as proof of the maker’s ability to use them.
A textbook (of literary devices, of art techniques, of embroidery stitches) is handy, of course.
But a roll of linen (or a dedicated sketchbook, or a file of deliberate writing exercises) goes so much further. It is a handy guide, yes, but it’s also a method for processing information from elsewhere, for knowing what it looks like when you do it to your ability and taste, of measuring that ability over time, of knowing your materials, collecting the particular approaches that you like and vividly recalling the approaches that didn’t work for you.
And beyond that, it’s a way of training your hands, of finding out your voice, of keeping your hands busy in quiet moments, and — sometimes — of creating a pleasing object after all.
Thoughts/exercises for artists and writers
Some days, of course, are just about creating shapes to be filled with things another time.
Borders that set a mood for later making. Folders to fill with text one day.
Outlines that aren’t a promise of anything, only a potential. Prepared pages just the size for something to be drawn (tomorrow).
Just playing with lines, that’s all we’re doing.
Just roughing out where edges might be, oh fickle muse. A purely mechanical activity. Nothing to see here. Nothing that counts. Move along.
We wouldn’t be so rash as to slip and accidentally put something in those spaces.
Grand plans have their place. But sometimes it is good to make little things.
They are beautiful. Their tininess is fascinating and they look incredibly complicated by virtue of being small, and all the natural textures come out to play in ways that are lost in a big piece. People will compliment you on your remarkable detail work which is a nice ego boost, although you know that the trick is this: the smaller a piece is, the more detail you can leave out.
They are completed so soon. You have made a thing! It is out in the world now, being. On busy days or hard days or stagnant days or days all stacked up on giant projects, they remind you that you can make a whole thing, that you can hold in your hand.
Like a prettyish sort of little wilderness, you can lose yourself in a small project without fear of wandering too far. There are, after all, times when you can’t get away for long, and times when you need to stay close to home.
They can be test-patches for larger ideas. There’s no pressure there. No commitment. You are just trying things out in the service of some larger beauty. A few verses to try out the style of a grander epic. A short story to feel out the edges of a world. A tiny print in the manner of a picture book you’d like to make. And maybe it will lead to grander things, or maybe you will decide this was enough. You have made a thing, after all, and it was not here before.
Many little things, all set side by side, can add up to a collection, an exhibition, but that is not the point.
You can pretend you are a clockmaker, or a spy hiding secret messages.
And then, when you are done (so quickly!), you can put the rest away and sit back for a little, or go for a walk, shining with having made a thing, one thing, today.
The full review is here, but the most important thing to note is in the first line.
I adored R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar’s 1066 and All That when I was little. I’m still very fond of it and quote it far more than other people know it (Good Kings and Bad Things and vice versa and (from the Folio introduction) those are not the sort of burlars we want, and hit the Sheriff of Nottingham again!), but I’ve never forgotten one of the mock cover quotes on it:
`This slim volume…’ Bookworm
It’s been the first thing I think about whenever anyone talks about cover quotes, and now I have a “slim debut” of my very own.
So… dream big. You never know what might happen.
Because I’ve been teaching some classes on creativity lately, I’m getting preoccupied with the steps between having an IDEA™ and actually creating a thing that exists in the world.
So many problems get solved by doing. But more than this, I find ideas — like cats — tend to flow to fill the shape of the box that you give them. It’s not just limits and borders (which are so useful for letting ideas, like waves, pile up against). An idea fed into a four-panel comic takes its own story-rhythm. An accordion-folded strip of paper quickly concertinas a rough story into a full draft. And a full draft of anything is already something that can be usefully shown to other people.
There’s also a cruising gear the mind shifts into. Making mock-ups can be a form of procrastination, of course, but also it’s a very useful anaesthetic. Sometimes you sit down to do a rough treatment of some personally-tailored ideas-cards you wish existed, and look up a considerable time later from a completed deck of 50.
These all also have the advantage of having taken on a tangible form outside my own head. Ideas and sketches and outlines alone don’t always have this. They rely on a degree of emotion and momentum and excitement in my mind, and if I revisit the notes later, I can’t always recapture that, or work out what it was. Or read my handwriting.
This works for prose, too. Once an idea achieve a certain gravitational pull, I sometimes use a template loosely based on Susan Dennard’s 1-page synopsis (for fiction) or a standard intro-3-points-conclusion numbered outline (for prose) to make sure all the necessary parts are roughly accounted for, or given placeholder options. Then I pin them in place in a form I can easily store indefinitely, and come back to and pick up again.
And occasionally (e.g. for the few comics I’ve done) I’ll write a quick “treatment”-description first, which covers the overall story, its feeling and mood and key visuals/words, but isn’t actually a draft, so doesn’t have to bear the weight of those particular anxieties.