Tie-backs and Through-lines: Writing as Weaving

I grew up a mile from Philipsburg Manor, a restored colonial farm and mill in the Hudson Valley.  The summer between seventh and eighth grades, I volunteered there as an apprentice to the weaver.  I got to wear a bonnet and bodice, milk the cow, card and spin wool, and I learned to weave.  The loom filled an entire room; the beater was the size of a roof beam.  I slipped the shuttle back and forth, watching the home-spun wool unravel and gradually fill the warp with color.  I pulled the great beam forward and beat each pass-through into place.

As I continue to work on my novel this summer, I’ve been thinking about that apprenticeship.  The initial drafting of my story was very much like carding.  When you card wool, you use these crude paddles with metal teeth to brush out all the seeds and tangles that sheep accumulate.  The end product is this clean fluff—pure, oily wool.  An initial draft gives you material you can work with.

The writing of subsequent drafts is like spinning.  You begin to put together a story—to “spin a yarn.”  Characters get developed, the plot gets thickened, themes emerge, and you wind up with a spool of writing.  It’s good stuff, but it’s still just yarn.

The writing of final drafts is like weaving.  Finally you have vision enough to warp the frame—that is, to set the fiber through the loom so patterns will emerge.  Here you say, “The essence of my story is such-and-such; you will see it here and here.”  The scene that occurs on page three will be remembered on page sixty, will influence the character on page one-hundred, and will resonate under my climactic scene.  The themes that appear within the first fifty pages will recur from beginning to end.  Here you develop the through-lines that bind together your story’s disparate pieces.  Here you include the references that tie back to earlier scenes and bring your digressive elements home.  You’re creating a cloth with texture, pattern, and purpose.

The writer’s work is to make the story both durable and beautiful, something a reader wants to use.  And by “use” I don’t necessarily mean “learn from” so much as “live with”—a new outlook, a new way of being.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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