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Friday, October 28, 2011

Writing is like sewing -- in public

I watched the finale of Project Runway last night and was delighted when Anya Ayoung-Chee won. She started as the sure-to-lose contestant -- former beauty queen and target of snarky remarks who didn't even know how to sew. Really -- this was the first time she ever sewed. And she triumphed over the worst snark of them all.

Project Runway is one of my guilty pleasures, but I don't watch it for the behind the scenes drama or even because I like high fashion. I watch because I love seeing process become product. From the moment the designers are set their tasks, we see the creative process with all its false starts and seaminess, from sketching to fabric selection to creation, to tearing out seams, asking for help and re-creation until time runs out and whatever they have passes for final.

Sounds like pre-writing, drafting, critiquing, revising, and publishing, doesn't it? We see that the task set the the designers has everything to do with audience and purpose-- which they ignore at their peril. The guidance of Tim Gunn, collaboration among team-members, a broad knowledge of tradition combined with a quest for innovation results in designs with take our breath away -- or make us want to hold our breaths till the next commercial. We see hard work and frustration and triumph.

For teachers of writing, there's a very good lesson about setting the task. The design will only be as reasonable and wearable as the task set. There's a huge difference in garments arising from a challenge to make something out of recycling materials and another that asks designers to use a work of art for inspiration. In the same way, students who choose their own topics and forms based on experience and preference produce more readable texts than those direct to write 500 words on irony in Macbeth. The former, even if seriously flawed, have a spark of life and a potential for something like literature. The latter barely make a dent in meaning, and address no real audience or fulfill a real purpose.

All metaphors break down eventually, and this one is about to. Before I go, I'll make one more observation. Anya didn't know how to sew, but she won anyway. She learned along the way and proved that it wasn't the mechanics of garment construction, but the inspiration and dream that led to victory. She learned to sew by sewing what she cared about.

Watch the finale On Demand -- and think about writing.


  1. Great analogy, Mary. I've never heard of Project Runway as I don't have cable so don't do TV at all. It sounds interesting, though. I used to do a great deal of sewing, but now I write I don't sew.

    Diane (from LinkedIn)

  2. PR is probably not worth pursuing unless you happen across it. Writing is better :) What are you working on?