Some say that every quilt tells a story. That may explain Frances Dowell. As a quilter, author and podcaster, Frances is a storyteller at heart. Whether crafting a storyline to engage middle schoolers, working out a quilt fiction plot for adult readers or improvising her way through a quilt design, she is always working out a narrative. Quilts have first drafts, too, and Frances revises and edits on her design wall until she has a final quilt design that captures her vision.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’ve always done creative stuff. Growing up, I drew and colored all the time, loved any kind of arts and crafts and started writing poems in second grade. I also was a big daydreamer and make-believer.
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When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I don’t think it was something I ever thought about. It’s like the fish not knowing there’s something called water. Strange as it sounds, I’m fifty-seven and it only recently occurred to me that when all is said and done, I’m a pretty creative person. The thing is, I think we’re all pretty creative people–it’s just some of us are given the freedom and the encouragement (by our families, teachers, and friends) to keep being creative even as life makes more pressing demands on our time and attention. The fact that I have an MFA in Poetry Writing ought to tell you that no one ever tried to make me get serious about finding a job. My people have more or less let me be me. It’s been a great gift.
How did moving a lot with a military parent shape your creativity?
I think it probably has best served me as a writer. Military brats tend to be chameleons–they figure out how to fit in wherever they are, and they quickly pick up new slang and styles and habits and then discard them two years later when they move to the next place.
Not only does growing up in the military give you tons of material for creating characters and settings, it also gives you access to lives very different from your own, something that doesn’t always happen when you grow up in the same place (although of course it can).
Which came first for you – quilt making or writing?
Writing–by about thirty-five years!
I remember wanting to make a quilt when I was in my early thirties and having zero idea how to go about it. I got in the habit of checking out how-to books from the library, but they made the process seem overwhelming (so many little pieces to cut out! So many fractions–way too many for a math-phobe like me). I can’t tell you how many books I checked out over the years in the hopes that this time I’d figure it out.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quiltmaking that a light went on for me. Mostly it was because Gwen said I could forget about fractions and precision and all that. She gave me permission to mess around. I was in my early forties when I made my first quilt. It was ridiculous of course, but I love it all the same.
Middle school can be a challenging time for kids as well as the adults who guide them through it. Why do you write fiction for that age group?
I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from being eleven. It was a wonderful, terrible time, and I’m pretty sure I remember every minute of sixth grade. So that’s a big reason why I write middle grade fiction–I’m writing about a vivid period of my own life.
Another reason is I find this stage of development–roughly fifth grade through seventh–fascinating is that so much is going on. It’s like you’re stepping out of the dream world of childhood into a foreign land. Lots of hormones, of course, lots of weird feelings you don’t know what to do with or how to interpret. The people who once protected you (if you were lucky enough to have good parents) don’t have the same sort of powers in this new place. It can be scary, but very exciting. If you’ve had a Harry Potter sort of childhood, it can be liberating. The middle grades are a rich source of material, no doubt about it.
Where does writing quilt fiction for adults fit in your art journey? How does a quilt spark a story idea? How do quilts and narrative connect?
I love quilts–making them, looking at them, talking about them–and I’m also interested in women’s lives and domestic life. If I were an academic, I’d write about these interests for journals and books, but since I’m a novelist, I write stories about them.
My first work of quilt fiction, Birds in the Air, is the story of a woman in her early 40s who makes her first quilt and immediately has to make another one, a very common story with quilt makers. A lot (but not all) of Emma’s experience parallels my own as a quilt maker, and also my experience as someone trying to balance family and work.
I also love quilt history, so when I wanted to explore my love of 1930s quilts, I wrote the novel Friendship Album, 1933, which I recorded for the Quilt Fiction podcast. I had so much fun doing a deep dive into the world of 1920s and 1930s quilt-making–there was so much going on! Quilting was hugely popular. It was something that was fairly affordable during a time when people didn’t have a lot of money. It was simultaneously creative and practical. Women were starting quilting businesses and cottage industries, they were publishing patterns and quilting columns in newspapers. And, very importantly, fabric was starting to get really cute (with much better dyes). It’s a rich time in quilt history, and I loved exploring it via writing a novel.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Total, total improviser. I improvise novels and I improvise quilts.
I’ve never outlined anything in my life–except in school, and even then I did the outline after I wrote the paper. I did use quilt patterns for several years in the beginning, and still make quilts from traditional blocks from time to time. (I get my friend Patty Dudek of Elm Street Quilts to do the math for me). But my favorite thing to do is mess around–whether it’s words or fabric or whatever.
I start with an idea and see what I can do with it. What I love about working this way is that I end up going in directions I never anticipated that often have nothing to do with the original idea. I also go in really stupid directions that end up in total failure, but I’m a big believer in what William Carlos Williams wrote in his poem “The Descent”: “No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since/the world it opens is always a place/formerly/unsuspected.”
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
It looks like my dining room! We have a formal dining room that we use twice a year–at Thanksgiving and Christmas. So twice a year, I clear away my Bernina and my cutting mat and all my stuff. But the rest of the time, that space is mine.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
For a long time, I watched movies and TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, often things I’d already watched so I didn’t have to pay close attention to follow the story. For some reason, during COVID I started listening to music more than watching shows. It started with NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and went from there. Spotify gives me five different playlists to choose from every day, and I pick which one to listen to according to the season and my mood.
You have referred to quilts as “women marking their territory” – tell us more.
That quote comes from an essay I wrote on why I make quilts. For many years, I’ve lived in a house full of males–my husband, my two sons, my dog–all of whom mark their territory in one way or another. (Mostly with shoes and socks and bones (the dog)). And to be clear, it’s not that they’re slobs (though it’s possible that one or two of them are); I honestly think that this is one way they claim their space. I think historically women haven’t been allowed the same sort of audacious space-claiming gestures. We’ve had to be more subtle. When I look around my house, I see quilts everywhere. That’s how I mark my territory. Each quilt is a document–of how I’ve spent my time, of what I find aesthetically pleasing, of my creativity.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone is creative from pretty much the moment they’re born. I’ve never met a little kid who wasn’t up for fort-building, make-believing, coloring, building stuff out of sticks and clay, etc. So I don’t think creativity is a skill that’s learned, but it is something that for some people (most people?) has to be re-ignited.
I believe any sort of making–including writing–can be learned. Any human being can be a genius if they follow Thelonious Monk’s edict that “the genius is the one most like himself.” The hard thing is to unlearn all the ways you’ve been taught not to be yourself.
(Monk also said, “The only cats worth anything are the cats that take chances.” I try to keep this in mind when I work.)
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Toss perfectionism out of the window. I think perfectionism is the disease of our age, quite frankly. I do think you need to learn your craft, whether you’re a writer, a quilter, a painter, whatever. If you master a quarter-inch seam, your quilts are going to look better and hold together a lot longer, and your stories will be better when you figure out how to string together a decent plot. Take some classes, watch some videos, and practice, practice, practice. BUT beyond that, play. Don’t compare your work to others (comparison being the thief of joy and all that). Find a good editor, whether that’s someone who reads your poem and gives you feedback or looks at what’s on your design wall and makes suggestions (helpful hint: find someone who knows what she’s talking about and who is kind but honest).
I am a firm believer in crappy first drafts–again, both in books and in quilts. I expect it will take me several revisions of any creative project to be happy with it. As an imperfectionist, I accept that there will be mistakes and regrets all the way through. But the joy’s in the process. At some point, how others receive what I make is out of my hands and may not even be my business. I do my best not to worry about it (although of course I do).
What’s next for you?
More books, more quilts! I have a middle grade novel-in-verse called Hazard coming out next year, and I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version of Birds in the Air. I recently joined SAQA as a way to inspire myself to try new things in my quilting.
A recent preoccupation has been making zines. I lead a writing group for young women, and they got me into zine-making and drawing. I loved drawing and cartooning when I was younger, and I also loved making books, and I’m having a great time returning to these early endeavors. I’ve even been working on a zine about Modern Quilting. To be honest, sometimes I think I’m just doing one big project all of the time.
Interview posted September 2021
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