Bird by Bird, Word by Word, Stitch by Stitch

Our theme for this month is 5. It's a great number, 5. Seems easy enough to roll off a quicklist of 5. But. After a month of ARTSPEAK! Portraits, my poem-a-day project for National Poetry Month, my mind is ajumble with art and words and images and... quilts.

That's because also during April, my first middle grade novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND was released in paperback! AND: I heard Anne Lamott, author of the beloved BIRD BY BIRD (and 16 other books) speak! (I shared highlights from her talk yesterday at Live Your Poem.) And now, like a good quilter, I will attempt to stitch all of these elements together.

Artelia Bendolph, age 10, photo
by Arthur Rothstein, 1937
(the pic that inspired
Ludelphia Bennett)
1. In LEAVING GEE'S BEND, heroine Ludelphia Bennett who lives in 1932 Gee's Bend, Alabama sets out to find medical help for her mother and winds up in one mess after another. She becomes quite familiar with an adage I learned from my mother, who learned it from her mother: "As you sew, so shall you rip." It's true for any seamstress, and it's true for a writer. Mistakes -- and revisions -- are just part of the process. Why fight it? Just do it.

Meeting readers at
Young Author's Conference
in Mobile, Alabama
2. Books are art, quilts are art, our lives are art. And it's our job to go out and live lives worth writing about (and stitching about). No book I've written has changed me -- and my life -- more than LEAVING GEE'S BEND. I learned so much writing that book. I have often said I feel like I earned an MFA with my Excellent Editor Stacey Barney at G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin. I also learned the best part of writing a book is connecting with readers. I never imagined myself a public speaker, but since the release of LEAVING GEE'S BEND, I've given hundreds of presentations. Hundreds. I never thought I would be that person! Just like Anne Lamott never thought she would get up at a book event and introduce her "boyfriend." Yes, Anne Lamott found a match... on!

me with all the drafts
 of Leaving Gee's Bend
3. Writing books takes bravery and vulnerability and TIME. And it helps to break it down. Word by word. Just do a little each day. Five minutes, says Anne Lamott, if that's all you've got. And who knows? Once you get warmed up, you might go ten minutes, or fifteen minutes, or an hour. It's the same with quilting: stitch by stitch. Chickens may produce their eggs all at once, but the rest of us create in bits and pieces. Keep at it, and before long, you'll have a book or a quilt or a lifetime.

quilt by China Pettway
4. Quilting -- and writing -- and life! is about making choices. So many words and fabrics and patterns and genres to choose from! It's all highly individual. Which is why there is no need to worry about others "stealing" your idea. Just write your story, stitch your quilt, live your life. It will be as unique as you are. And okay, maybe your words won't be for everyone, but they will be for someone. Far too much of our energy is spent worrying and comparing ourselves and our art to others... and looking to others to validate our work/life/experiences. Remember this: You are valuable. Your work is important. You are exactly where you need to be.

5. Celebrate! This day, this moment, the May sunshine, the robin dancing on your lawn. Anne Lamott didn't think she'd find love again, but she did. When Penguin let LEAVING GEE'S BEND go out of print, I thought my story was dead. But then another publisher came along and brought Ludelphia back to life! Thank you, NewSouth Books! Life is full of surprises. Unexpected things happen in books and quilts and on the way to the grocery. All the more reason to say "thank you."

And now, a bonus: here is a favorite poem from ARTSPEAK! Portraits, inspired by "Self-Portrait of a Painter" by Vincent van Gogh. Thank you so much for reading!

Irene Latham is the author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming books, including two novels for children: Leaving Gee's Bend and Don't Feed the Boy. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, her poetry books for children include Dear Wandering Wildebeest, When the Sun Shines on Antarctica, Fresh Delicious and Can I Touch Your Hair? (co-written with Charles Waters). Irene lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her family where she does her best to “live her poem” every single day by laughing, playing the cello, and walking in the woods. 


  1. Oh, I love this post, filled with so much wisdom. My favorite takeaway has to be this: "... create in bits and pieces. Keep at it, and before long, you'll have a book or a quilt or a lifetime." I'm celebrating with you the rebirth of Leaving Gee's Bend. It will reach and speak to so many new readers!

  2. Congrats on the re-release of LEAVING GEE'S BEND and thanks for your inspiring bits of wisdom...always welcome, Irene!

  3. Wonderful post! I always enjoy learning something from what you've learned and are willing to share. Thank you for the extra links. I'm off to find out more about Ann LaMott speaking.

    1. BTW, one of my projects has me elbow deep in the 1930s. I think I need to pick up Leaving Gee's Bend. I'm so glad it was picked up and published again.

  4. Oh, I'm so happy your book is in print again Irene! And what an inspirational blog post this is, I'm going to share it with my critique group. I connected with the bits and pieces quilted together–It's probably good there aren't more hours in the day because I would probably pack more in, I never seem to have enough time for all. Thanks!

  5. Love that stack of drafts! So true!

  6. Great post - I, too, loved the stack of drafts - and learning that Anne Lamott now has a boyfriend!!! And all the writing-quilting-life comparisons.

  7. Oh, and my favorite song ever is "The Garden Song" as sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary: "Inch by inch, row by row. . . "


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