PaperGirl Essay Contest: Tips and Ideas

posted in: Quilting 6
Star of Bethlehem quilt, New Jersey, c. 1845. (It's just for inspiration. I can't do this kind of thing yet, either.) Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Star of Bethlehem quilt, New Jersey, c. 1845. (It’s just for inspiration. I can’t do this kind of thing yet, either.) Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.


As promised, here are some pointers for writing a nifty essay in general and specifically for this contest.

“Wait, wait. What contest?!” you cry.

Why, the PaperGirl “Leaders and Enders” Essay Contest announced the day before yesterday, of course! I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Click that link I just gave you if you missed something; don’t worry, you’ve got till the end of the month!

General Tips

  • This is a first-person essay. Example: “I live in Iowa and I make mostly all-pink scrap quilts. But the last quilt I made was unusual because…” and so on.
  • A good personal essay has a nice blend of facts and narrative. For example, tell me about the pattern you chose for your latest quilt but also why you like it. Or tell me why your favorite colors are blue and green, not just that they’re your favorite colors. Dig deeper; that’s the whole point.
  • Be specific. Details are what make a piece of writing come alive. Tell me about how the mean quilt policewoman who made you feel bad about your points has a big ol’ hairy mole on her chin, for example. Note that I’ve tried to help you keep things specific by asking about the last quilt you made or the one you’re making now, rather than suggesting a broader “Why I Make Quilts” essay. That would be harder, I think, and less specific.
  • Observe the word count. Too skimpy an essay and you’re shortchanging yourself! But if you write too much past the 500-600 word count and I will have to set your beauteous words aside for a time in my life when I have more time in my life to read them. That could take a long time. #time
  • Have a pal check your work for typos. I won’t be a huge stickler on this (I know there are typos in this blog every once in awhile because these things happen) but good grammar and clean copy will endear you to me at once. Just check your work, is all.

Keep in mind that this short essay is simply asking you about the last quilt you made or the one you’re making now. You don’t have to be Virginia Woolf, you don’t have to make it lyric and incredible — though of course if you are Virginia Woolf and you are alive and making quilts, please enter this contest.

But seriously: You don’t have to be a “good writer” to do this. Just talk to me — and talk to yourself. As I said the other day, there is nothing more awesome than going through a quilt history text and finding quotes from a quiltmaker’s journal or transcribed oral history where she talks about the process of quilting or (even better) her favorite quilt or a quilt she was totally sick of making by the end. It’s like meeting a sister across time. We share little tidbits about our quilts at guild meetings and maybe we write something up if we enter a quilt in a show, but most of the time, we don’t record anything about the quilts. This is a chance to do that.

So here are a few prompts to help you get started or get you unstuck. You can follow one or more of these threads (!) or none of them, but they might help:

  • What is the most important thing to say about this quilt? Why is that thing so important?
  • What did you think about while you were sewing the patchwork?
  • Did you quilt it yourself? Why or why not?
  • Are you proud of this quilt?
  • Any regrets?
  • Let’s say you love your quilt: Who else do you know who would love it? Why?
  • Let’s say your quilt isn’t one of your best efforts. Who would love it? Why?
  • What did you learn in making this one?

Happy writing, comrades. And remember, mailed entries only. Send them here by the end of the month. Much prize-ing shall commence. Oh, and I won’t post your essay unless I talk to you about it first, so don’t worry about that.


6 Responses

  1. Julie
    | Reply

    Oh my goodness! I am so doing this! I’m not a huge writer, but love love love reading your blog…and you inspire me. Let the word flow commence!

  2. Michael
    | Reply

    What a fun contest, and it’s always fascinating to learn the backstory of a quilt. I think you’ll get a lot of responses Mary, and won’t they all be fun to read!

  3. Mary Lynn
    | Reply

    I love this idea 🙂 do you want a photo of the quilt to accompany the essay, or would you prefer to just use your imagination? This so goes along with my history-seeking lately about family heirlooms – I’ve been emailing non-English speaking Japanese folks about china from the 1950s to get a backstory, but I digress…this sounds fun!

    • Mary
      | Reply

      Hey, good question, Mary! Picture is fine but not required! 🙂

  4. Jule
    | Reply

    I love this idea! I haven’t written an essay since college and even then they were not very good. But I will give it a try. Does it absolutely have to be snail mailed to you or is there an email alternative? Some of us don’t live in the contiguous US (Holla from Germany!) and I’m just thinking it would take forever. FOREVER! Like 10-14 days. Can you wait that long? Anyhoo love your blog. Off to write an essay…

  5. Shannan Sabby
    | Reply

    I just finished writing mine and I’m surprised to find a few tears in my eyes. That was actually cathartic! I’ll put it in the mail tomorrow!

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