What knitting has taught me about writing.
I’ve known how to knit since I was a girl of nine or ten, but until recently, I never had much to show for it. A lot of abandoned projects, a whole lot more untouched yarn, and so few finished items, I could count them on one hand. One classic example is the baby blanket I began while pregnant with my first child, and finished long after the third had started school. The only sweater I ever finished took a mere fraction of that time — two or three years — but that was before I had kids.
The problem wasn’t that my hands were slow; it was that my mind was too quick. I would over-commit, taking on something much too ambitious in scope, or spreading my attention across too many possibilities. This embarrassment of riches is the curse of a creative spirit, writes Julia Cameron in Walking In This World:
Most artists get blocked not because they have too few ideas but because they have too many.
My friend Lori Marrero told me something similar when she helped us declutter our house a few years ago. Creative people, she said, tend to have the most difficulty letting go of objects because they can see so many possibilities for them.
Think about that. The physical clutter–the hoarded supplies, the towering stack of instructional books–are just the visible tip of an iceberg that has the power to sink every idea we launch.
We dismantle that all that frozen potential with “small do-able actions,” writes Cameron. I’ve learned this in knitting. Since donating my old, stagnant yarn stash, I’ve limited myself to patterns that take no more than a skien or two of yarn. In doing so, I’ve recovered the pleasure and pride of making something from a ball of string and two pointy sticks. Of being done.
Done is the secret password that unlocks the next challenge. Done is a charm against self-doubt. Done is a coin you can spend on anything you want to do.
Earlier this year, at Blissdom, I wandered into a workshop by Erin Loechner and Alli Worthington on the value of having a hobby and keeping it a hobby– a pastime you enjoy for it’s own sake. Their advice was so wise. We all need time to play and be creative without the burden of expectations.
Can you imagine if we hovered over our children as they drew with crayons or built with Legos, saying things like, “That’s great, honey! You better get a photo and hope it goes viral on Pinterest!” Or, “Very interesting. But how does it fit with your personal brand?” Or, “That project really worked out, didn’t it? Quick! Get started on something much bigger!”
I don’t know about you, but I talk to my inner creative child like this all the time. And then wonder what happened to her joy.
Yesterday I took my middle son to the yarn boutique to choose wool for a new hat. I loved watching him evaluate all the colors and textures, trying on the various possibilities in his mind’s eye. He’s very artistic, but his process is different from mine in that once he commits to a path, it becomes singular. Twenty minutes after he’d selected an excellent yarn, I was still meandering all over the place, saying this color would also be nice, or that one would make an excellent scarf, and oh, this would be just perfect for a shawl for his grandmother.
Habits can be changed. Urges die hard. I escaped the vortex of my own spinning brain with just one skien of yarn, but barely.
I saw this fabulous knitted coverlet in a beach shack this summer. It must have measured about six by four feet. I wouldn’t dream of taking on a project that big. I’d get lost just choosing a color scheme. But it was made of extremely simple squares that take a few hours a piece. I don’t think there even was a color scheme. It’s originality was its charm.
For reasons that seemed perfectly good at the time, I set a goal for myself of completing a chunk of my novel just as the kids were getting out of school for the summer. I could see the story and hear my characters. I was flooded with ideas and excited by the possibilities. I got overwhelmed.
I think about that coverlet, and remind myself how my first book came together: one word, one line, one chapter at a time.
Blogging is the one-skien version of writing for me, a place where I can practice word craft on a gentle scale. I open WordPress, and start stitching words together. It’s slow going. I ramble. My thoughts get tangled and I hit backspace a lot. But the words come, and the lines of text accumulate, row on row. The counter nears 1,000–a good day’s work for rough prose. It’s not perfect, but here, it doesn’t have to be.
I’m not going for perfect. I’m going for done. So I can pocket that coin, and buy the next thousand rough words of my novel with it, or maybe the next 500 polished ones.