I have a bag full of treasures. Skeins of yarn ready to spill forth. Worsted, bulky, double knitting. The softest alpaca, the kind of wool that makes you think of the cloud-sheep you used to draw as a kid. Rough and scratchy yarns, destined to become jumpers that itch too much to wear.
Before they are cast on, they could become anything. Socks, mittens, hats, gloves, scarves, jumpers, tea cosies… Intricate cabled patterns, or plain knitting. Even mid-project, I could rip out the needle, watch each stitch disappear as the yarn unspools, and go back to the beginning. But persevere and you’ve performed a magic trick: taken one thing and turned it into another.
I find myself with a lot of time recently, and I’ve been mostly filling my days with knitting (handmade Christmas presents are coming your way, friends) and writing. Perhaps because of the somewhat introspective life I’m currently living I’ve been wondering about what links and divides these two pursuits, asking myself “What would it mean if writing were like knitting?”
This isn’t exactly an intuitive connection to make. Often, I think of them as opposite activities. Both are creative, but in radically different ways. Knitting (once you’ve established a rhythm) is automatic, soothing repetitions interspersed with brief periods of concentration. You follow someone else’s pattern, maybe adjusting a little along the way, but you more or less know what you’re coming out with. It’s a manual activity, and you experience knitting bodily: aching shoulder, stiff fingers, strained eyes. There are fundamental ways in which writing is not like knitting, at all.
And yet, I have a bag full of treasures. Half-formed sentences, characters I dream about on the streetcar, a list of words I love. Ideas for stories, stories that I’ve written that could be reworked, scenes that could go in the novel, or could not. There’s possibility here too. These acorn ideas could grow.
There are patterns I could follow, too, the books that I love, that I imagine my book snuggling against on a bookshelf, somewhere. Except to see these writers as “patterns” feels like trying to knit something you saw on a catwalk, with just your needle and no yarn and no instructions to follow. I prefer to think stories are like scarves: you don’t need a pattern for scarves you just need to know the stitches, and go.
I feel instinctively that there are things I could learn about writing from knitting. I’ve ingrained the idea that knitting is relaxing and writing is work so deeply and yet I sense that my writing could be as fluid, if I would let it. The clicking of needles, the clicking of the keyboard (I start making these connections).
Here are the lessons I want my writing to learn from my knitting.
Perseverance: The perseverance to obsessively work the needles in order to finish what I’m making, because even though my hands are aching there are just a few more inches and it will be done, and the satisfaction of completion can soothe all aches and pains.
Unconscious: Not everything has to be thought, analysed, obsessed over. You could just write.
Freedom: The freedom to start again. To know that in scrapping a project you’re not losing anything. To be able to make anything. The ball of yarn is the same length as when you started. You learnt valuable lessons and skills in the attempt. You can still use these raw materials and your hands to make something new. Is it frustrating to scrap a project? Yes. But I never feel I’ve lost something or failed “as a knitter” when I do so.
And yet I frequently consider myself to be failing as a writer, in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense at all.
I’m still not sure if comparing the apples and oranges of knitting and writing makes any kind of sense. But as I continually attempt to improve my writing (writing with more discipline, taking on challenging projects etc.), I find it usual to envision what a successful process would look and feel like for me, as well as what a successful “product” might be. The deep satisfying concentration of knitting is something I crave.
I have a pile of words – an actual, physical stack of words on shreds of paper – on my desk that I love the sound of. I have notebooks brimming with raw material. I have stories ready to be wrapped up and sent out into the world.
Cast on a row of stitches; go.