What writers can learn from knitters


I admit that this a broad generalization, but so many knitters I know or meet online are incredibly well-read. For some, an audiobook, a knitting project and a cosy chair is nothing short of bliss. But besides my anecdotal observations on the reading habits of knitters, many of our metaphors about storytelling come from the world of fiber arts, reflecting our collective desire for a good yarn.

But what about a more literal translation, in which the craft of writing draws more directly from the world of knitters and spinners? In other words, what might writers learn from knitters and spinners? As I struggle with my own writing these days, I’ve decided to take a page from the community of knitters and spinners and remind myself of the following:

  • First and foremost, most knitters I know have multiple WIP (works-in-progress). But, seldom are these projects the same kind. That is, they are not all socks or intricate shawls. You have different kinds of projects for different scenarios. You may have a quick knit that you can do in an evening. You may have a knit that satisfies your desire for focused concentration or challenges you with its complicated lace patterns. Then there is the project that is rather repetititive and boring but results in elegant simplicity. All these projects have their roles and places. If I can knit multiple things at one, why am I wedded to the idea that I can only be focused on one writing project at a time? Surely there is a place in one’s writing basket for writing that is like a swatch, a short ten-minute writing exercise written down by hand as well as the kind of dense difficult writing that, like a shawl, requires a flow chart.
  • Experimenting with a variety of fiber and tools enables one to learn about the range of their effects. There is a visceral difference between knitting with the warm smoothness of bamboo circulars and knitting with the slick clicks of metal needles. Pairing different kinds of needles with different kinds of fiber not only produces different knitting experiences but also different kinds of knits. So then, why do I only write at the computer, where the plastic keys bounce back with dutiful enthusiasm beneath my fingers? I need to branch out. What kind of sentences emerge when I swirl ink with a hefty fountain pen on thick milky pages of handmade paper? And how is that different from writing with a stubby marker on a yellow lined legal pad?
  • Being a good writer means being a good reader. The more I knit, the more I realize that I’m learning to understand another language, another code that allows me to translate either charts or abbreviations like k2tog into something 3-D. That you can then wear! (This point totally blows my simple mind.) And the more conversant I become in reading this other language, the more fluent my fingers and hands. Learning to read a pattern and understanding the architecture of a sweater–how it is constructed from the ground up–has made me a better reader of literature. I’m more aware of a story’s architecture and how its technical elements work together.
  • Writers should get together and write. What makes knitting fun is sharing our work, being a part of a knit-a-long or asking each other for tips and advice. Writing can be very isolating, and I think that there should be more WALs (write-alongs) in which you are in a room and write with others. Recently, I’ve been sharing my work with S, and we check in with each other weekly about our progress and offer feedback on each other’s work. S occupies a special place in my heart because 14 years ago she and I spent a wonderfully productive summer writing together in a windowless room in the caverns of the university library. We were immersed in ideas, each writing to the soundtrack of the other’s tapping keyboard.
  • Spinning is about letting go and giving in to imperfection. Or maybe it’s about abandoning the idea of perfection and imperfection altogether. I’m such a critical writer, the kind of person who goes over and over a sentence fragment before moving onto the next. Such perfectionism is debilitating. With spinning, the goal is not to produce commercially spun evenness–but to create energy through twist. And finding that balance between generating enough twist in the yarn and then letting it go is a lesson that all writers could benefit from. Hold on too tightly or for too long and you end up with twine, not yarn.
  • When I hit a writing block, I spin.


Parallel Lines

IMG_3808   What I need to read.

IMG_3813   What I would rather read.

Lately I’ve been torn between my work and my hobby. When I am trying to read theory, all I can think about is how much I would rather be knitting or reading about knitting. Then, I spiral into wondering what I’m doing with my life. Maybe it’s all a part of a mid-life crisis intensified by this move to San Antonio.

When I confided to my friend S about my mid-life crisis, she mentioned that she recently had a similar conversation with her friends about how–when they were struggling with their writing–they found themselves training for a marathon or learning to swim. But rather than describe this as a conflict, she described it as a parallel activity, one that is not in competition with the writing, but somehow aligned.

I’m taking comfort in these words. I’m not sure where my writing is going to take me, but for now, I’m going to embrace this ambivalence. After all, parallel lines travel in the same direction even if they never meet.

Knitting is better than smoking


I went to college in the late 80s in Montreal. It seemed that everyone smoked, and I remember taking my first puffs in the hallway of my dorm. When I went to graduate school, I became a chain smoker. Smoking became an inseparable part of my dissertation writing, providing an outlet for the stress, fear and self-loathing that graduate school often produces.

I finally kicked the habit in my late 30s.  Now, as I tear my hair out writing the book that will revolutionize my field (ha!), instead of a smoke break, I take a knit break.

You may think that comparing knitting and smoking is like setting up a straw man argument, analogous to weighing the pros and cons of knitting and being torn apart by a pack of wild dogs. Of course knitting is going to come out on top. While it might be due to my lack of imagination that I’m unable to find parallels between making something with your hands and losing your hands (legs, arms, head and other body parts), it does not require a lot of brain power to see that knitting and smoking serve similar needs and functions:

  • Like smoking, knitting gives me something to do with my hands when I’m feeling awkward in a new social situation.
  • Like smoking, knitting is addictive. How many times have I said, “Just one more row and then I’ll stop”?
  • Like smoking, knitting is visceral and tactile.
  • Like smoking, knitting fuels my creative juices.
  • Like smoking, I get the same high when I first cast on as I do when I first light up.
  • Like smoking, I spend way to much money on this habit.
  • Like smoking, I knit after sex.

Why knitting is better than smoking:

  • Knitting is better for your health than smoking.
  • Knitting does not create second-hand smoke, though it can produce random bits of fluff and fiber throughout the house.
  • Knitting is allowed in restaurants, cafes and bars.
  • Knitting is something you want to teach your children.
  • Knitting is more socially acceptable, though knitting at a cocktail party is not quite as cool.

So yes, knitting does beat smoking. But, it’s not a total blow out.

Stay tuned for my next post:  Why spinning is better than drinking.  Just kidding. Nothing is better than drinking.