On Pens and Needles
May 7, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Mimi Jones Hedwig
Whenever I feel the impulse to lose myself in the absorbing process of making something, I choose one of two activities: knitting or writing. Both give me comparable — and abundant — rewards. Yet I have to resist knitting, or I’d do it all the time. And I have to push myself to write, because I almost never want to do it.
They are similar in many ways. Both are more or less solitary pursuits – although knitting circles have thrived since antiquity, and writers’ groups offer relief from the isolation of the labor, as well as support and guidance.
Both create something complex out of something simple – a strand of yarn, a strand of words.
Both yield a tangible product: an expanse of fabric, a sheaf of pages.
Both require dexterous fingers, an alert brain, a certain bravery to venture into something untried and difficult.
Both involve making intricate patterns: configurations of stitches that become a structure of yarn, configurations of words that become a story, essay, novel.
Each discipline requires attention to the smallest element: the formation of each stitch, the exact number of stitches; the choice of each word, the right number of words to convey the essence with no excess.
With knitting and writing both, there is a great deal of craft to learn. Both take diligent effort and practice, ideally daily.
Both require patience. There’s the size of the projects, for one thing: it takes a enormous amount of time and effort to make an adult-scale garment or a book-length work. Also, sometimes you have to rip out, or throw out, huge tracts of fabric or words because, in knitting, you may have made a fatal mistake too far back to be fixed, or, in writing, an idea, a plot line, a character, is remaining inert, stalling the whole project. You may have to repeat the process of destruction and re-creation several times.
Sometimes each discipline demands philosophical resignation. You stash the problematic knitting attempt in a closet along with other UFOs (UnFinished Objects), maybe to take it apart someday and use the yarn for another project. In the same way you may shelve a seized-up novel or story or memoir, hoping to gain insight into how to get it running at some future time, but possibly winding up stripping it for parts.
But … all these similarities notwithstanding, knitting and writing have some essential differences:
With knitting it is not so much the product that pleases me, as the process – the satisfyingly repetitive motions, the feel of the smooth wooden needles, the texture of the yarn, the sense that the colors I’m working with are seeping through my skin to enliven or calm my inner state. Sometimes I put the finished sweater, scarf or shawl in a drawer and never think to wear it. Often I give my knitted items away, to keep them from engulfing the house as kudzu does the Southern landscape where I live.
With writing, however, both process and product are important. I want to perfect the work; I relish the painstaking labor of revision, of searching for and finding the exact word or phrase or image to express my meaning, my vision. And then, when I have made the work as flawless as I can, I feel a need to show it to the world and have people respond to it. Writing is, after all, an act of communication; I can’t know if I have done it successfully unless readers tell me that they understand and appreciate what I have written, and, even better, that my story made a difference to them. I long to heft my published book in my hand, to open it and breathe in the confirming scent of paper, ink and glue, to display it on my bookshelf — and, in time, to add several others bearing my name on their spines.
Other people’s reactions to my knitting don’t affect me much. What I create is not self-revealing because I didn’t invent the stitches or the patterns I follow. True, I am responsible for the choice of colors and fibers, the selection of a particular pattern, but my sense of self-worth is not bound up with the final product.
Thus, there’s safety in favoring knitting over writing as my creative outlet. I never sit paralyzed, despairing, needles stilled, yarn slack, at a complete loss as to how to go on. No one has ever pronounced my knitting unconvincing. Cliché. Flat. Stilted. Uninvolving. No one has ever suggested that another knitter could have done a better job than I in executing a particular concept. My knitting has never made me cry, or want to stick pins in an effigy of someone, or get drunk.
A reasonable person might ask, why, then, should I put myself through the difficulty and occasional devastation of writing? Why not just knit my way to creative bliss?
The answer is that, in the best moments, writing gives me rewards that knitting never could: The absorption of bringing into being from nothing a world, characters, a sequence of events. The happy surprise when the story or a character takes off, independent of my intentions, in a compelling new direction. The marvel of coming to an insight that seems pregnant with power to change my life.
With knitting, I have the satisfaction of practicing one of the most complex and beautiful crafts ever devised by humans. But with writing, on rare and exhilarating occasions, I feel that I’m sharing in the creative power of God.
Mimi Jones Hedwig held senior editorial positions at Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines before quitting full-time work to devote herself to writing. Her articles have appeared in all the aforementioned publications, as well as McCall’s magazine and Angels on Earth, a publication of the Guideposts media group. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is presently working on four novels and a memoir, as well as innumerable sweaters, scarves and shawls.