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Monday, November 26, 2012

Knitting a Book is Like Writing a Sweater

By Sarah Pinneo | @SarahPinneo

November at my house is all about writing and knitting. The writing bit might be obvious—I’m trying NaNoWriMo again. The knitting is in response to a beautiful crafts fair that my children’s school holds the first week of December. The parents contribute handmade items, we give them all a you-are-shopping-at-a-fundraiser price tags, and the proceeds benefit the school.

In theory this combination of activities should work well. I can think about my NaNo book while I knit. To knit means to take a linear thing—a string—and twist it around and over itself until it becomes a multidimensional piece of art. To write a novel is to do just the opposite. You begin with a beautiful, colorful mess of ideas and emotions, and tease out a linear thing—a string of words in black and white—which best captures its essence.

In practice, I work myself into a lather every November, trying to meet both deadlines. (And both activities make a girl prone to repetitive stress injury. Bummer.) But it turns out that one exercise has given me a lot of perspective on the other. If you’ve never knit before, you should know that any knitting project begins looking awful. The first row of stitches cast on to the needle looks like little more than a snarl of yarn.

Good grief, I always think. How will this ever amount to anything? Maybe I should have chosen a different project. I’ve never seen a less promising start to anything.

A few rows in, things still don’t look better. The only difference is that now I’ve sunk a fair amount of time into something that still underwhelms. All the other knitted toys are going to point and laugh, I imagine. I could just stop now and forget the whole thing.

Veteran knitters learn that any project imprisoned on the needles will always look wrong. It’s only when you spend the time to compose the bulk of an object (or a story) that you can see what you’ve accomplished. And now I understand that NaNoWriMo is trying to teach me the same thing. It isn’t enough to sit admiring the idea for a novel. They all look beautiful when they’re still in your head. You have to grab that wooly pile of inspiration and yank out the beginning of the thread. Chances are you’ll start in the wrong place, and have to rethink that beginning later. (The un-doing of a knitting project is called “frogging.” Nobody has ever been able to tell me why.) This violent beginning will also create more than a couple of knots in your story, and you may not notice them immediately. But at least you will have begun.

This past year I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to figure out which of my many ideas is the most likely to succeed. I’ve made notes for several different projects, falling in love with first one and then another. But that way lies the abyss, because only by knitting well into the heart of things can an idea be given its due.

I had the pleasure of working with an architect on a renovation several years ago. She would often show me a plan, adding “but it still needs to be proved out.” And fiction is just the same. Only by plowing ahead can I nail down the truth. Is there sufficient conflict? Is there enough at stake? Is this character someone that I want to spend fifty or eighty thousand words with?

I will never be the ideal NaNoWriMo writer, because I love to revise as I go. There may be no little “winner!” badge next to my name. But I can still absorb the lessons that NaNo teaches, and feel pleased with my progress. And hey—I made a fish.

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.


Rebekkah Niles said...

I love your fish.

And great advice! Looking at the rough (very rough [okay, very-very-very rough]) first draft, it feels like the story will never get where it's going... wrong POV, terrible opening that needs rewriting, no real world design, lacking 26 things that I discovered by 150 pages in would be absolutely necessary... But yet I know the story, by the time I finish the second draft, will be much closer to the story I envisioned. And when it's finished, it'll swim on its own as a novel I'd want to read myself.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

My daughter and I have just started knitting, I can't wait to share this post with her! And I love your fish. My daughter has made a few little dolls, I'm still on the knit stitch and scarf stage.

I love how you brought all this together. :)

womenswrites said...

As a knitter and writer, I especially love this post. I am also a huge fan of NaNoWriMo. Look forward to reading your book! Thanks for posting!

womenswrites said...

Oh and the *fish* is just out of this world!

Sarah P said...

Thank you everyone! Like everything else I've done this month, I worried that this post felt rushed. But sometimes... that's okay.

Sarah P said...

Oh! And the fish pattern is linked here: http://www.ravelry.com/projects/Spinneo/frida-the-fish

kbrebes said...

Great analogy--wonderful fish!!

Amanda Hopper said...

Thank you for the words of encouragement, they were well timed for me! I will keep working out the knots in my story:)

Sherry Ellis said...

That's a really good analogy!

Good luck with the Nano challenge.

Jane Lebak said...

To take your analogy one step further, Ivy Reisner says there's this moment with lace knitting where it comes off the needles and it looks like hell, but then you block it, and this horrible wrinkled thing suddenly expands and becomes a work of beauty. That would be the editing process, I guess. :-)

Thanks for this!

Sarah P said...

So true, Jane! I'm "blocking" a novel today...