Revision in Yarn

I learned to knit from my daughter when she was an 8-year-0ld Waldorf student, and I really wanted to knit. Then a friend taught me more, and I read books, stopped in at the local yarn store for free advice, and turned hand-knit sweaters and hats inside out to discover the wherefores of how they were put together.

The pattern of this most recent sweater is a skeleton – a skeleton minus a few bones. When I arrived at joining the sleeves, the pattern was curiously empty. By experience and guesswork, I’ve put this sweater together in a semi-decent fashion. But I did take apart that first sleeve a half dozen times.

Unlike life, that’s the beauty of knitting: take it apart, again, again, and again. I suppose that’s not entirely true. All those revisions made this creation; I intend to wear it happily, with only myself in the true knowing.

One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself—as when in Anna Karenina, Levin proposes to Kitty in the same weird way Tolstoy himself proposed to his wife. Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

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West Woodbury,  Vermont, Wednesday

Unraveling and Knitting

This cold, dank and inimitably dark season is also the yarn season. Unlike living, any knitting project can be unraveled and reknit. Late last night, knitting while reading my bell hooks library book propped open with my bare toes, I realized the needles and yarn I had mated didn’t fit. Still reading, I  unwound the hat and rolled up the yarn. This evening, I chose a smaller needle size, and this hat I’m knitting for a friend’s Christmas present is aptly on its way.

Not so, our lives.

I’m sometimes asked, But is your fiction real? Of course it’s real, but it’s also fiction. Isn’t the craft of writing rewriting ad infinitum? Take out a character, emphasize a plot point, weave through an image of a great blue heron? Our lives are bulkier and baggier things.

I was reminded of this, stopping along a roadside today, admiring how the trees knit into the sky. One of my childhood’s keenest memories is standing at the edge of a giant cornfield in Illinois, where our family was camping on one of our numerous cross country treks. I was likely ten, the age of my younger daughter now, and I stood with my father, excited as I have ever been about anything in my life. Good lord, all that corn and the sky! The world was limitless.

The true artist is never so lost in his imaginary world that he forgets the real world, where teenagers have a chemical propensity toward anguish, people between their thirties and forties have a tendency to get divorced, and people in their seventies have a tendency toward loneliness, poverty, self-pity, and sometimes anger. The true artist choses never to be a bad physician. He gets his sense of worth and honor from the conviction that art is powerful – even bad art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

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The Four-Year-Old as Imminent Novelist

When I was fifteen (back in the last century), my dad bought me a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, a brand-new hardcover copy – a very big deal. I read the book hungrily, a book both technical and visionary, and carried it with me through all those moves of my twenties. Here’s a sampling:

The novelist Nicholas Delbanco has remarked that by the age of four one has experienced nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it’s by training – by studying great books and by writing – that one learns to present one’s fictions, giving them their due.

Which pretty much means: get down to work. I love fiction so much I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would want to do anything else – like, say, teach kindergarten or litigate. My own teenage daughter’s natural inclinations bend towards art and photography, although she would never define or see herself as an artist. I remembered Gardner’s lines above when I saw this photo: her own way of taking things apart – a drinking glass, the kitchen table, sunlight – wondering how does this work? how does this look? what can I do?

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Photo by Molly S.