Saturday, October 07, 2006


Designed and worked the summer of 1982 in perle cotton and velour and sparkly threads. And oy the dust -- Laura, what program did you use to erase dust??
I used to love beginnings. I loved beginning new yarn projects. There was something almost unbearably exciting about casting on or linking the first few chains, seeing a length of pretty colored yarn suddenly acquire shape and form and promise.

I felt the same way about beginning a new book. There was nothing more exciting, more filled with wonder, than that first page. Anything could happen and, even better, it could happen to whomever I chose.

This was what creativity was all about: playing God with yarn and words.

Well, that was then.

Here I am now, many years later, almost ashamed to admit that beginnings are a whole lot harder for me now than they used to be. I've come to dread casting on. If I could hire someone to knit the first row of almost any new project I would shower him or her with armloads of Kureyon or Kid Silk Haze. And if the Muse felt like writing my first chapters without any input from me I wouldn't complain. I'd leave her a bottle of champagne and the very best chocolates and stay the hell out of her way.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the correlation between knitting and writing. (Gee, I wonder why.) Actually any wordless repetitive activity that frees the mind and nourishes the spirit would fit the bill but right now knitting is my activity of choice. It's a Zen thing really, I suppose. (Even though I don't have a Zen-like bone in my body.) Calm the monkey mind. Settle the spirit. Occupy the hands. Free the imagination.

At least that's the way it works in theory. And, to be honest, that's the way it worked in practice when I first started publishing. I was so raw, so new, so unsophisticated that I hadn't a clue how to be a published author and no one I could ask for guidance. Suddenly there were expectations associated with what had once been a burning singularly private passion. Contracts. Money. Sales figures. A whole new world had revealed itself to me and I needed a road map. Fast.

So I did what I always did. I went to the library and started looking for help. I don't know what guardian angel was watching over me at the time but that angel knew her writers books and guided me toward Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

I devoured the book. It had been written in 1934 but the words spoke to me loudly and clearly in 1982. (Can you believe I only paid $4.95 for a trade paperback? Talk about times changing.) The words still speak to me.

Brande makes some valid points about wordless recreation and the urge to write. When deprived of paper and pen, prisoners long to capture words. A writer of her acquaintance headed for concert halls when the writing wasn't going well. A few hours of beautiful music induced a creative "coma" of sorts that sent her sleepwalking back to her work, eager to produce. How many of us are hooked on Free Cell and Diamond Mine? Well, they're the 21st century descendants of a million hands of solitaire dealt by a million roadblocked authors struggling with characters who won't behave.

I turned to needlepoint in 1982 and for awhile it worked. I was desperate to create a template for being a writer and surrounding myself with the familiar (needlework in all its forms) was an important first step. Unfortunately there comes a time in the life of most working writers when the work begins to spill the boundaries and take over your home, your family, and your life. When you need balance the most, you find yourself giving up all the things that were once important to you. (And vital to your creativity.)

Brande said, "Prisoners who never wrote a word in the days of their freedom will write on any paper they can lay their hands on. Innumerable books have been begun by patients lying on hospital beds, sentenced to silence and refused read . . . A two-year-old will tell himself stories, and a farmer will talk to a cow. Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them. The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways."

So I'm back at the beginning again. I've started a new book. I'm starting a new pair of socks. I'm scared and elated and unsure of myself and every shade of emotion in between. You know: business as usual. I'm not a woman given to emotional balance or moderation. All or nothing. I know I've said it before but it's true. Hope, however, really does spring eternal--even for those of us old enough to know better. So I'm going to try to see if I can figure out how to balance knitting and writing this time around because I need them both.


Blogger Dallas Schulze said...

Barbara - When it comes to crafts, I still love a new beginning. I guess that's why I always have so many projects in progress, whether it's knitting or quilting. In those beginning moments, I'm dazzled by the possibilities. The sweater or scarf or quilt is complete in my mind, sparkling with perfection. It's a fantasy made tangible by the fibers under my fingers. I may curse while I do that first row after the cast-on but that's a minor annoyance on the road to the lovely image in my head.

A new book? Well, that one's a little more problematic. Like you, I used to love a new book. The first chapter would all but write itself and, like that new scarf or quilt, it was full of dazzling possibility. It was like a do-it-yourself Saturday matinee: I couldn't wait to get up in the morning to see what was going to happen next.

Then life got complicated and my characters - those ungrateful louts - began to show a distressing tendency to thumb their noses in my direction. Instead of thinking 'What am I going to write today' I began wondering 'How am I going to write today'. Starting a new book moved from scary-exciting to just plain scary.

I think it's a problem a lot of professional writers face: How do you keep the deadlines, the contracts, the inevitable business side of things from sucking the joy out of what can be - should be - the most joyful of things.

I hadn't thought of the Dorothea Brande book in awhile but I remember loving it. I'm going to have to track down a copy and re-read it.

If you find a way to keep that balance going, to keep knitting while writing, to keep having a life while writing, share the secret, would you?

5:19 PM  
Blogger Barbara Bretton said...

The secret I've found so far is a little scary: I let go of most of the business-related priorities that used to matter so much to me. Goodbye, conferences. So long meetings and booksignings and all that stuff. I give time to the writing and the rest of the time (which is the majority; my choice) to my life. Sometimes the balance shifts (inevitably when a deadline looms) but what I wanted from life in my 30s isn't what I'm looking for in my (how did I get this old) 50s.

You know that I stopped writing for a year and a half when my parents were dying and afterward. Life was so intense, so real (for lack of a better word) that there was no escape for me into fiction. My own or anyone else's. I figured it was gone for good and had no reason to believe otherwise.

And then to my amazement the ability to write returned and with it the joy. I wouldn't have believe it possible but it happened. I have more trouble with the process than I did in the beginning (I seem to make amateurish mistakes more often than I'd like to admit) but maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Who knows? Years ago a friend told me that money changes everything, that bringing money into the writing equation would skew my take on it and to some degree she was right. Money means responsibility, expectations (yours and theirs [the publisher]) and the scary possibility of failure. Hard to keep the innocent joy of a writing child with that hanging over your laptop.

I'm rambling here. What do you think?

5:27 PM  
Blogger georg said...

Beginning is the easy part. Finishing is the hard part. Seeing the project through and giving it needed polish to finish it properly, and not just rush and say "that's good enough, It's DONE" because you want it to be done.

I could write you three opening paragraphs easily. Most days however, I can't finish chapter 1.

And I won't mention my UFO sewing projects.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Fran Baker said...

Wow, Barbara, so true. All of it. I just finished a first chapter and now I know where the book is going. That means rewriting part of the first chapter but I'll wait until I get to the end and then go back to the beginning.

I too quit writing while I was taking care of my mom. I finished a book one month and the next month began a 26-month sojourn into the all-consuming task of helping her live with pain and loss of privacy, of independence, of everything that "mattered." Ironically, that book I'd just finished got terrific reviews. Even PW liked it more than not. I scarcely noticed.

No sooner did my mom die and things sort of settled down than I had a heart attack. Unbelievable! I had no cholesterol problems, no weight problems, no blood pressure problems. What I did have was lots and lots of residual stress.

Now, five stents and a long stint in rehab later, I'm back writing. I'm enjoying it, too, but I can't let it take over my life the way it once did. Instead, I'll write and knit and walk and do things with my husband and see what happens.

And I'll learn the Magic Loop if it kills me ... LOL!!!

8:38 PM  
Blogger Barbara Bretton said...

Fran, stress can be deadly. No doubt about it. And the weird thing is you don't even realize what's happening. You're just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So glad you're back on track again.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous theresa s. said...

Wow. You ladies have weathered some tough times. Be proud of that.

I love the Brande book, too. It was required reading in my college creative writing class, and it's been my crutch ever since. Whenever I get stuck, I read her, and she soothes me.

12:14 PM  

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