The (Handi)Craft of Writing

Hello, dear folks of WordPress. I hope mid-November finds you well.

I have not, in fact, crawled under a rock, run away with the circus, or joined the witness protection program (as my recent radio silence might have suggested). I have, rather, been wading around, waist-deep in writing territory, chipping away at the Big Project. More than a couple hundred pages into this thesis, and I still underestimate how consuming writing can be. In the living room of the mind, this project has taken up lots of space. It’s been like that inconveniently large sofa-bed we’ve all encountered — the heavy-bulky one with weird contours that jut out at awkward, space-consuming angles. Sure, it’s big and comfortable, but it eats precious floorspace and hampers easy mobility around it, violating all the principles of Feng Shui. What’s more, its upholstery has got a loud, monopolizing print that refuses to match even the best of colour-coordinated afghansSuch is my relationship to this work (and why the knitting needles and art supplies have been mostly unattended these days).

It’s an odd form of infatuation, writing is.  

Why I hand write

One thing I’ve come to love about the process has been thinking about all the ways writing intersects with art and hand-crafting. It seems that my crafting sensibilities have invaded my writing process. This has not always been the case! I used to rely heavily on my laptop to make words. But lo and behold, the past few weeks find me going back to what used to be my hand-writing holy trinity: pencil, paper, and Staedtler eraser.

A different kind of handmade WIP.

I find the word processor excellent for editing and revision. But when it comes to brainstorming and generating that very first draft — that initial, fear-riddled leap from nothing to something — handwriting fits the bill, for me, for several reasons.

It’s a slower pace of composition that puts no pressure for speed on word-recall. A slower hand, decelerated by the friction of pencil lead, gives my mind time to perform its internal word search. Ideas are so fragile at this first stage, and with the pencil, they get time and space to ripen and coalesce. There’s time, too, to pay attention to rhythm and sound; form does not fight with content.

The hand-written page, I find, is also very low commitment, and that’s good. It’s the writerly equivalent of a laundry-hamper: no one needs to ever see the state of the things that go in there! It’s also a kind of “test swatch”; the page can be a space of freedom and possibility and privacy (and that means the writing becomes a bit more comfortable again).

Also, tactility. A lot of Word processor functions mimic things we habitually do on paper. Whether bolding text, writing comments in the margins, cutting and pasting, or adding a strategic strikethrough, underline or highlight, these are all imitations of the ways we touch words in their making. Wrangling with the tactility of text — restoring words and meaning to their material state — reminds me that working with words is a craft. Word-working is not so different from wood-working, after all. It can be just as fun as selecting a fiber or texture, or planning the hues in a yoke (as the picture above shows, my process now includes literally cutting and pasting sections together, true to my crafter’s heart).

Finally, I love paper. Specifically, there’s something magic and special about that yellow paper — the humble yellow legal pad with the blue lines and pink margin.

Chapters.

This stuff is like chicken soup for the writer’s soul (a fitting metaphor, as it’s about the same chicken soup-colour). In pad form, the paper feels soft and smooth and cushioned and kind — as inviting as a newly made bed in clean, striped yellow linens. “Lay your words here,” the pad seems to say, and, bit by bit, the words come, wanting to find a resting place. The paper itself is thin, dismally rip-able, and bordering on translucent, evoking the flimsiness of newsprint. Strangely, this flimsiness is comforting; it sends a message to the subconscious that, like newsprint, this writing is entirely disposable and chuck-able in the trash bin (or better yet, recyclable). And, like the daily paper, whatever gets crumpled up today will be replaced by more ink and more words the next day; the paper evokes regularity, the mundane, and assurance of abundant things to come tomorrow. So much of writing fluency, I’m learning, lies in managing the state of constantly being confronted with the unknown; for the blocked or beleaguered writer, anything that helps with recovering ease and regularity is nothing short of miraculous. This paper is my secret sauce.


Thanks for reading my writing ramblings, with likely more to come. It helps me tremendously to take a breather from the work and reflect on what helps and what hinders the writing process. And, my crafter’s brain is always looking to stitch up the connections between writing and other forms of creative practice. I would love to hear how others make this connection. What role does writing play in your non-writing creative practice and productivity?

Until next time!

Robert Henri on the song within

the art spirit.jpg

What a month June has panned out to be. Between writing and a summer job, it’s been a busy one. On the making front, other than finishing up a Leticia shawl (unblocked…more on this soon), I’ve been enjoying The Art Spirit, by painter and portraitist Robert HenriOriginally published in 1923, The Art Spirit is a collection of Henri’s notes, letters and lectures to his pupils and proteges on the creative life. For the devoted student of painting, there’s lots to sink one’s technical teeth into: painterly lessons on colour theory, composition, the importance of keeping a clean palette (I always lapsed there), avoiding the overuse of ‘white’ to convey value (I did that), and cultivating the powers of visual memory.

But this little collection shines most brightly, I think, in how the fragments come together to convey a message on the ‘art spirit’: the joyful cultivation of vision and imagination. For Henri, ‘art’ (a term which he does not take too seriously) comes from enchantment with life. Part of the labour of making, he suggests, lies in developing self-knowledge through our imaginative sensibilities — allowing ourselves to be touched and moved by the things around us, rendered sensate, and finding exuberance and discovery in our worlds of feeling. Several times in the text, he suggests that the object is not to ‘make art,’ but to live — and to allow what we make to be a trace of that living.

school of life 1
Image source: The School of Life’s The Dangers of Being Dutiful (a delightful Youtube video on precisely that).

This is a familiar message. But I enjoy how Henri articulates the idea, in different ways, with his own mix of wonder, warmth, and the ardent desire that budding artists learn, beyond technique, to recognize, value, and find tremendous joy in their ‘inner sense,’ and in painting as a modality of life.

You’ll find some of the Art Spirit moments that I found interesting below (I’ve gone ahead and feminized the masculine pronouns).


The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which she was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of her before she has passed into what is understood as real life. 

On the experience of creative insight:

At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen. It fills us with surprise. We marvel at it. We would continue to hear it. But few are capable of holding themselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and as the song within us is of the utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold material intellect… yet we live in the memory of these songs… They are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate sensations, this song from within, which motivates the masters of all art. 

Cherish your own emotions and never under-value them. We are not here to do what has already been done.

Find out what you really like if you can. Find out what is really important to you. Then sing your song. You will have something to sing about and your whole heart will be in the singing.

From a letter of criticism to a student:

Your education must be self-education. Self-education is an effort to free one’s course so that a full growth may be attained. One need not be afraid of what this full growth may become. Give your throat a chance to sing its song. All the knowledge in the world to which you have access is yours to use…Don’t bother about your originality, set yourself just as free as you can and your originality will take care of you. It will be as much a surprise to you as to anyone else.

The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living, fulfillment; the great happiness in creation.

And one last one, for now, from a painting critique Henri wrote to a student: “I like your work and have only to ask you to go on your own interesting way with all the courage you can muster.”

logo small

The Writing Capelet, Part I

Hello! I hope your May-month is off to a beautiful and prolific start — that new ideas are slowly pushing up violets and greens from the soil like so many spring-time crocuses.

The more I craft, the more I realize that I turn to making to help me solve various kinds of practical problems. I’m learning that very good things can come from the quandaries. Let me explain how I mean this.

A Writing Problem

After my writing trickled to a near and painful stand-still last year, 2018 brought a very good and welcome change: that homecoming-feeling of slowly finding comfort and ease with words again. More than ever, I’m willing and able to regularly sit for the repeated roll-up-your-shirtsleeves sessions that will lead (hopefully) to a completed first thesis draft. The work of writing is still slow-going; first drafts are always the most painful and embarassing. But, I’m learning that self-forgiveness can soften the process, and curiosity about what’s next is enough to keep me tethered to the pages. This is a project that I have been working on, in some fashion, for several yearsit’s refreshing to know that the renewal of curiosity is still (always) possible.

BUT. It seems, my physiology has something to say about this. Specifically, my natural tendency to coldness. An hour of work in the wrong conditions can leave me feeling bone-chilly, energy-sapped, and in dire need of tea followed by a pulse-quickening run. The usual writerly haunts — the cool, air-conditioned interiors of libraries and coffee shops — are great for quick visits. But the temperature needed to preserve coffee beans, open-faced lox sandwiches, and the spines and fibers of books is getting hard to tolerate for sustained reading and writing. Just too cold.

So, what’s a writer to do?

Knit for the Writing

I decided to address this issue by knitting myself something warm to wear. It would, preferably, be snug, non-lacy, shoulder-warming, and thick enough to keep out A/C drafts. It wouldn’t need to be a full sweater, maybe just a cowl or capelet. I noticed that felt bear, bedecked in a snug and cozy poncho-thing, had the right idea. And so I took my fashion cue from, yes, a toy.

After some Ravelry-time, and some tinkering with other capelet-pattern stitch-counts, I decided to design the thing myself. Having knit clothing for dolls in the past, I could surely design something simple at my own scale, right?

Inspired by the abundant crocus beds on my school campus, I imagined a bold violet capelet with bright stripes running all around the yoke. I committed to this vision, and even saw myself wearing it, being writerly and productive and tea-drinking and all that. On April 20th, I cast on, working in the round, bottom up. After a week, I had this:

capelet that never was1.jpg

Sadly, this very inspired capelet got about 60% of the way through (a few rows shy of the yoke decreases) when I lost the nerve and verve to continue on. At first, I feared that my former writer’s block had somehow crept onto the needles, morphing into knitter’s block (oh no!). I stepped away from the work for a few days and reflected on how an inspired idea could so quickly careen into a case of the blahs. I found my reason: the colours felt static and separate, ‘trapped’ in stripes. I wanted them to move and do a little more footwork. This dance metaphor led me to discover that what I wanted was some stranded colourwork on that yoke. Light bulbs pinged.

At first, the thought of taking up stranded knitting struck a note of fear in my heart: so far, my stranded projects have been plagued by tension problems and wonkiness of all sorts. Why would I commit to wearing the wonkiness out in public? But, I also knew that a project like this would, for all of its imperfections, help me build the very skills I had so long admired in others’ stranded work. I took a note from my little Creative Block Survival Guide (i.e. last year’s lessons) and I made the decision to forgive myself, in advance, for all of the knitting wonkiness that I was about to produce: all the bad tension, all upcoming puckerings of fabric, all loose or slipped stitches, all awkward fitting, the whole gamut of potential, catastrophic-feeling errors. It was all going to happen in some form, and that was okay. “Mistakes” could be undone, re-worked. New information and skills would come from all of it (*deeeep breeaath*).

Perhaps like many makers, I struggle with true beginnings. But little gestures like this — intentionally giving imperfections a ‘space’ and wide margin before embarking — can act like myofascial release for creativity muscles, working into the knots and areas of tension to loosen up tissues and allow things to get moving again. Acceptance frees me back up to enter into the curiosity: my favourite place.

So, with some reluctance, I unraveled the purple poncho and sent it, with love, into the frogged knits afterlife. Maybe it will come back another time.

In the next post, I share what became of all those yards of frogged yarn. Until then, I hope you are enjoying this first flush of Spring!


What helps you overcome creative block? Any go-to strategies? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

1st week of Spring: thinking about process and play

I hope you’ve enjoyed a great week.

This week has been a bit busy on my end: there have been a few unexpected (time-consuming) things to attend to at home and, of course, the larger academic project I’m working on. But, it hasn’t been so busy that I did not find time to play with my doll patterns, felt, and flosses.

Beyond all language and metrics of productivity, the time I spend making dolls / making things for the dolls is essentially that: play. In contrast to my recent knitting projects (where I had a clear pattern to work, directions to follow), a lot of my doll-crafting time feels a bit like a state of suspension – with the work being invented as I go, I feel my grip on goal-direction loosen and lose its unilinear quality: many solutions to problems or dilemmas crop up, or work themselves out over a week or two after playing with and testing out different alternatives. In this state, crafting feels both hazy and focused. On the one hand, working feels like walking through dreams – like being given license to wander and explore, precisely because so many things are possible. At the same time, my usual sensitivities become a bit more acute, acuity sharpens (mostly for the better!). I’d like to write a longer post on my thoughts on this process, but for the time being, I’ll say that recovering a space and sense of play and open-endedness (design!) is becoming a major route to enabling my creativity and well-being (no big surprise there, perhaps!).

I’ve also taken, recently, to using notebooks as little homes to organize ideas for different crafting media. It’s nice to have separate, offline spaces for collecting, gathering, sketching, diarizing, and jotting down. For me, it’s otherwise easy for various projects to get jumbled up (and meld into an overwhelming mega-project), or for me to forget that perfect idea that came in the shower. I’m not a multi-tasker, but more of a serial single-tasker (and I very much struggle with making the transitions in between). Hence, the need for little homes where the different ideas can find kinship, cross-pollinate, and lead a happy existence until I’m able to properly attend to them. Taking out one of these books and putting it on my one-and-only work desk also signals to me that I’m entering the zone for that particular project. When space is limited, these books help me to set the tone and intention for a work session.

play.jpg
Let’s not let the best ideas get tangled up like that floss: the orange book is for doll-making & blogging, the white one for knitting, and the black one for drawings.

And, on the doll front…

Last week, I bought some extra skeins of floss and, having learned some lessons from the previous project, a set of doll needles (just saying that brings me a flicker of excitement).

floss - needle.jpg

The bigger doll needles in the set measure 3 inches (compare with the regular hand-sewing needle above). Doll needles are long, ample-eyed, and are super for stitching through multiple doll parts and fabric-layers with thick, heavier-duty thread. They make the sewing of classic doll button joints, for instance, 1000 times easier.

In that arena, it looks like last week’s deer-friend is anticipating some company.

2nd deer1-2

You know, after all, what they say about March: it comes in like a lion, and goes out like a… doe (that’s the saying, right?).

Looking forward to catching up with your creative goings on, and wishing you a great Easter / weekend!

How do you organize your work on multiple media and/or projects? (notebooks, schedules, workspaces, other methods?). And, do you distinguish between work on patterns designed and generated by others, and those you design yourself?

Crafting, Resilience

Maybe the crafters here will not be surprised by this: the more I continue with knitting, the more I’ve come to realize that, in certain situations, the most politically empowered thing one can manage in troubling times is to start cultivating sanity and resilience through little, everyday practices, building from there.

While it is not required, some form of creative grounded-ness can be a very good foundation for staying receptive, open, and taking engaged actions in the world towards benefiting other people. Knitting and crafting tends to be seen by the people I know as a quaint “hobby,” maybe an escape-hatch or a “womanly” way of unwinding. Little do they know (or do they? I’m kind of a blabber-mouth) that cultivating craft in my life is part of a broader commitment that includes developing the clarity, strength, and sanity to stay socially engaged and be of help in the areas that matter to me. This commitment goes beyond knitting; it also includes being trained in teaching and research (where, I hope, the things I write can add to the chorus of voices that, specifically, is opposing the kinds of anti-immigration laws, policies, and public discourses that are unfortunately cropping up in many different places. More on my research here).

Knitting and making things has made all the difference between, on the one hand, trying to do this work while nursing a constantly battered sense of hope that social shifts could produce a more equitable world, and — much more preferable — doing this work while allowing the process to teach me to cultivate resilience. In other words, crafting isn’t the cure for, say, the kinds of micro-aggressions (and more) that women, POC, and various minorities encounter, but it can provide a home-base to return to if a day or incident has been trying. The need to cultivate a source of clarity and resilience grows greater in light of the reality that women (speaking for myself here) tend to be socialized to internalize or blame themselves for problems that are structural or systemic (why is it more habitual to castigate ourselves if we are less than perfect at balancing the demands of life than, say, to question the unreasonable gendered expectations placed upon us, and ask for a hand?).

The knitting has been a companion for all of this. It has been, for me, one of the best apprenticeships in recognizing and practicing real agency again. With every project — with every stitch! — I subconsciously remind myself that something new is possible, that new things are possible and can be brought into being with a little bit of practice, knowledge and patient action (oh, and mistakes). And if I’ve developed a habit of reading about others’ crafting tales, it’s partly because they also remind me of the unending emergence of new things in the world — splendid things reflecting the world of care, ingenuity, and loving engagement the maker put into them. Seeing this helps me to dig deep into my life and experience, and begin to look for ways to be involved and continue to take action on a broader scale. In the process, I am finding it helpful to draw on that same crafter’s energy and keen eye for possibility and transformation.

Happy Crafting, folks. Wishing you an empowered week.

loyola
…sometimes, it also helps to find a pretty view. Loyola U. campus, looking east over Lake Michigan