Knitting for Writers

No, this is not the name of a ridiculous fundraiser. And it’s not a title for one of those “How to . . . for Dummies” books either. I took up knitting during my last year of graduate school. I had received a starter knitting kit, complete with gigantic needles, two balls of very chunky yarn, and instructions for basic projects, during the previous year. After a couple of false starts, I left it propped against the wall in the corner for many months. Since I couldn’t knit my first row perfectly, I was determined to give up altogether.

But as I launched into my last year of studies, I felt smothered by the weight of so many books that needed to be read and so many papers that needed to be written. I felt like I was climbing a mountain whose summit I couldn’t see. As part of me began to hunker down and plow through the work, another part of me came up for air, grasping for something tactile to hold onto.

I was searching desperately for something that was not a four-syllable word or an idea about a theory about a concept. I wanted a real thing, with measurable weight and texture and vivid color. Hence, the knitting.

I remember the false starts, when I tossed the needles aside in frustration, but I don’t remember beginning in earnest. Before long, I had transformed a ball of thick, scratchy yarn into a very ugly, very square-shaped hat, which I gifted to my sister, who wore it with pride on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the hat, I gave up on interesting shapes and focused simply on flat rectangles—potholders, scarves, and lately, a blanket. I realized that my delight had nothing to do with the complexity or practicality of the project, but simply with the joy of transforming one thing into another.

For a while, I had a thing for fancy yarns and would scour the aisles of yarn shops for the softest possible yarns (alpaca, cashmere) and the warmest colors I could find (brick red, mustard yellow). Eventually, though, I settled on an armful of the simplest undyed yarn I could find, along with a pair of circular needles. I wasn’t sure what I would make, exactly. I only knew that it would be very big and very flat. I just wanted to knit and knit and keep on knitting without stopping for a very long time.

In the midst of all of that knitting, I wrote my papers. I wrote them without all of the hair pulling and teeth grinding I had done in my first year of the program. I wrote them without that terrible sense of sprinting and crashing I’d had before, and without the all-nighters. I chugged along steadily, picking up with each new paper just as soon as I’d tied off the ends of the one before. I knitted, I wrote, and at long last, I graduated.

Of course, this is not to say that it was only knitting that saved me, or that it wasn’t still a very hard year. It’s just to say that sometimes it helps to come at a thing indirectly, that sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to generate momentum, and that discipline grows with steady practice over time.