For many years, I thought of my maker projects and my writing as separate. More than that, actually, I got into a bad habit of thinking of them as oppositional — as if my making was only a kind of procrastination or evasion from writing. I felt guilty about it. As if spending time in my garden, or putting up a batch of jam, or making a shirt, or learning to knit socks was somehow betraying my “real” creative work, which was supposed to be writing novels and essays.
About a year ago I got really interested in the notion of creative practice. This is quite a common idea in the art world, but writers don’t tend to think in these terms — or at least not the writers I came up with. Process was fine, but the point was publication. Where you were published was frequently not as important as the fact of publication, especially when I was still in academia. And there was a hierarchy. “Little” magazines at the bottom, then real magazines — the ones who paid — and at the top, publishing a book. That I published a book with a commercial publisher was sort of a big deal back in the day. But as the years have stretched on, and I haven’t managed to finish another book manuscript, I’ve gone through many cycles of despair and reinvention, then gotten stuck and have done it all over again.
It was in those down times about a year ago when a manuscript I’d been struggling with had come apart, again, that I discovered a group of knitters in the UK who were building these really vibrant networks of creativity. They had podcasts and book projects and were starting their own lines of yarn and making patterns and researching the history of knitted textiles in the British Isles in ways that seemed enormously exciting. Kate Davies, for example, who writes these beautifully-researched books on Fair Isle knitting, or yoked sweaters or haps … books that include not only terrific patterns, but these essays about the history of these handicrafts, and the women who made them, and the economic conditions that helped turn these things into the luxury items of their days. Turns out that Kate has a PhD in 18th Century History, and an academic career cut short by a stroke she suffered in her early 30s. She reinvented herself entirely — took the thing she loved doing, and in exploring it deeply has built a truly creative life for herself, as well as a business. Felicity (Felix) Ford is another one I’ve been slightly obsessed by, because again, she has that combination of true enthusiasm and academic and artistic expression that just makes my heart sing. Also known as Knitsonik, Felix is a sound artist and knitwear designer who wrote the absolutely astonishing Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook which is my very favorite kind of how-to book. There are patterns, several really wonderful ones, but just as my most beloved cookbooks are a collection of recipes in service of teaching a person how to really cook — how to think about flavors, how to acquire the techniques needed to make those flavors and textures happen, how to set you free to truly cook on your own, Felix’s Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook is all about learning to really see, and then to translate what you see and love into patterns that can be knit into any number of garments.
I am not a particularly visually adept person. My mother is a talented visual artist who can draw and paint, but that’s never been my strong suit. And what I loved about Felix’s book is that it is rooted in place, which has always been the source from which my writing begins. The book is a workbook of sorts, leading the reader through several of Felix’s projects where she takes elements of the landscape that she loves — whether it be the brickwork of her hometown Reading, or an ancient stone wall, or the meandering highway over which she commuted to a University job — and rethinks them as colors and patterns that can be translated into the medium she loves, knitting. I was set on fire by this book. I was SO excited about the way it had me looking at colors, and patterns, and the contrast between colors and patterns — every morning for weeks. My morning dog walks took on a heightened sense of thrill as I tried to translate the shapes and colors of the mountain ranges, the sky, and my beloved creek bottom where we walk every morning with it’s willows and bullrushes and blue heron and cows. And while I’ve yet to knit anything from it, that it opened up my creative mind again, got me thinking and seeing and simply being excited about creating again — that was enough. (Although I do have plans for a very special pattern I want to develop using her methods.)
Felix has a terrific Knitsonic podcast, which seems to be on hiatus at the moment as she works on a project for the Dickens museum on Catherine Dickens, Charles’s long-suffering wife who he both divorced and erased late in life. And that podcast led me to a few others that also felt really inspirational — KnitBritish and A Playful Day in particular — podcasts that take on the big question of how do we build creative lives that will also support us? They’re women telling stories about making up their own lives, and interviewing others who have done the same — built creative businesses that not only support them, but feed their creative practices.
All this has been in my head this year as I’ve been planning my Great Leap into Freelancing. I have a stack of writing projects, and for the first time in decades, I’m sending things out. For ages every manuscript submission felt life-or-death to me, as if it was the Final Judgement on whether or not I was any good at this. Maybe its getting to that age where a woman famously doesn’t give a shit anymore what other people think, maybe it’s having a solid footing underneath me for the first time ever — a settled domestic life, a safe home — or maybe it’s just a very belated sense of confidence in my own talent, but sending things out no longer seems like such a big deal. The next challenge is going to be figuring out how to find paid work that isn’t so divorced from my creative life as that I’ve been doing these past fifteen years or so. It was a deliberate choice on my part — I wanted a job that didn’t creep into those creative parts of my brain because I thought it would compete. And perhaps I was right, or right for what I needed at the time. Now I’m in a different space, a space of really exciting creative brainstorming. The three things I love: making, wilderness, and writing are all right here — and my goal is to bring them into some sort of constellation that allows me to pay my bills while doing good work — work that brings creative energy into not only my world, but becomes an expression of that energy out into the universe. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this, but the challenge has me waking up mornings with a head full of plans, plans that it looks like I’ll have time now to start putting into place. It’s so exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.
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