On Making Things

On Making Things

Originally published at Substack: 1/6/2021

Four balls of yarn, grey, blue, pink and purple and the beginning of a mitten cuff cast on circular needles.

I’ve been thinking a lot about making things. That I have not managed to publish a book in the 20 years since Place Last Seen came out, is an ongoing source of frustration and shame. I’ve published some essays, and I’ve written a lot of blog posts. There’s a mystery novel manuscript that needs some fiddling with on the front end, and that half a novel about academia, farms, the horse business and social class. I haven’t managed, despite all those efforts, to publish a second book, but I have made a lot of things. 

Right now, I’m noodling around with making a pair of Fair Isle mittens. I couldn’t find a pattern I liked, so I’m kind of winging it, using a book of Fair Isle charts I bought several years back. We’ll see — I have concerns. I’m not entirely sure that these very pretty yarns are mitten-weight. They’re very light. Perhaps I’ll wind up with a pair of Fair Isle fingerless mittens to use in the chilly greenhouse room where I write. Perhaps I’ll rip them and start over, with heavier yarns. I don’t know yet. I only just started them yesterday. 

This is what I love about making things. You learn to do a real thing with your hands and your mind and your imagination. You think of something in your head, and maybe you start with a recipe, or a sewing pattern, or a general template for how to make a mitten that you’ve learned from making several pairs of fingerless gloves for the now-grown kids for Christmas. (No Fair Isle patterns on those. The Twins are anti-pattern. They’re 16. They have strong opinions). You think of a thing, then you start making something, and you see what happens. 

During these long years when I have been wrestling with how to write this story, wrestling with trying to invent the kind of book I want to write, rather than slotting the events that happened to me into some template that imposes sense on it, during all these long years when writing has been a site of angst, and the place where I’m tasked with plumbing the depths of grief,  making things has been my solace.  I might not have been able to figure out the story I was trying to tell, but I could make a frangipane raspberry tart to take to a party, or make a dress that expressed the shape I want to present in the world, or build new garden beds and fill them with greens and nasturtiums. I could physically bring something into the world that wasn’t there before. 

I’ve been listening to and reading a lot about art lately, and art process. Process isn’t really a concept we use much in writing. Writing tends to be about the object, about publication. Driving down valley to walk the dog, Tyler Mitchell was on the TalkArt podcast interview, and he described his process as starting with planning a production day with a mood board and sourcing the looks he wants and the location and then “going out and running around and making a lot of cool stuff, and coming back and seeing what we can do with it.” 

I feel a little bit like that’s what I’ve done with this house. I’ve built myself a big studio where I can make a lot of cool stuff and then see what I can do with it. I have a sewing space in the basement, and this greenhouse room where I write and start seeds in the spring, and the front garden where I’m replacing the grass with flowers and fruit trees, and the back garden where I grow roses and vegetables, and the front office where my books are and that I mostly use for my day job. The living room has things I love on the walls, and music and the wood stove and all the yarn. Knitting and sewing are when I feel like I can watch junk TV, because I’m doing something. Then there’s the kitchen, with the crammed bookcases of cookbooks, and the pantry with shelves of pretty fruits I’ve put up, and lots and lots of herbs and spices and dry ingredients. Even before the pandemic, I could pretty much always rustle up something delicious just with the stuff in my house. I know people are tired of cooking, but I’ve cooked for myself, and Himself, as a matter of course for decades. I like my own food better than most restaurant food, and I find the process of figuring out what I want to make for dinner from what I have, and then pulling it together enormously satisfying. I blogged about cooking for what? Nearly 15 years? 

For a very long time I thought of all this making as the thing I was doing instead of writing. 

But for the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking of all the making as the thing itself. Buying this house, and moving here was always a project. I spent my adult life trying to find a way to live authentically, and while there are many things I’ve loved about my career in the tech world — from the people to the fact that it’s paid off the student loans and my mortgage — that world has always just been my job. It’s a good job, and one I like, but I never wanted my job to be my life, I wanted my job to pay for my life. 

My life, it turns out, was making things. And making things in the service both of trying to subvert the overbearing messages of consumer capitalism, and to learn the skills I might need to keep me and my loved ones afloat as the disaster we’ve all been pretending we can’t see bears down on us. 

Just as I’ve struggled to find a form to write about the double-whammy of losing both my brothers, a form that isn’t a predetermined narrative of redemption or survival, so too I’ve struggled to build not just a place where I can make things as self-expression, but a safe place where I can learn to make the things we’ll need to live. I can cook, and raise small livestock, and grow food, and sew clothing, and knit (sometimes lumpy) objects to keep us warm. I could probably get by here on very little cash money if I had to. And not only can these things sustain physical life, over these past 17 years since Patrick died, I’ve figured out how to be happy in my own skin, and in my own home, largely by making things. All of this has come in very handy as we’ve been in lockdown. While I miss people, I’m really pretty happy noodling around here. I’ve stayed home in part because I have a lot of creative things to do here. There are books — so many books. There are things I’m thinking about, and writing about, and when that gets to be too much, I can go outside and clear out the chicken coop or plant a rose. There’s fabric and yarn to make clothes from, and all summer there was garden produce and fruit from my trees to put up. There are chickens and cats and a dog to keep me company. There’s Himself to have dinner with either here or at his house. And there’s a valley with a couple of places left where I can walk the dog without seeing people, and where, as they did this morning, a breeding pair of bald eagles, and this year’s juvenile, soared overhead in big circles, riding the thermals coming off the bluff (and in the case of the juvenile, swooping every so often to taunt the dog). 

Is making things the way I do Art in the way that I’d hope this second book I’m wrestling with will be Art? I don’t know. I could probably spin up some convincing artistic statement about purpose and project and use the blog as evidence of documentation. I could probably sell it as an art experiment. But then it’d just be another thing for sale, when really, it’s my little life here. The life I chose and built for myself.

So as we head into 2021, as we head into this new era of climate crisis and social chaos, I’m going to see if I can make those mittens work, and take a run at writing this book using a structural scaffold I’ve been sketching out, and order some seeds for next years’ garden. Nothing that different, really, from what I’ve been doing here for nearly 20 years. 

Here’s hoping more of us can find ways to be creative with what we have. If I have a New Year’s wish, I think that’s it … that we learn to make our own happiness, collectively somehow even as we’re forced to be apart. 

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