Writer in Residence · 10/25/2013

The Other Things We Do: Knitting

I learned how to knit when I was eight. Most beginners start with a scarf and knit their rows back and forth. My mother started me on double pointed needles, which means I learned to knit in the round first. I knit a poncho for my Barbie.

In memory it took me two years to finish that poncho—small needles, thin yarn—but likely it took a bit less than that because I was still young enough to play with Barbie when it was done. Maybe my mother finished it for me; I have no idea how I managed the thick turtleneck. I do remember it on the doll. It fit perfectly.

When I cleaned out my parents’ apartment after my father died, I found that poncho. The cheap acrylic yarn had held up over thirty years. A tiny strand of red yarn hung from the bottom point of the poncho, an end I forgot to sew in.

My first finished project. Incomplete and imperfect.

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You start a new project, get bored or stymied, put it down, move on to another project. If you’re a product knitter, someone who gets a lot of pleasure from finishing, then you’re unlikely to be prone to startitis. If you’re a process knitter, and get most of your pleasure from knitting itself, you’re likely to have a lot of Unfinished Objects sitting around the house.

My house is littered with knitted garments at various stages of production. On the chair in the living room, there’s a poncho in cotton; on the bookcase, a ribbed sweater in a bamboo silk blend; on another chair, a cardigan in fine merino wool on small needles that I tried to work on while I had a cold. Stalled but not forgotten.

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The other day, I found notes towards a novel I remember starting but do not remember entering into the computer. If I open the second drawer of my desk, there is the first draft of a novel written six years ago. Somewhere in this house, there’s a draft of a novella. On my desktop, there’s folder labeled WIPs 2013.

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When does a WIP become a UFO? A few years ago, I asked a male colleague who had just finished his second novel whether he got distracted by other projects. He smiled as if he didn’t understand what I was talking about, and said, “No.”

I resolved then and there to work on nothing else except my novel, and for two years, that’s all I did. Was it fun? Probably, but mostly I felt anxiety. Everything depended on the success of this one thing, and unfortunately, success became defined as “published.” I finished the book. I sent it out. It got rejected. I revised it, sent it out again, and then, sensing something was wrong with it, withdrew it from submission.

I’d focused exclusively, obsessively on one project. No new stories, no quick revisions on short pieces, no following new ideas. I felt drained and uninspired. I stopped writing.

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My sister owns a yarn store. During the time I was working on my novel, she decided to cast on one new project a day. This went on for several months, and she accumulated WIPs that lay on the table at the store or in bags all over her house. It looked chaotic, like madness really. I watched her pick up something she’d put aside, work on a few rows while chatting with a customer. Or she’d reach for a bag on her couch. This seemingly haphazard approach went on for a while. Then several finished objects appeared in close succession. Working on multiple projects kept her interested and excited. And because she was working on so many, she was free to abandon the ones that didn’t work for her.

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It hurts to give up on a project. But not everything is meant to be finished. Sometimes you learn the lesson you were meant to learn in an early draft. Some yarn refuses to turn into something you like. Start, stop, start again. And then finally, it’s time to move on.

How does a WIP become a UFO? I used to beat myself up for having so many unfinished essays, stories that need another draft, big and small projects at various stages of revision. Watching my sister and the pleasure she got from starting new projects and finishing her favorites enabled me to start writing again.

I focus on one big project, but I let others proliferate in my WIPs folder. Since giving in to my startitis, the multiple projects don’t worry me so much. I abandon more, and I finish more.
And, most important, I have more fun.

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Geeta Kothari is the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance?: And Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and anthologies. She is the nonfiction editor at The Kenyon Review and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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posted by Sherrie Flick