How knitting made me a better writer.

yarn

I work really, really well with a routine.

And the thing about moving is that all of my routines have changed.

In our new house, where is my favourite reading spot? Where do my Mason jars live? Now that I have a bathtub (yay!) when is the best time for me relax and take a bath? Do I write at my desk first thing, or do I go to the cute bookstore/cafe across the street to write? Or wait! Now that I live near the woods, should I change all of my city habits, and go for a walk first, before anything else?

Spontaneous, fun-loving, go-with-the-flow people might not relate to my predicament. For me, having a plan is the fun and relaxation. Without a plan in place, how can I let go and enjoy life? Too much adventure is stressful!

This morning I spent an anxious forty-five minutes thinking (read: worrying) about what new habits would be best for my writing and workday, now that I have this new, simplified country life. Ha! I used a lot of valuable creative decision-making power before I even had my first cup of tea. I was thinking instead of writing.

I ended up going for a walk (always a good idea for me, especially when thinking) and on the way back home, ran into a friend. She'd also had a stressful morning, and made it worse by worrying about the stress.

We listened to each other, laughed at ourselves a little, and then made a promise to meet up later if we got "all of our work done." We would get a "prize" at the end of the day: a trip to the garden centre to buy herbs for our gardens.

Then I came home and read this piece by Susan Schrempf, about how knitting has given her more time for better writing. "I stopped knitting because I felt I should give that time to writing," she says. "Now I was thinking instead of writing."

Too oftenSarah Selecky I feel guilty if I think I'm not writing enough. If I'm lucky, I can catch myself when I'm in the throes of over-thinking instead of writing. These processed thoughts run around my mind in circles: how to best manage my time, whether caffeine has anything to do with it, what new exercise plan will help, or … I try to give myself rest and pleasure as a reward for doing work.

This is my mind trying to figure things out. It's on the wrong track, poor mind: the thing I really need is to stop figuring things out, of course! I need rest. But sometimes I go too far, and I can't catch myself. I need a reminder.   Susan Schrempf's essay was the reminder I needed today. Even if you're not a knitter, you should read it. There's something to learn here about mental rest.

What if it is precisely the fuel you need to write?

Susan Schrempf is one of our wise and generous TAs for The Story Intensive this fall: six lucky students will be working with her for a full semester. Mark your calendar -- registration opens July 14th! And yes, you can request Susan as your TA: I do my very best to place students with their first choices.

With garden herbs and permission to breathe,


Sarah Selecky



Meet Susan

Susan Schrempf Susan was born in Minnesota and lived in Iowa (2x’s), Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio (2x’s) before immigrating to Canada at the age of 17. She is a graduate of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s School of Photographic Arts (‘83), and lives in Owen Sound, Ontario with her husband and Elliot, the dog left behind by their two adult daughters. Susan manages car-ferry services on the Great Lakes and the Moose River. Her most current writing project is a collection of interconnected stories in first-person monologues, as presented by travelers on a three-day train trip between Toronto and Vancouver.

 

Handwriting or computer?

Handwriting. I treat my computer more like a typewriter than a word processor. After I transcribe my handwritten first draft into the computer and print the typed document, I mark it up, scratch things out, and add new paragraphs in the margins. My changes and additions are often more voluminous on the page than the original text. Then I re-type the entire story into the computer from scratch, and repeat as required until the story is complete.


Page count or time count?

Neither and both. My daily goal is to write no less than one decent sentence – it’s failure proof, and it usually leads to more sentences. It isn’t long before until I’ve written a couple of pages, have completely lost track of time, and am in danger of being late for work, or will have stayed up too late to bother going to bed.


First drafts or revision?

First drafts. Facing a blank page doesn’t scare me, not since I gave up believing I needed to start with THE beginning. Everything is a beginning, but not necessarily THE beginning. Now I love leaping off into a vacant space where anything is possible, and where being messy and rightly out of control are good things.

I’m not saying I don’t like revision – I resist revision, though I like it a lot once I get started. My resistance is attached to my fear of the invisible trip wire strung between revising and wringing the life out of a piece.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

Solo. While I don’t have a writing partner or group, I do have a few pretty brilliant people I can go to as first readers whose opinions I greatly respect, and whose time I will absolutely not waste.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Solitude, which means I can deal with noise, but not interruption. Strangers rarely interrupt me, so writing in airports, cafes, or hotel lobbies has never been an issue. I suppose I can write anywhere, but I prefer places where I know there is little risk of being engaged in conversation.


Knitting My Way into Vacancy

In December 2014, I put down my pen and picked up my knitting needles.

I’d been a prolific knitter for most of my life until about four years ago. That was when I decided to stop thinking about improving my writing and started actually doing it. I enrolled in online creative writing courses, and committed most of my time outside of work to writing. I showed up. I did the work. When I wasn’t writing, I was feeling guilty about not writing. I stopped knitting because I felt I should give that time to writing, and I wanted to write more than I wanted to knit.

Writing is hard. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but still I knew something was getting in my way. I felt a familiar frustration with writing, one that I’d also experienced as a high-school basketball player. Brilliant in warm-ups and practice scrimmages, I could make every shot. But during actual games when it really mattered, I choked. I was overthinking how to make the shot instead of just shooting. My body knew what it needed to do, but my brain kept getting in its way.

Now I was thinking instead of writing. I couldn’t make my brain stop performing the task-processing and problem-solving it’s occupied with all day, every day, to just be silent. My husband recommended I try meditation. Not my cup of tea. I needed to be in motion, more specifically – my hands needed to be in motion.

By December, my stretch of bad writing days had persisted for so long that I needed an intervention to make it end. I’d known what it feels like when the writing is flowing and production is good. I didn’t want to give that up. I didn’t want to lose my ability to figure out what makes all of us do the weird things that we do, by writing about people I’ve never met, and putting them in circumstances I can only imagine. I bought new pens. It didn’t work. I decided to take a small break, easily rationalized by being ‘busy’ preparing for Christmas.

That’s when I picked up my knitting needles. After knitting for about twenty minutes, I realized that I had successfully knit myself into the very state of mind I need to write from, and now refer to as ‘mindful vacancy.’

Knitting as a Mindfulness Practice

I was pleased to learn that there is accepted sociological and scientific evidence in support of the theory that I can in fact, knit myself into mindful vacancy. Betsan Corkhill, a physiotherapist with the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, summarizes the mental health benefits offered by knitting in her recently self-published book Knit for Health & Wellness, a consolidation of recent research and her own experience within her physiotherapy practice. Ms. Corkhill asserts that knitting’s repetitive motion “promotes the release of calming serotonin,” and that “two-handed movement across the midline of our bodies is recognised as using a lot of brain capacity, leaving less room for other issues.” As well, the Washington Post, April 21, 2014, quotes Carrie Barron, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of the book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands as saying, “The rhythmic movements of knitting offer many of the same kinds of benefits as meditation.”

Ever since that day in December when I put down my pen and picked up my needles, I’ve included my knitting ‘meditation’ as part of my writing practice. Every writing session begins with about thirty minutes of ‘mindful’ knitting – an unpretentious stocking knit stitch worked in the round, not complicated by cables or intarsia techniques. I’ve completed fifteen pairs of thrummed wool mittens in the last ninety days. I’ve also managed to generate a larger volume of higher quality writing than at any time prior to adding knitting to my writing routine.

If I follow the ten-year rule, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop competency at any new skill, my writing practice is in year five. And based on my current production rate of one pair of mittens per week, or up to fifty-two pairs per year, I could potentially complete 260 pairs of mittens by year ten. Will I be a published writer by then? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I hope my writing will have improved, and that I’m still showing up and doing the work. If not, my youngest daughter has assured me that there is a global market for warm mittens, and she’s setting up an Etsy store to sell everything I’ve knit during my pursuit of ‘mindful vacancy’ – and better writing.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today.

A tragicomedy about a marriage, “We Gave Her Everything” is a longer short story at 9000+ words and is about a couple’s want for a child, and how getting what they want begins their collective unravelling. The story begins at its end when the child is twenty-four, and weaves together two story lines: the action in the present, and the build-up of the family’s unravelling from past to present. When the two threads collide, the story ends at its beginning. This excerpt is from early in the couple’s pursuit of a child.

Excerpt from "We Gave Her Everything," by Susan Schrempf

After her second, third and fourth miscarriages, the Wife wonders if maybe she wants a baby too much, if her success at failure is a sign that she’s not ready, or worse, that she and her Husband will be incompetent parents and this is God’s way of protecting the innocent. Her Husband chides her for overthinking the process, for trying too hard with her thermometers and charts, for scheduling all the fun and spontaneity out of their sex life. He did his part, he said, impregnating her multiple times, and ‘on demand’ no less! It wasn’t his fault she couldn’t keep their bun in the oven. In his opinion, the problem was obvious: there must be something dark inside of her, incapable of harbouring life.

The Wife agrees to be tested first. A comprehensive and thoroughly invasive three-day investigation confirms her status as a fully functional baby-making machine, well suited to the physical requirements of pregnancy and childbirth, complete with a resplendent stockpile of healthy eggs stored in textbook perfect ovaries.

“Very pleasing, yes, yes, this is all very good,” exudes their excitable fertility specialist. All that’s required of her Husband is to produce and collect a shot glass volume of semen in a small, screw top plastic cup.

“Easier said than done,” he says, on his first trip to the privacy room.

“It’s a motility issue,” confirms the specialist, during their follow-up appointment the next week.

“A what?” asks the Husband.

“He means your sperm have no sense of direction,” says the Wife. She had read all the fertility literature in the clinic waiting room while the Husband flipped through institutional editions of last year’s Reader’s Digests, the kind with text large enough to be read from across the room.

“And a significantly high percentage are malformed,” adds the specialist. “If I may be frank? Your total viable sperm count is well below normal.”

“It’s what?” asks the Husband.

“No quality control,” says the Wife.

“This isn’t all bad news,” says the specialist. “Think of it in terms of the glass being half full.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I filled that cup to the rim,” insists the Husband.

“Not what he’s talking about,” says the Wife. “Let him finish.”

“Realistically, you’ve got a ninety-nine percent chance that the two of you will never conceive a child together, which means it’s not entirely impossible, but the odds are not in your favour,” says the specialist.

“Sounds to me like that glass is nowhere near half full,” says the Husband.

“We could do a few more investigations, check on structural issues and the like,” says the specialist. “It would be uncomfortable, and unlikely to produce a better outcome.”

“That’s it then?” asks the Wife.

“I’ve seen patients in similar circumstances who have persisted via natural means, and who went on to have successful pregnancies,” says the specialist. “But in your case, I recommend you consider donor sperm, or possibly even adoption.”

“And raise another man’s child?” asks the Husband. “That’s definitely not going to happen.”

“Go home and think about it,” says the specialist. “No one has to make any decisions today. In the meantime, think of all the fun you can have.”

“Fun?” asks the Mother. As if a limitless supply of unprotected Catholic sex will make up for the lack of a baby.


Note:These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Susan's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Susan's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Susan!    


What does "show, don't tell"; really mean? Part 2 of 2.
The Story Intensive 2015: Update!

11 comments

Your clipped, deadpan tone, was a wonderful choice to use as the backdrop of such a painful subject. I did find myself laughing out loud at least twice while reading your piece. Everyone likes to laugh. Your grasp and handling of words brings to mind the image of well worked and loved clay; your word choices feel like they have been kneaded/needed and touched, again and again, which brings a flow, an ease, a beauty to your prose that is a clear testament to the tremendous work you have given to your craft. Thank you for sharing!
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Susan Schrempf's essay came at the right time. I didn't write a single sentence all last week - my excuse, preparing for a mammoth family get-together. Now that's over I have no more excuses but I am resisting the very thing I am supposed to do - revisit, revise and rewrite my first novel. It's on my mind constantly and needs to be done so it can be ready by Fall, my personal deadline. Reading Susan's essay helped me get over my feelings of guilt that creep into my mind when I do things I enjoy and my mind tells me I should be writing. Writing has been a passion, a desire, a motivation and inspiration to be a better person; its like food and air for me, for without writing I would wither. So why this resistance? I guess because it's a lonely business, sometimes, with no one to cheer one on during those hours spent with characters, situations, incidents etc. Like Susan, I like to write alone, by hand (the first draft) and in solitude. Something that helps me when I stall is creating poetry - about anything in front of me at the moment or in my mind. I feel better, immediately. I can relate to Sarah's comment ".....thinking instead of writing.". How true! Thanks so much, Sarah.
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Lindsay Edmunds

This story got to me right away. What lingers is the tart humor; these people are strong, funny, and unhappy. The seeds of the unraveling are sown. This is one I want to read more of.
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The namelessness ("husband", "wife", and the shift to "mother") really struck me. In my writing, I am at the over-thinking phase. I am that kid that ran right into the hurdles in track and field, so fixed was my gaze on the hurdles instead of the open air above them. I really appreciated the distinction between " the beginning" and "a beginning". Thanks!
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Susan Schrempf

Hi Susan (fantastic name, btw!), Thank you! I am so happy you found the clipped tone held the right contrast against the subject matter. It's been a challenge to find an appropriate balance between the tragic and the comedic as they get tangled up together in the story. I love that you laughed out loud! And thank you for the well worked and loved clay metaphor - I am working on knowing when to recognize when it has been loved "just enough."
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Susan Schrempf

Hi Purabi, Resistance to writing (or revising) is a curious paradox, isn't it? We have a burning desire to write, and we choose instead to wash toilets (I'm guilty!), or alphabetize the spice drawer, or do anything that keeps us from putting pen to paper. What the heck is that about? I know my resistance has always been rooted in fear - fear that the story I write on paper will not live up to the multi-dimensional story in my imagination. Fact: the written story never will live up to the full breadth of the imagination, and that should be perfectly okay because no one but the writer knows what was in his or her imagination anyway. But if instant gratification and immediate perfection is what the writer wants, they may as well skip directly to washing toilets. And so the mind's death spiral of overthinking begins... Thinking is easy. Writing is hard! I've never broken a sweat thinking, but I am pretty certain I sweat blood when I write. Sounds like you might too? Best wishes for your revision work! Sweat buckets!!!
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Susan Schrempf

Hi Lindsay, Thank you! I hope you will get to read more... and I'm working really hard to make it worthy!
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Susan Schrempf

Hi Valerie, I have to credit the incomparable Zsuzsi Gartner with prodding me to consider using titles instead of names for the characters, and also to change the POV from its first incarnation in 2nd person to the current version in 3rd. Of course she was right! If I hadn't made those changes, the shift from "Wife" to "Mother" could not have happened, and the story would not opened up as it did during that revision process. Thank you for letting me know how it affected your experience of the excerpt. Beginnings are moving targets at best, so feel free to start anywhere rather than wait for the perfect beginning to materialize. The true beginning of the story will usually reveal itself after about the second or third draft, and will wake you from a sound sleep sometime after midnight, or while you are in the shower and don't have access to a pen and paper. Totally true! All the best with your writing and conquering the curse of over-thinking!
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Hello Susan, I was so glad to read Sarah and you this morning. I just got out of bed with ideas about how to describe the feelings of complete joy whenever I hear my grand-daughter's giggles when I tickle her little boucing belly (she's three and giggles even when I only look at her). I thought, maybe I could elaborate with a scene of a grand-mother in hospice thinking about what made her happy in life and expressing it to her family while she still can. Ooops, I didn't keep on the subject. Again though, what I really want to say is thank you for sharing on the subject of over-thinking. God, that does come up alot, I should know how to handle it, I tell myself. I smile as I realise that there are a lot of us getting over ourselves at some point and just doing the deed. Thank you again. From now on, I can make cards (I'm a cardmaking fanatic) without thinking, I should be writing now or vice-versa. Oh, and about your excerpt, I loved that I recognized that this couple could be someone I know. Love that you used humour, I know it always softens life's trials and tribulations. Also, that we get quickly the Husband and Wife/Mother point of view on the suject clearly. Looking forward to reading "la suite". Thank you for reading me too. My best, Peggy
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Susan Schrempf

Hi Peggy, Thank you for reading me too! I love the idea of writing the joy of a three-year-old's giggle. I hope you write it. :)
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Enjoyed the excerpt and comments about discovering the story in the 2nd or 3rd draft. I liked the tone and the change from when it's all the wife's fault to the husband's complete incomprehension it could be his sperm. I want to know what happens to those two people? Does husband stop downing wife, does she start making nasty remarks about his sperm? split? stay together. Great! Now if only I could come up with something I can do with two hands besides type.
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