If I need a thesis statement during these confessional, social-media times, it’s that I am jealous of other writers. The only way I forgive myself for any jealousy in my life is to call it ambition. That way I can at least utilize my envy. It is ambitious to be a writer at all, and for some of us—especially women—even that terminology was something we shied away from. Ambition may have been taboo for women writers, but envy and jealousy are outright sins, or so we’re taught. I do find a little remedy for my guilt when I remember a tidbit about Fred Chappell. Even that master storyteller told a student during an MFA workshop that he wished he’d written her story.
I’m guessing a lot of writers will nod their heads to see my shameful envy laid out here in black and white. Many of us have felt the tug when we read amazing works, especially by living writers. We’ve opened a literary journal or a novel or a new book of poetry by someone tenderly young and thought, “Dang. Now that’s amazing. If I can’t write like that by now, maybe I should hang it up.”
Years ago I woke up one Sunday spring morning with the luxurious plan to finish the last few chapters of Cold Mountain. It seemed like a start to a spectacular day. Wrong. I could barely get out of bed after I read those last pages. I was crushed by the sorrowful ending, but also by the thought, “Girl, you will never ever write anything that good.” Then on mid-day Tuesday I finally got some relief from my envy when suddenly that same voice in my head said, “Oh! It’s okay. The greatest writers ever have felt that way! You’re in good company.”
Maybe we need to get our crimes said and done in group therapy: We sometimes crave the prestige and the publication record and the prizes of other writers. But mostly, I believe, we want their way with language, their techniques and abilities with craft. We marvel at their talent to make tremendous meaning with the same little black marks we have access to. We wish we’d written that sentence or that line of poetry, which slams the heart against the rib cage. We wish we had their ability to craft a narrative so taut there’s a risk that we might not be carried safely across their high-wire act. We even covet sometimes a singular word other writers use. We covet diction, nuance, audacity, originality. We see lightning strike other writers page after page while we are in a drought.
And if we’re creative spirits, the jealousy may not end on the page. For instance, I envy my friend Shannon’s textile skills. She doesn’t just crochet and knit. No. She has a huge loom in her house for weaving. She spins her own fibers on several spinning wheels. Like she’s somebody out of a fairytale? It irks me. And not only that, she owns alpacas and goats and sheep, which she shears to spin her own yarn. She owns Angora rabbits, which she combs for their fluffy fibers. She raises silkworms for spinning her own silk thread. She wears sweaters, collars, caps, scarves, capelets, and even socks she has made herself.
So finally, just this afternoon, a sunny June day, I grabbed up a couple of sub sandwiches and drove to her country house where—after knowing her for twenty-some years—she was finally going to show me how to knit.
“There are really only two stitches,” she had told me. “Knit and pearl.” How hard could it be?
We nibbled first, talked about her goats and cats and dogs and daughter, and then she showed me needles and yarn. I chose the softest cotton, the color of washed denim. Touching that new skein felt like opening a brand new spiral notebook way back in school. I wanted to fill every line with beauty. The stark blankness wounded me with my own potential to make something breathtaking, but also my potential for failure.
We forget as we age the exhilaration of learning. In the past year, I have surely learned many new skills the pandemic forced on me: online teaching, grading electronically, Zooming with students, taking care to avoid all microbial life. Until the knitting lesson, I couldn’t recall learning anything new on my own accord in years. I was craving something tactile. I wanted to attempt something new which made me vulnerable.
About ten minutes in, after laughing at myself, being patient, being grateful for Shannon’s indulgence, fumbling, recalibrating, adjusting, learning terminology, I found myself repeating to Shannon for the fourteenth time that I really am inept with things requiring fine motor skills. . . And then I remembered to remind her that I’m left-handed.
Aha. And duh. She changed gears in an instant. In solidarity, and to make it easier for me, she switched and began left-hand-centered knitting. Her fingers had flown along moments earlier, with her right hand dominant, showing me the deftness she has after thirty years as a fiber artist. Now with her left-hand holding the dominant needle, her hands worked like a stuttering tongue, shy and almost palsied. Her fingers stumbled. She had to re-do a stitch or two. She had to think about every tiny motion and began to say each step aloud to herself as she went along. She made her hands work only with incredible concentration and effort.
I could follow perhaps a smidge better, but the moment seemed to have passed. I didn’t want to ruin our whole afternoon. But this knitting lesson—my first and maybe my last—was not a failure to me. Halfway through it, after all, I decided to write about the experience. That’s what writers do. A crisis—way more than a moment of bliss—will pull us to the page. If for no other reason than to find some way to commiserate with ourselves!
But I also felt vindicated by some catharsis of memory during that lesson. Just seeing a master knitter fumble left-handedly was a deeply felt acknowledgment of so many creative failures, particularly when I was a kid. More than fifty years ago, I used to beg to learn to crochet, knit, sew, as I watched various women in my life doing handiwork as they talked or waited for supper to cook. My mother did not sew or craft, and so I adored seeing the quietness and variety of women quilting, making afghans and even dolls. It was lovely to understand in just a few minutes with Shannon, finally, why those women in my family—aunts and great aunts and my grandmothers—one and all, sincerely could not teach me basic skills. We tried. We did try. I did succeed at embroidery. My mother’s mother taught me when I stayed with her two weeks straight one summer. It was quite a feat; I understand now.
I have felt thwarted all my life by my nature and what I sometimes perceived as ugly, awful limitations. Sitting there with Shannon I had flashbacks of crying a lot in my early childhood. Over trying to tie my shoes. Over trying to shape numerals on the page. The only “D” I ever earned in my student life was for my abysmal left-handed cursive in first grade. Of course I couldn’t have realized back then that left-handers push their pens and pencils. A couple of friends have given me lovely fountain pens, which I can never figure out how to use. A right-handed writer pulls the writing instrument, and so has an easy time with a fountain pen. In pushing, I crush the nib into smithereens every time I’ve tried to use them. Even with normal ball points my hand following the pen will smear the page. The side of my left hand was always gray after school, especially from pencil.
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