Still Life ~ craft + creativity

Still Life is our regular feature that invites writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that’s been inspirational to them. Still Life offers opinions, experiences, or lessons on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. 

In this installment of Still Life, teaching artist Susan O'Dell Underwood stares down the green-eyed monster. "We wish we’d written that sentence or that line of poetry . . . We covet diction, nuance, audacity, originality. We see lightning strike other writers page after page while we are in a drought," she writes.

In "Left-handed Ambition," Susan dexterously explores our abilities, ambitions, and choices as creative artists. 

Left-handed Ambition

by Susan O'Dell Underwood

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.

The lesson with Shannon ended up more like a therapy session than a knitting lesson. There’s nothing wrong with me besides the fact that I am myself. There’s nothing wrong with any of us. There is nothing keeping us from the page we want to write or wish we could write besides our very selves.

But what could be done to be any different than the way my brain works naturally? What can any of us do to reshape our abilities and skills? How can we really reroute our choices of subject matter, our imaginations? Can we? Can we take on the talents of others? Their goals? Their life work? Can we work against our own grain and be like the other writers we adore?

The lesson with Shannon ended up more like a therapy session than a knitting lesson. There’s nothing wrong with me besides the fact that I am myself. There’s nothing wrong with any of us. There is nothing keeping us from the page we want to write or wish we could write besides our very selves. I am extremely oriented to the left side of my body. I am left-footed, being unable to stand with my right foot forward on a skateboard or even envision standing on a snowboard. Until a student told me, I didn’t even know they make left-footed snowboards. Are there left-eyed cameras? Should there be? It was only in the past few years that I suddenly realized one day that I hold a traditional camera fully in front of my face. I was a photography major way back in college, yet in three decades I never ever noticed how dominantly left-eyed I am.

Many skills have been a challenge for me. Maybe being left-handed and fighting all those tiny battles situated me perfectly to be a writer, always revising and editing and reshaping, because I had to develop and incredible amount of patience early on. Maybe I am only a writer because of hurdles. And the hurdles are very specific to me. And so I should understand them and appreciate them and even be glad for my own hurdles. They are unique to me. 

I am not handicapped because I’m left-handed, yet I have had to work very hard to learn within the constraints of my native abilities. I have to work within and be keenly aware of my own body, mind, talents, abilities, and I also have to be aware of my limitations, that I end where I end, that I am whole, that the writing I create will only be whole if I welcome wholly the creative choices I make, and understand the whole shebang, the whole kettle of fish is mine. That jealousy is illogical, cruel to myself, and pretty ridiculous. I’m wasting time drooling over somebody else’s sirloin tips when right in front of me is a smorgasbord!

I chose to be a writer, deliberately. And I may envy the visual artist, the dancer, the actor. But writing is the creative field I chose out of all others. I spent my whole childhood determined to be a pianist. In college I switched to the visual arts. In graduate school, I got an MFA in creative writing. I have determined my own creative ambitions and wishes. All of the hours I’ve spent learning diligence and making creative choices in anything? I bring that to the page with me. I have brought the failure of my first knitting lesson home, and I’m writing about it to make meaning of the day. I fit on the page. I cannot try to wear someone else’s habit or skill, not in the way they would achieve it, anyway.

I’m also reminded that I need to try new things and be willing to fail. That it can be joyous to fail. Writers need to be willing to have accidents, to go days and weeks without “results.” And within that vein, there’s a lesson for any teacher. I teach creative writing, just as many writers do. It’s critical for me—for us all—to think about how anxiety-provoking, how nerve-wracking it is to attempt any new skill. But writing? How emotional, how intimate. The new writer is even more vulnerable than those of us publishing, and just think how tender-hearted we can be! Writers are so sensitive. Trying a new skill gave me fresh reminders.

And back to jealousy, or envy, or coveting, whatever you call it: We don’t really consider WHY it’s seen as a sin. It’s a sin because it’s a waste of time and energy. I need to read other writers and be a good literary citizen and learn from the bounty out there—with humility and admiration—and then move back to my own page. Writing isn’t the venue of the immature, like some thirteen-year-old girl who wants hair like somebody else. Writing is for the lion-hearted and the bold. And writers can’t be audacious if they’re simpering around wasting time wishfully thinking they had a better vocabulary or imagination or experiences. Wish in one hand. . . We all have plenty to write about forever by the time we’re thirty, probably. We have to mind our own garden path with its flowers and scents, not be constantly peering over the neighbor’s fence. Jealousy is ultimately illogical. You cannot have the writing career someone else has. You have to have your own.

For me a great step to take when I face the page is to feel grateful. I’m so lucky. I’m so fortunate that I have lived a creative life. Shannon and I have taught together for twenty years plus. But until I stood in her living room in awe of her new loom and the gorgeous weaving she’s doing, I’d never understood the depth of her creative life. 

I said, “I just don’t know how everyone doesn’t have something creative to do.” I often say this to myself. 

She answered, “I know!” And we looked each other in the face in what I feel was a new way, as compatriots in the arts.

Instead of ever wasting a second wishing I could have written something “like” someone else, I need to spend my time being amazed that I can write at all. Where does it all come from, the energy and inspiration in these creative lives we live? My mother asked me once how long it took me to write a certain poem. I answered with absolutely zero snark, in awe to realize it: “Forty-eight years.” My whole life. It takes my whole life to write everything I ever write. If we are fully engaged, it takes every writer’s whole life to come to the page ready. If we waste one moment feeling jealous of other writers—or on the other hand unworthy of doing the same task—we are robbing our own energies. 

And so when we’re writing, we’re actually not in those rooms alone. Shannon is not alone when she is knitting and weaving and spinning. She is tapping into hundreds and even thousands of years of knowledge in the fiber arts. She is raising animals bred for the quality of their fibers over centuries. When we writers write, we are tapping into the same energy that drove every writer before us—Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf and writers and thinkers and artists and sculptors whose names we will never even know. But we are also tapping into the same energy that drives the writers in the community around us currently, concurrently. If we believe for even a second that one of these writers somehow doesn’t doubt, doesn’t struggle, doesn’t wish for more? Then we’re just idiots. 

We will all come to the page and the screen with more ease only when we know that we belong right there, in that chair with that pen and notebook we chose, or in that desk chair looking at that screen. Each individual voice is worthy of speaking and saying exactly only what that individual has lived to say. Each of us has important raw material, and much editing to tend to, and a vital role to play in the community of writers. Jealousy has zero place among us. 

But I think I’d still like to try knitting just once more.

Susan O'Dell Underwood has taught creative writing, Appalachian lit, poetry, and ethnic literature courses at Carson-Newman University for thirty-one years. Her full-length poetry collection, The Book of Awe was published by Iris Press in 2018. Her novel Genesis Road will be published by Madville Publishing in June 2022. She's fortunate to have work published and forthcoming in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Alaska Quarterly Review, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Ecotone, and Oxford American. 


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