This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument. To put the “I” to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars*
Purchased new at Chapters on Robson
Read in December 2013
*So, the first thing I want to say is that while I gave the anthology as a whole 3 stars (like!), I loved some of the essays in this collection. Other pieces I was less excited about. That’s the trouble with anthologies, right? But overall, this was an enjoyable book and a nice way to close out the year. Recommended to writers who like to make things.
I heard about Knitting Yarns when I ran across Ann Hood’s essay “Ten Things I Learned From Knitting” on my Tumblr dashboard. This essay, about knitting through grief, resonated so much with me, I was prompted to write my own. It also spurred me to try again to figure out how to knit (success).
Prior to purchasing the book, I also came across Bernadette Murphy’s essay “Failing Better,” about learning resilience through making mistakes. That was the clincher, really. If the rest of the book was as good as these two essays, I wanted to read it.
The book was shelved in the knitting section at Chapters, despite being clearly labeled ‘memoir’ on the jacket. Well, it turns out it does include patterns, so I guess the shelving wasn’t completely off the mark. There are five or six essays, then a pattern, and so on. Each essay is introduced with a brief abstract.
The essays are arranged in alphabetical order (by author’s last name). I think I’d have arranged it by theme, as there are clear themes that recur throughout, and juxtaposing the essays thematically would strengthen them individually and collectively.
One popular theme is the knitting version of “I can’t boil water,” which as you know I’m not that into as I’ve never really understood the attraction of the “I’m a smart person who can’t do a simple thing” trope. Anyway, apparently a lot of writers like to knit even though they are terrible at it.
Another popular theme is that of family, and the passing down of knitting as a skill (or not). I related to the tales of families of crafters and makers, as that’s the kind of family I came from. More than one writer mentioned they grew up with a rule that you could only watch TV if you were making something at the same time, which I found interesting. We never had a rule about it; it wasn’t necessary. You always did something else while watching TV! Maybe this is why I don’t have the TV-angst that so many people seem to have. For me, watching TV has always been synonymous with making things.
And there’s the aforementioned theme of grief. Many of the essays were in whole or part about knitting getting them through a a difficult time in their lives, a death or other loss. Again and again, writers spoke of the zone, the flow, the trance that knitting puts them into, a space that calms anxiety and a chattering mind.
In addition to Ann Hood’s essay, I especially loved: Andre Dubus III’s “Blood, Root, Knit, Purl” (this reads like a story), Kaylie Jones’s “Judite” (ditto), and Joyce Maynard’s “Straw Into Gold” (her mother sounds like she was amazing).
A few quotes:
But you couldn’t crochet or knit and read at the same time, and reading was all I wanted to do. (Marianne Leone, 161)
Yep, that pretty much sums up why my younger self didn’t take to knitting and the like. Reading! *Homer Simpson drool*
In nineteenth century literature it seems sometimes to be true that good women knit and bad women crochet or do fancy work. (Alison Lurie, 179)
I’ll have to keep that in mind 😉
No one pushes back from her desk to knit a few rows and contemplate the sentence on the page… (Ann Patchett, 207)
Oh, no…? >cough< Pretty sure I’ve done something along those lines. >cough<
Because memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation. It makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being – to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between. True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. True memoir is a writer acknowledging that he or she is not the only one in the room.
Blue Nights, despite some lovely writing, is finally a closed loop, a personal missive from a grief-stricken mother to her dead daughter that fails to make enough space for the reader to work as literature.
I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.
A few years ago I used that passage in my memoir-writing class to suggest how to write about a place. Mere facts, I said, aren’t sufficient (“our house was on Spruce Street,” “the neighbors had a dog named Spot”). The task is to find the point of the place—its identifying idea. It may be waiting for you to find it. Or you may have to impose on the place some larger idea of your own.
[W]hat makes a good memoir [is] not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.