On making things

04 November 2016

I recently started learning how to knit. For the second time—my first attempt was several years ago, but after I discovered learning something new required focus and energy (who knew), I abandoned the enterprise. This time, I’m better prepared. I am armed with materials, needles and yarn in hand like sword and shield, and I have, filling in for a battle-worn mentor, many videos on the internet. Approaching this educational process as a battle has proved to be an apt move, because sometimes it feels a bit like one. My fingers feel clumsy, unable to connect with what my mind wants to do, or occasionally my hands take off, convinced they’ve got the rhythm, only for me to discover a few moments later they raced down the wrong path. I take the process in steps, practicing the first over and over until I move on to the next. I haven’t got very far, so far. But, nevertheless, I enjoy it. I think.

I’ve always enjoyed making things, mostly with an artistic bent, but not always. Drawings and collages and paintings. Stories and essays and books. Programs and websites and applications. Opportunities and organizations and environments. Blogs and newsletters. It’s the common thread running through most of my hobbies, activities and jobs. Creation. Putting something, small or not so small, into the world that wasn’t there before. I suspect it has often mattered more than the thing itself, but I’m only now becoming aware of it.

It’s easier to make something when you’re determined on the goal. It’s easier to shove your way through the discomfort and the difficulty by not thinking too much about the process but thinking about what you’ll get out of it in the end. Sometimes, for some things, maybe that’s the best way to do it. Especially when you’re learning something new. It keeps you moving forward, towards the dangling carrot. It helps soften the initial gap, so eloquently described by Ira Glass, between what you can envision and what you can do, a mental barrier that has stymied me in the past more often than I would have liked. Even after I recently managed to push my personal mindset needle from “fixed” to “growth,” the learning process is, by nature, a challenging one, especially when you’re pursuing it alone. Sometimes, I just want the damn scarf already, even though I’m still practicing knitting a line or two without screwing them up. Sometimes, I have to keep thinking of the scarf, to get past the fact I don’t yet know what I’m doing and it takes a long time to learn.

More and more, however, I’m becoming aware of the process and of the role it plays in what do, not just what I make. Even practicing a line of knitting that I later unravel focuses for me actions and sensations I typically don’t pay attention to. I rarely think about the movement of my fingers typing on a keyboard or how each key feels to the touch, but I notice the softness of the yarn, the smoothness of the needles, how I manipulate them both to bring something new into existence. Grounding yourself is entirely a matter of the mind, but physical ritual primes the pump. It’s the same reason I make it a point to write by hand on a regular basis. It creates focus. It places you in a moment. It adds a new aspect to creation, a mindfulness.

There are the things you make because you want that thing in the world, and there are the things you make because you need the act of making them. If you ever manage to converge the two, then you are a talented artist indeed.

I might reach that nirvana at some point in the future. In the meantime, I make and unmake and remake, and remember that the attempt itself is something new I’ve created all by myself.


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