Why Knitting a Sock is Like Writing a Novel

Knitting has become hip. I’ve noticed this by the preponderance of knitting books with titles like Stitch and Bitch Nation and Hip to Knit, and the number of young women I observe (and the occasional young man) ogling yarn as if it were candy, or plopped down in plush mocha-colored armchairs at Starbucks, plugged into their MP3 players and working assiduously on their first scarves. I’ve had my scarf phase, too—both of my sons and my husband reaped the benefits of my early knitting efforts in this way—and I still love the idea of making something that will snuggle around the neck of a loved one. As I approach my 50th birthday, it’s comforting to know that I have something in common with twenty-somethings: an obsessing but healthy hobby which isn’t digitally mastered and doesn’t require techno-speak.

My love affair with knitting has waxed and waned over the years, but—partly because of the many delectable yarn colors and textures which are available today, and partly because of my where I am in my life—I’m pretty sure I’ll be consistently listing “knitter” among my titles from now on. For me, knitting is the perfect metaphor—and the perfect accompaniment—for my life as a writer.

I taught myself to knit when I was about eight years old (around the same time I wrote my first story, come to think of it), using a “slingshot cast-on” which produced less than perfect beginnings but was easy to learn based on pictures and manageable for my small hands.

Years later, my dear friend and knitting master Alexandra taught me how to do a “long-tail cast-on,” which I love. Casting on, in fact, is one of my favorite parts of knitting, and I admit to sometimes ripping out work just for the thrill of starting over. I love watching the first row of stitches pile up on that naked needle. I revel in the feeling that I have some control—in that first step anyway—over the uniformity of the stitches. There is the beguiling possibility that perfection will be achieved. In short, the act of casting on is a wonderful way to re-visit all the joys of a new beginning. (This is where I confess to being one of those plodding, one-step-forward-two-steps-back writers who constantly revisit the first page of whatever I’m working on. I’m an inveterate tinkerer.)

After I finished Broken for You—and having extended my skills repertoire somewhat by making a couple of hats, some felted purses, and (in a fit of craft madness two years ago) several knitted valentines—I decided it was time to learn to produce something practical, something necessary. Thus, I took on socks. (Not everybody needs novels; almost everyone requires socks.)

The language of knitting is lovely. I find many kinds of technical language evocative; the vocabulary of knitting is no different. As well as loving the action of casting on, the phrase itself has exotic associations; casting on has a natural echo in my mind with the nautical phrase casting off—which is what beginning a new project feels like to me: an inaugural voyage, the launch of an armchair adventure. And if I’m not mistaken, it is sailors who invented knitting, so the association is perhaps warranted.

Socks are tricky. One works them on several needles which are only slightly bigger in circumference than toothpicks—and could serve in that capacity, I’m sure, if the need arose. Before socks, my knit-speak was somewhat limited; however, I learned many new terms while attempting to manufacture footwear:

Socks are worked “in the round,” meaning that the yarn is carried and held by several of those miniscule needles, moved from one needle to the next in a perpetual spiral which doesn’t end until the last stitch is bound off. Working in the round puts me in mind of all the circles of support which surround and uphold me as a writer: family, friends, my writers group, my agent and his assistant, my editor and all the folks at Grove/Atlantic, booksellers…And you, the reader.

Unless one is making a tube sock (I haven’t tried those yet) “turning the heel” is involved—a marvelous series of maneuvers which causes the knitting to change direction, giving the sock its L-shape. Turning the heel makes me think of the expression turn upon one’s heel, of reversals and surprises, of what one of my friends used to call “pirouettes”—sudden transitions in life which force us to view the world from a new perspective. Sock-knitters aren’t the only people who need to master turns; novelists do, too.

The sock is finished off with what’s called the “Kitchener” or grafting stitch. The word graft makes me think of the bodies of trees and humans, of the miracles of joining, augmenting, healing; of unlikely alliances and surprising designs. I’d have to say that these are themes which preoccupied me during the crafting of Broken for You, and they continue to shape the evolving world of my second novel, Hope’s Wheelchair.

There is one part of knitting which I truly dislike: weaving in the loose ends. This involves threading a needle. It doesn’t matter that the eye of this needle is large or that it’s yarn, not thread, that’s being plied; the whole thing just smacks too much of hand sewing, which I’ve hated passionately ever since 1972 when I got a ‘B’ on my apron in Home Ec because Mrs. Gade found fault with my hemming technique. (I don’t hate weaving in the loose ends of my writing nearly as much as I hate weaving in the loose ends of my knitting; still, when it comes to this point I’m extremely grateful for the cheerleading efforts of my brilliant editor.)

In the end, all the stitches are visible. They are mostly uniform—I’m a decent craftswoman—but subtle variations can be seen: in some places the yarn was held more loosely, while in others it was worked with more tension. A lot of life has gone into this sock—it’s accompanied me on trips to one son’s fencing sessions and the other son’s gymnastics class. It’s gone on coffee dates with my husband and been a silent witness to numerous marital negotiations. I’ve knitted while I’ve listened to “Morning Edition,” “This American Life,” “Piano Jazz,” and “All Things Considered” on NPR. I’ve knitted while I’ve watched back-to-back episodes of “Law & Order” and heard Ted Koppel recite the names of fallen soldiers in Iraq. I’ve knitted in the hospital, as my father held onto his life—bravely, patiently—until my mother and I could bring ourselves to let him go.

The sock-wearer won’t know any of this, of course—just as the reader cannot know what has transpired in the writer’s life during the process of making a book. But it’s all there, somehow. Anything that takes time to make becomes a record of time. There are angry stitches, calm ones, sad ones, clear-headed ones, and snipping any one of these stitches—even the imperfect ones—would mar the fabric, cause the work to unravel.

The same friend who taught me the long-tail cast-on also recently stated the obvious: knitting is really just making fabric. And even though the expression, the fabric of life may have a trite ring to it, the metaphor is rich, and worth exploring.

Who would have thought that something as ordinary as a sock—something so prone to disappearance, so vulnerable to wear—would be such a marvel of construction and require so much skill? It’s hard work, making a sock, but it’s accomplished one stitch at a time.

Writing a novel mirrors this process: a single stitch stands in for a word, a knitted row represents a sentence, an inch of fabric forms a paragraph, and so on. Even though I had the wishful idea that writing my second novel would be…well…not easy exactly, but a trifle more fluid, the truth is, the work still has much in common with the methodical, off-again-on-again process of knitting a sock. Novel-writing is a great example of that old homily, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Sometimes I write for long periods of time, but there are still errands to run, walks to take, children to chauffeur, meetings to attend, email to answer, meals to prepare, laundry to schlep. Some days, I only have time to knit one row, edit a single sentence. I’ve called those small-accomplishment writing days “semi-colon days,” but they could just as easily be called “one-stitch days.”

A favorite story on this subject involves a day this past summer. My children were home—no summer camps, no play dates—and I’d resigned myself to having a semi-colon day. My husband had recently perused an early draft of the first chapter of Hope’s Wheelchair and commented on a particular phrase, one which struck him as being inappropriate for the woman who uttered it. So, on that day, the sum total of my writing involved changing the phrase “hard-on” for the word “stiffie.” I consider that to have been a very good day. An important stitch in the fabric of the novel.

One knits a stitch at a time, with lots of life happening in between; one writes a novel the same way.

THE END