Six impossible things

Simple vs. easy

As some of you may know, I knit. (My current project is a heavily cabled cape [scroll down a bit for the pattern picture] and it’s my first time doing complex cables. I’m about halfway through and having a blast.)

Every so often, I take one of my knitting projects out to work on when I’m meeting people in a public place, and I always get comments. I get particularly nice comments about one project that’s a very simple stitch, done in a self-striping yarn (for non-knitters, that’s just what it sounds like – a yarn that changes color periodically, with long enough runs of each color that when you knit or crochet with it, you get stripes). It’s a little annoying, because people who don’t knit nearly always comment on how nice the stripes look and how hard it must be to do them, when all I had to do to get them was pick the right yarn.

What they almost never comment on is the stitch pattern itself. It’s nothing complex…which is the point. Two of the most difficult things to do well in knitting are plain stockinette stitch, and equally plain garter stitch, which are really basic. They’re difficult because even though they are simple, they show every single problem and every mistake. With cables and lace and color work, you can often hide an error in the complexity of the pattern, or just continue on in the certain knowledge that nobody but you (and maybe a few sharp-eyed other knitters) will ever know it is there. A plain one-color sweater in stockinette is unforgiving.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Oh, and there’s one more thing: in knitting, certain kinds of mistakes (like accidentally splitting the yarn when you knit a stitch) do more than just look terrible; they also create weaknesses in the fabric. So most knitters will go to great lengths to fix a mistake, even if they discover it many rows back and even if they know that nobody but them will know. (Why, yes, I am a perfectionist about my knitting. This surprises you?)

Writing is one of the many other things that works this same way: that is, some of the hardest things to do are the basics, the fundamental things of which every story is composed, the things that look easy. The things that one might possibly be able to hide under various kinds of razzle-dazzle, but that sharp-eyed readers and other writers will notice (and probably complain about); the things that may weaken the story on some level even if few people spot them on a first read-through, or even a second.

The trouble is that knitting has words for these small but important basics: knits, purls, stockinette, garter stitch. Writing has large-scale general categories that are difficult to put a shape to, and hard to break down into the smaller building blocks where things go wrong. Plot, characterization, setting, and style are all considered writing basics, but each of them can be as complex and ornate as a lace shawl or cabled sweater, or as deceptively simple and straightforward as a garter-stitch wool scarf.

People tend to assume that things that have a complicated appearance are things that are hard to do. Writers are no exception to this tendency. The result is quite often that a writer will notice a weakness in a particular aspect of a story, and automatically assume that the problem is with the most complex parts. They don’t even look at the simple basics – because “simple” equals “easy,” and “basic” means “something you learn when you’re a rank beginner and then you know it and don’t have to worry about it any more,” right? (Also, on some level they know that the “simple basics” are going to be devilishly hard to fix…much harder, in most cases, than slapping on a layer of frosting in hopes of disguising the problem.)

So their plots develop subplots and complexities and complications piled on complications, when the real problem is a fundamental logical flaw or a breakdown in causation or even a key piece of information that never quite got nailed down on the page. Characters get more complicated and develop bizarre childhood traumas, when the real problem is that the writer doesn’t actually know what they want or why they want it. The author generates reams of notes on history and current politics, when the real problem is that there are fundamental inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and implausibilities in the description of the setting. Their style becomes more ornate, or more spare, when the real problem isn’t the length or elegance of the sentences, but their clarity.

But the thing about stockinette and garter stitch is, they’re the basis of everything else in knitting, and if you can’t do a good job on them, nothing else will look quite right or work quite as well as it should. The same is true of the fundamentals of writing – not everything that gets lumped under “plot” and “characters” and “setting,” but the basic what-story-are-you-telling-here, who-are-these-people-and-what-do-they-want, and where-is-this-happening elements. They’re simple, and they’re basic, but they’re not easy.

18 Comments
  1. As a knitter, too, I can entirely sympathize. The difference is that it’s easy (with experience) to see what’s wrong with a knit, and even to fix it (except for lace errors which are basically hopeless!). But, as you say, you can’t stand off and look at a story and see the same errors.

    And even when you know the errors are there, the means of fixing them are… elusive. Wish there were a faster means than experience to improve at it, but craft books/lectures can only take you so far, like knitting patterns.

  2. Ooh, I love this analogy. I don’t knit, but it makes perfect sense (a sign that’s you’re a good writer, no doubt). That cape looks fabulous! You’ll have to post final pictures when you’re done!

  3. Very nice analogy. I just have one question – are you on Ravelry?? =)

    • Yup. Anthropomorphic, at your service.

  4. As a writer and a knitter, I am so in tune with this! And I immediately began finding knitting analogies to apply to writing: casting on, dropped stitch, split stitch, joining, unraveling, binding off….

    The vocabulary for writing elements/processes is ready and waiting; we can likely port it over unchanged and take over the world. Or something.

    • O-o-o-kay, but you’re going to have to define carefully every knitting term that you copy across into the writing vocabulary, in terms of how it applies to writing. I can imagine, for example, how “k 2 tog” could translate to pruning a long passage into a short one, phrase by phrase or even word by word, in the interest of decreasing length or increasing clarity … but you’d have to make sure that’s what you mean and everybody understands it.

      (I used to knit, but my hands won’t put up with it these days. I did get a fan email once from somebody on a knitting group, praising my having had my housewife say, “I clean it up, they dirty it up, and repeat from asterisk.”)

  5. “The author generates reams of notes on history and current politics, when the real problem is that there are fundamental inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and implausibilities…” I resemble that remark.

    Maybe if I took up knitting it would help.

  6. I’m a quilter, and I’ve always thought of writing a novel as being like making a quilt. Among many other similarities, if you don’t cut your fabric correctly, you’ll have a world of problems sewing the quilt together. Cutting the fabric wrong is usually not fixable, however, not without buying more. I often feel that way with embedded story problems, too. Sometimes I have to go so far back into the story to fix it that I might as well be starting over. Speaking of bitter experience in both fields…

  7. Ah, a post combining my two favorite loves–knitting and writing. And so aptly put, too!

  8. Hmm. There seem to be a lot of writers who are also knitters. Not sure what to make of this!

    (I write, but I don’t knit. 😀 )

  9. I used to knit – and my sweaters came out too big. At the time, I had a boyfriend who cheerfully wore the sweaters, and who was bigger than I was, so they fit him fine.

    Now I write long.

    Hmmm.

    I may have to look for Maeve Binchy fans.

    • Some people’s metier is short, other’s is long. My own theory about it revolves about sticky ideas.

  10. This analogy is soooooo true. I find it is possible to find and fix things in my basic writing, but it takes time and distance provided by another writing/knitting project. Because each book is a learning experience.

    I also have a degree in creative writing, but rules of Literature are different from the rules of genre fiction. I had to frog all I’d learned and start over. The two things I kept are the ability step back and pick apart my pattern/writing so I can find and fix the errors others pointed out. I can also interpret which work shopper/beta reader had aesthetic issues vs technical issues. So I guess my BA was one heck of a gauge swatch.

  11. That cape is absolutely stunning! I want to knit one, but I don’t know where I’d wear it.

  12. That cape pattern is gorgeous. I just finished a stockinette piece and, yes, it shows every flaw. I ripped it out twice. Comparing it to writing definitely applies 🙂

  13. I just loved the way you tied that knitting analogy into writing. I stumbled across this post looking for comparisons of simple vs. easy. Imagine my surprise to find someone writing about two things I love and weaving them so cleverly into the one thing I was searching for.
    That being said, basic is not necessarily simple or easy either… So now we have a third word in the discourse!
    🙂

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