I attended a writing workshop at the Jesup Memorial Library a few weeks ago. The prompt we were given – borrowed, I’m going to suspect, from Tim O’Brien – was “What do you carry?” Reactions of other writers were similar to those that I used to get with my favorite beginning prompt: Dig in your pocket, purse, backpack. Pull out the first thing you touch. Write about it. Follow up with doing the same thing with your junk drawer or closet. Here, with a bit of editing, is what I wrote:
These days I carry my knitting. I didn’t become militant about this until I re-entered the teaching profession. I am now, however, an equal opportunity public knitter, and make sure I have my bag with yarn and needles whenever I suspect I might need the therapy. It helps me feel productive when I need to wait; I seem to do a lot of that, even when I’m supposed to be otherwise engaged. I knit waiting my turn in offices, on car rides, before shows. I particularly knit during meetings.
I once joked that when a meeting starts to bog down into inane blather, I would start undoing my work, (tinking for the slow process of backing out stitch by stitch, “tink” being “knit” spelled backwards, frogging for the fast process of removing needles and pulling the working thread—after the sound the frog makes: rip-it, rip-it) until the meeting starts moving forward again. The measure of meeting productivity could then be judged by whether I had actually made any net progress on my scarf or shawl or sock or sweater.
I used to always carry a book for these moments of down time. Certainly in my days of travelling by bus or train a book was an essential part of my baggage. When I entered that age when I was expected to attend and participate in meetings it became evident that other attenders didn’t feel I was keeping up my end of the participation bargain if I delved into a novel when other were trying (at least by their lights) to get business done. The other side of this truth is that they kept interrupting my reading with questions or comments. In some longer, all day meetings, they would ask the participants to get up, “vote with your feet,” as a strategy for keeping attenders away. I used to doodle, as well, making elaborate designs – now known as ZenDoodling – as the meetings droned on. The big disadvantage of either books or doodling is that the mind can become totally involved with non-meeting stuff, and direct questions can come as a shock.
So I started carrying knitting instead of a book and left my notebook for meeting notes. I had an interesting model for this. Back in the day, when I was trying to readjust myself to living in the States, I went on a series of fairly eclectic interviews. One was at a law office where they were looking for a clerk typist, which I figured I could do. One of the interviewers, the office manager was knitting. It is a telling fact that I can remember the pale blue lace shawl being knit on, I would guess #9 straight needles, more clearly after all these years than anything about the actual interview. This woman pulled up her rocking chair and knit through the interview, only occasionally glancing at her work. I knit like that, too.
There was something about the physical activity of moving needles and yarn, different enough from the wordiness of talk, that I could pay attention better if I was knitting. Suzette Hayden Elgin featured knitting and other handwork for this purpose in her Native Tongue series. I studied while knitting, my books or articles spread on the table in front of me, and me knitting a sweater in the round. The work was broken up by color changes and I found that I could look at the sweater and remember what I had been reading for each color shift.
There is another aspect of knitting during meetings. It slows my thought process down – like putting a retarder on an overly rambunctious engine. I can pay attention better and, perhaps more importantly, without feeling compelled to add my own two cents for every point made. I was in one workshop where the presenter was determined to catch me out. She walked around the room, between chairs and tables, her eyes fixed on me and my busy hands. I finally became aware of what she was doing when she came up behind me and checked out my notebook. At times like this I occasionally pause to take notes, either electronically or on paper, and I pick a knitting project that does not require me to follow directions. I am pleased to say I was on task as far as that went. I smiled, nearly honestly, and kept my eyes glued to her as she meandered, never missing a stitch. I’ve got to think, all in all, that she was more distracted than I was.