Knitting Away the Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

I realize this is not going to be everyone’s skein of yarn, but knitting helps me revise. I learned it as a jumpy child, reactivated my skills at VCFA–thank you, Rita Williams-Garcia!–and have made it a part of my writing practice for over a decade.


The objects I generate–hats, socks, scarves, shawls, a blanket, and the occasional attempt at a sweater–are not the point. I’m aiming to keep my hands busy so I can still my restless mind and get it to concentrate on the project at hand. So I can read on screen and hard copy without being tempted to rush in and start moving words around when what I need to do is dive into a deep revision. Knitting has seen me through revisions on three novels, a chapter book, and countless picture books.

So when a friend sent me this link to a Christian Science Monitor article on a writer’s attempts to learn to knit, I read it with interest:

Knitters create holes with string using sticks and a clickety-clickety noise.

We do, we do. But wait. The writer says:

Knitting is spooky. It’s obviously impossible to do, and yet you see people doing it all the time. These people clearly are a superior life-form. If you doubt this, spend a day with a dozen of your friends. At the end of the evening, have a look around: Eleven of you will have cookie crumbs in your laps, and the knitter will have an entire sweater.

Now, much as I’d like to think of myself as a superior life form, that would not be me. I am not that kind of knitter. When I go into my local yarn store and find myself immersed in knitting conversations, with the names of yarns flying about, I have to summon up my courage so I can pretend I belong there. It’s a lovely store, no question. Collectively, the staff possesses an absolutely frightening expertise on needle sizes and yarn weight and stitch-markers. They can squint at a rack and tell me just how much of that nice brick-red yarn I might need for the sweater I am working up the nerve to try out. They can point me to Ravelry patterns almost before I’ve finished asking my question. All of this serves to put me properly in my place–I leave clutching my yarn, in a state of mind that is equal parts gratitude and humility.

Which, come to think of it, is much the way I begin every new writing project. Aware of how much I have yet to learn. Grateful to see what the next book will teach me. But knowing that if I show up over and over, I will make it through the journey.

Many writers experience self-doubt. We may laugh about imposter syndrome but it afflicts many of us to varying degrees. It helps me when I click-clack a couple of needles and create holes between loops of yarn. If I do that in between scrolling through my manuscript on a screen or perusing a paper copy of a troublesome chapter, I’m better able to fix the holes in the work I’m trying to revise. Making an entire sweater, I tell myself, is not my art form. It’s just something I do, in my own imperfect way, while working on knitting the pieces of a story together.

Unraveling, That is to Say, Revising

IMG_2145Sometimes when you start to knit something, say a sweater, you think you know how. And maybe in a way, you do. You follow a pattern.  You choose the right needles. You try to do it right but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. The pattern, you find out along the way, is all wrong. It’s too boxy. The neckline will look misshapen. It’s longer than it should be. And you can’t see all this until you have knitted two-thirds of it. The yarn is still good. And you still have that vision of what you’re after. But you need a different pattern. Maybe no one’s actually got that template all ready for you. You need to make it up.

Welcome to the work of unraveling. That is to say, revising.

My work in progress is similarly two-thirds done, and today it needed unraveling. Not completely, I’m happy to say, but in at least two large chunks. It takes nerve to pull out that first thread but once I did, it was magical. I could see what was left behind so much more clearly. The shiny yarn, the heft of it in my hands, the feel of those rows of stitches waiting once more to be formed. All the stuff that drew me to knitting in the first place.

Loving the work is what makes it possible to yank it off the needles and pull that yarn loose. If you’re afraid of revising, maybe you don’t love the work enough.

Only unraveling it lets you see the qualities of the yarn, the potential that made you  dream of working with it.