Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
(Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho)
A while ago, I received an automated email from WordPress suggesting the topic, “My Creative Manifesto”, as the title for a blog post. Now, you were supposed to respond swiftly to this, and, ideally, to blog within a day. Instead, I have been mulling the idea over in my head, trying to come to terms with what was being asked. I have had a troubled relationship to all things creative for some time, and this seemed like my chance to set the record straight, to articulate and, generally, to vent.* I’ve written several draft versions of this post over the last few weeks. One, written at a particularly low emotional ebb, was rather tear-stained and involved melodramatic sentences like, “If knitting is the only good thing in your life, then you should knit, because otherwise there’s just no point in carrying on”. Fortunately, things got a lot better, and I’m now able to take a much saner view of the situation.
As you’ve probably guessed if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’m not any sort of professional artist. I’m not spectacularly talented, and I’m certainly never going to earn any money from the things I make. Added to this, I am not very neat: I have terrible handwriting and I’m dreadful at the fiddly sort of cooking which involves a lot of presentation. I am neither a perfectionist nor a planner by any stretch of the imagination. At an early age, it was made fairly clear to me that I was not conventionally any good at the creative arts, and that I may as well give it all up as a bad job. Looking back on this, I have realised that, in school, it’s often the ability to draw or to play a musical instrument which acts as an index of your creative ability as a whole. I was a useless draughtswoman, and my fingers still get tangled up when I try to play one of the four tunes I can just about bang out on Eoin’s toy xylophone. However, I loved working with fabric, and I took a GCSE in Textiles (I took it as an extra subject, which meant it got me out of Games for a whole two years: clearly a Good Thing), but I was always aware of the fact that the Powers that Be didn’t approve. In fact, the reason I had to take the subject as an extra was that I was deemed to be clever, and practical subjects were (the school’s words, not mine) “only for people who weren’t bright”. What a load of nonsense! I was supposed to take Latin instead, because of the aforementioned “cleverness”: I got an A in both in the end, which seemed, to my 16-year-old self, like one in the eye for The Man.
Gradually, though, the pressure of public opinion got the better of me. I went to university: nobody there seemed to be making anything, apart from allusions to Derrida, but I could never get the hang of the slashes. For years, I gave up on any form of practical creativity. Clearly it just wasn’t what people were “supposed” to do (at the time, I hadn’t heard of Debbie Stoller, Ravelry or Knit the City). Gradually, though, it crept back in: a scarf here, a bit of sewing there. It couldn’t hurt, surely, could it? And, anyway, I could stop any time I wanted!
Over time, I have carried on knitting, sewing, spinning, making. However, my early flaws still stand: I don’t plan well, I’m not neat, I tend to say, “Ah, feck it, it’ll do” more than I should. I am the mistress of the tweak, the fudge and the tink (a knitterly process where you undo a mistake by painstakingly working backwards: time-consuming, yes, but you won’t be faced with the sheer horror of rows and rows of frogged, needle-less stitches to marshal and pick up). Lifelines? Don’t talk to me about lifelines: I sneer at them! I don’t think I’ve knitted a single piece of lace which doesn’t have a mistake in it somewhere. In some cases, there have been some rather remarkable manoeuvrings with a crochet hook (accompanied by a soundtrack of sotto-voce swearing) which have almost, but not quite, corrected the original problem. Others items have surreptitious darns, duplicate stitching… Some people might ask, why don’t you just rip it out and start again? Why bother carrying on if it’s not perfect? These are presumably the sort of people who write really neatly, make canapés and petits-fours and, I imagine, iron their underwear.
Perfection isn’t the point. This isn’t high school, and nobody is marking you on your technique. Nobody, that is, but you, and it’s what you think that’s important. You can, to paraphrase Beckett, fail better next time. If it makes you happy, and you’re not hurting anyone, sew it, knit it, bake it, paint it or otherwise create it, and think later. Make it up as you go along: that’s fine. When it works, it will be wonderful, and, a lot of the time, even if you are a bit dubious, other people might think your somewhat wonky finished object is great (I’ve had an awful lot of nice comments on The Quilt that Would Not Die, although I still feel it resembles a fabric Frankenstein’s monster). It won’t always work, and you might have to do some ripping out of failed knitting, or scraping of exploded cake off the walls of the oven.** But that won’t happen all of the time. It won’t even happen most of the time. Most of the time it will be great, and, whatever happens, you did it! You created something wonderful.
Key, however, to the whole idea of failing better is that, even if you have no illusions about producing something perfect, you have to keep growing and learning: I knitted a lot of novelty yarn scarves in garter stitch in the early days, and, while there is nothing wrong with that per se, I’d be worried if I were still doing it. Part of the point of creative work, for me, is that you should keep doing new things, developing new skills. Bit by bit, over time, I have learned to knit socks, lace, wearable garments… Each time, as I embarked on a new project, I was scared that I was going to make a hash of it, but, usually, it didn’t turn out too bad. As a wise friend said to me when I started my first sock, “it’s just four sticks and some pretty string: how hard can it be?” Yes, there were the aforementioned mistakes and fudges, but, broadly speaking, things worked: my socks were wearable (and unbelievable cosy), people admired my lace shawls and actually wanted ones of their own, friends’ babies proudly wore the cardigans I had made for them.*** Although I appreciate that your friends are going to be polite, and probably won’t laugh in your face, I was amazed that others were so appreciative. Maybe I wasn’t so bad at this creative stuff after all? I stopped being afraid, and caring so much what the world thought.
Every small achievement is important, especially if other things aren’t going so well. Knitting, quite seriously, helped to get me through the difficult early days of a fractious, refluxy baby, not to mention some really very unamusing post-natal depression. These were the days of little sleep, little proper food, fairly constant sickness (one of the many fun ways in which the PND manifested itself): It wasn’t Eoin’s fault (he couldn’t help that I was going slowly off the rails), but things were pretty grim for some time. Suddenly, I remembered the knitting. Every time he’d fall asleep (on me, so sleeping myself, or indeed moving, wasn’t an option), I’d reach out for the shawl I’d started the day I went into labour, and I’d knit. Maybe I only managed a row, or even a few stitches, but every scrap made me feel as if I had achieved something, like I was doing one little thing right in the day. I know people might argue that achievement is not the point, but when getting dressed or eating or sleeping feel like very distant possibilities, and that little bundle of rage just won’t stop crying no matter what you do, looking a row of neat, intricate lace stitches and thinking, “I did that”, can really help to preserve your sanity.
I’m in no position to preach, but I spent a long time not doing anything creative because I was worried about what people would think. Honestly, life is too short, and you should be happy. Just do it. Jump in with both feet. Keep going. Keep making, keep growing, keep learning. It is good for your mind and for your soul. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
*If this isn’t your cup of tea, please feel free to skip to another post: there are recipes and lots of cute pictures of a loud baby. Go nuts.
**Ask me how I know. The spiced ginger cake debacle of 2010 still turns people white in our old road in Cambridge: the aftershocks of the explosion were felt several houses away.
***As far as a baby can be proud, at any rate. Eoin, for one, always had a fierce sense of pride!