I have trouble thinking spatially, or in quantities. I remember talking to my friend Andy Greer (child of scientists who became a writer, super-fan of Apartment Therapy) about this a long time ago, and he said, "When people say, like, 'How many drops of water do you think there are in that lake?' I'm always like, 'I don't know, four thousand? A hundred billion? Past a hundred, it's pretty much all the same to me — no idea." I can still picture him saying this on the sidewalk in Missoula, in his particular Andy Greer–ish way, self-deprecating and lovable though he is, in fact, quite a smarty. I bubbled with laughter and squawked that I was the same way! Most of us are, probably; where we're different is that there are some people like Andy Paulson who go around even asking things like "How many drops of water do you think are in that lake?" and those of us who would no more think to ask that than to ask whether dogs have names for each other in Barkalanguage, whether the Hamburgler could beat up Mayor McCheese, or if a tree falls in a forest, etc. I'm just saying: It's a world of wonder I have no doubt I'll never comprehend, and I don't even try, though I admire those who do. As long as they don't need my help.
Now. I really shouldn't be beating up on the new crochet patterns out there when I know it's hard to write them, I do. People ask me almost every day to just "rewrite" my own patterns for a different yarn or a different size just like, right there on the spot or something. And I just stand, open-mouthed, like — I don't even know what I'm like. Speechless. (Not that I'm not flattered that they like the pattern, of course, but . . . I don't think on my feet in crochet abbreviations, trust me.) But there is no denying that writing patterns for some people comes easily. More easily than it does for me. For instance, when Andy Paulson taught himself how to knit from a book several years ago, he, within minutes, decided he wasn't happy with the pattern the way it was written and planned and built his own chart by which to include his initials, garter-stitched in relief, across a scarf. I sat open-mouthed with envy. Occasionally, he'd hold up his perfectly knitted thing and say, "Gee, does this look right, hun?" Yup. You got it, hun. Grrrr. I was over there staring at my own pattern, which swam beneath my gaze and became incomprehensible, needing nothing less than the Rosetta Stone to decipher. Something like this shawl, made and written about by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee at Yarn Harlot, seems to me as accomplished as the Coliseum, or the Empire State Building, or really it belongs with the unanswerable questions above: "If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?" and "How did she do that?"
Hard work, skill, hours, no magic wand. Still, magical effect. It can be deceiving. My mom was talking about Martha Stewart's article in the November issue of Living, about the handmade Christmas cards Martha made. We both agreed there was something sadly poignant about this part, when Martha (after admitting she'd eventually been abandoned by everyone she'd roped into helping her) mews: "What was strange was that, because the cards looked so professional (except for those I smudged or overheated), no one seemed to realize they were homemade with loving care in my kitchen."
Personally, I like hearing the backstory, myself. I've long admired Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, but I fear we probably wouldn't get on well, in real life. She would find me simpering and wimpy; I would be terrified of her. She says in The Writing Life:
"Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: 'You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?' The young photographer said, 'Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.'
"A cab driver sang his songs to me, in New York. Some we sang together. He had turned the meter off; he drove around midtown, singing. One long song he sang twice; it was the only dull one. I said, You already sang that one; let's sing something else. And he said, 'You don't know how long it took me to get that one together.'
"How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?"
I read this first many years ago, 1992 actually. It's always stuck with me, and I've always been very conflicted about it. I think I just don't agree. I've tried, many times, to be brave enough to cut the cord from my work, to not have to tell you what it cost me, but I fear I'm not that brave, or maybe I just don't agree — I can't decide. All this is not to say I'm not also just a whiney complainer in general — certainly this blog is filled with a detailed account of how I "climbed the mountain" (complete with flailing, moaning, and groaning loud enough to be a downright neighborhood nuisance, and not just gracefully "informative") right alongside the photo of the mountain, or even the molehill I made seem like a mountain, and then some. But then again, Annie wrote a whole book about how hard it is to write a book, so if that's not meta-struggle, I don't know what is. Perhaps what she's really saying in the passage above is, "I really wish I didn't have to tell you this, but here I go anyway." (But she says it like a love song, and I say it like an air-raid siren, so I do see the difference in that, at least.)
Anyway, this is all to say that I never mind when I hear how long, how hard, how diligently someone else worked on something. That's part of the thing, for me. Objectively, I guess it doesn't change whether I like the thing or not, but maybe it does. Knowing that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee made that shawl without a magic wand, seeing how she and her friend blocked it — I'm totally okay with that, Annie Dillard. Tell me again, Stephanie: I might be daft enough to miss what really happened there. In fact, I'm going over again right now to hear you sing it once more. It's absolutely one of the most amazingly beautiful things I've ever seen/heard. You should be very, very proud.
*NOT to compare the shawl to a bad photo or dull song!!! I didn't see it this way when I wrote this. Bad analogy, actually. But I'm just saying, and maybe even moreso with the truly extraordinary pieces, I really want to know how they got here. I agree that the backstory can't necessarily make the dulls things good. But I really don't mind listening, even to those, if you'll tell me the story of them, as well.