I grew up in a family populated with extremely talented, crafty women. My grandmother was a born seamstress. If “Project Runway” had existed in her day, there would have been no question of her winning. I spent the first ten years of my life almost exclusively wearing clothes that she made on her 1940′s Singer, and I still sleep beneath a quilt that she made. Every stitch is perfect.
Her eldest daughter, my Aunt Belle, could not only sew almost as well as my grandmother, but could knit, crochet, tat, and master any type of needlepoint you can imagine. When I remember her, it is with some sort of textile in her hands. Every knit hat or lace collar that I wore until puberty was her work. There were no mistakes, no dropped stitches.
My youngest aunt, Ellen, is a whiz not only at making curtains and duvet covers, but at tiling bathrooms, building shelving units, and wallpapering a house from top to bottom. The grout lines are always straight, and you can’t find the seam in the pattern of anything she makes.
My mother, the middle daughter, was not gifted in any of these things. She recognized it early and chose to retreat to the tobacco fields to help her Daddy with the “boy” work.
I was not as smart as my mother.
You see, I wanted to make pretty things like the rest of the women in my family. As I grew up, I watched my older female cousin pick up cross stitch and render works so beautiful that they made my grandmother cry. I wanted to feel the needle between my fingers, to have my place around the edge of the quilting rack.
So I asked to learn all manner of things. I don’t remember what came first – maybe simple quilting with my grandmother. By the time I was seven or eight, I had made attempts at cross stitch, crochet and knitting. No matter what I picked up, the lesson always went the same way. We would sit down on my Aunt Belle’s olive green pleather sofa, and my teacher (usually Aunt Belle) would show me, in her perfect, fluid movements, how to begin. She would then hand me the craft and wait for me to repeat what she had done. My fingers would all turn to thumbs. I would knot the yarn, break the string. My aunt would sigh, and help me get started again. Within a few minutes, I would mess up worse than the first time. At this point, her sigh would turn into this sound that I have only ever heard a member of my family make – a cross between a sigh and a whistle of disgust. The craft would be taken from me, my mistake pointed out in great detail, and then she would say to me, “Why don’t you let me get it started? You can try again later.” Later never came. I would watch in miserable silence as each perfect stitch was made, my fingers twitching with a desire to learn how to do what she was doing. I would watch until she grew tired of having me stare at her, and then would be sent outside to play.
As I grew to womanhood, it was occasionally said that I was my mother’s child for sure.
Fast forward thirty or so years. I am a professional, educated woman. I can pay my own bills and cook my own dinner (a talent that boggled my mother’s mind when she first ate my cooking – she didn’t think I could learn on my own). Until recently, anything that was done to improve my house was done by one of my crafty family members. My Aunt Ellen forbade me to paint my own plaster walls without her assistance. They don’t even expect me to help. It was decided years ago that it would just be easier if they take care of things and keep me out of the way. They don’t call my name – they call for Honey, who IS crafty and capable with a hammer.
I realized this week that this pattern has affected my whole creative life.
A few days ago, I decided to give knitting another shot. I have wanted to try again for years, but always talked myself out of it. Finally, Honey suggested I take a class. I pursued signing up, a feeling of dread sitting at the pit of my stomach. My solace was that I would at least be paying these people with money I earned myself. They HAD to teach me.
A friend heard my plan though, and (not knowing my painful history), offered to teach me. She showed up at a regular gathering with needles and yarn. To my surprise, I wasn’t as bad at it as I expected, and she was a very patient teacher. When I started for home that evening, I stopped to buy some yarn and needles and sat down to try it on my own. I watched several online videos, and they all looked simple enough. When I picked up the needles and yarn to begin, though, I was all thumbs again, and I felt a terror that I haven’t known since I was a little girl with blonde hair. I kept making mistakes. When I finally figured out something and got some confidence, I would drop a stitch or lose count. The specter of my aunts and grandmother loomed large.
My writing has followed a similar path. I have always started with optimism and confidence, but when I would find myself following pointless plot bunnies, or experiencing one of those days when the words just wouldn’t flow, I would stop and panic. Why write if I didn’t write perfectly every time? I want to be Anne Rice at the pinnacle of her writing flow (IMHO, 1990′s “The Witching Hour,”), not some hack who won’t ever be picked up by an agent. If I’m not perfect, what is the point? Maybe I should just give up and let the pros do it.
But here’s the thing, folks. My fingers have always wanted to move over a keyboard, and they have ached to create beautiful things. I have spent my life watching other people do what they love, and render it perfect. I haven’t had a lot of experience with starting and finishing something worthy of sharing with others.
So what did I do with the knitting? I unraveled it and started again. I’m going to keep doing that until I’ve learned from my experiences with the yarn and needles. I’m done with giving up and letting other people take over my dreams. I am tired of being jealous of people who create while I watch. So no matter how ugly the start is, or how many times I have to unravel a scarf or a story until I figure out how to make it well, I’m going to do it. I’m going to practice until it’s perfect, and I’m going to figure out how to fix my own mistakes. The time of surrendering to masters is past. This self-taught Creatrix is going to apprentice herself.
*Originally posted at http://www.asiagoans.com