Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Test Swatches

I am, um, not having a good week. If I had a dog, it would get run over tomorrow.

A phrase in Stephen King's On Writing that I've been thinking about lot lately is "shoveling shit from a sitting position". In full context, he tells us to keep writing, because your perceptions of your work can be wrong, and you can be doing good work even if it feels like you're shoveling shit from a sitting position. When I sit at my laptop and work on my Greenland novel, that is exactly, precisely what it feels like I'm doing. As if I'm just moving manure around with weakening arms, unable to get up out of the muck. But I felt the same way about the last work I did on my horror novel, until finally work on it just sort of...petered out, because I was tired of the perceived smell. But when I went back and read it months later, like magic, it had turned into something not-so-bad. So the thing to do, just as Steve tells us, is to keep going.

I've also been thinking about knitting and writing. One of the things you must do when you sit down to knit a new project is knit a test swatch. It's a little square piece of knitting meant to test how many stitches per inch you knit with these needles and this yarn. Everybody knits a little differently, with a tension that is greater or lesser - tighter stitches or looser ones - and you may have to change needle sizes or even yarn to make sure that your project comes out all right per the pattern. If you don't knit a test swatch, you can't be sure that the number of stitches in the pattern will come out to the same yardage on your finished product, and you might wind up with a garment that's too big, too small, or simply won't come together at all.

The thing is, when you cast on to knit a test swatch, you walk into it feeling as if the time you spend knitting these stitches is going to be wasted. You know that these stitches are going to be unraveled. The swatch is only for testing your gauge, it doesn't go into the finished product, so when you're finished with enough stitches to give you a decent area for measurement, rrrrrrrrip go the stitches and you have to wind the yarn up and cast on all over again, this time for the actual project. Or you start over with yet another swatch, if you've changed needles, or you have to abandon the project altogether because the yarn or the available needles just won't work.

To me, test swatches are tragic, and I hate doing them. I don't, if I can avoid it - if the project isn't tricky or I can find the same yarn with which the pattern was designed. I know at least one knitter who loves them. She thinks of them like mini-projects, and she even keeps some test swatches and labels them so she knows what her gauge was with those needles on that yarn. But I just can't help seeing them as anything but wasted effort.

There's a lot about writing that can be viewed from this perspective. Ira Glass reminds us that in order to get through the gap we just have to do a lot of work, knit a lot of test swatches that never end up making it into the finished product. It's frustrating as all hell, to have done all of this work and gotten theoretically no usable work out of it, but the thing is -

If you don't knit your test swatches, your "real work" can't happen at all. (That insight deserved a new paragraph.) Without knowing what your tension actually is, what knitting on those needles on this day looks like, you will never know whether the finished product is going to work. All of the words that you write and cut, slicing valiantly through them with your Fictator sword, were there for a reason; they were there to reveal the jewel of writing that existed underneath, all along. The mountain still has to produce a giant block of marble in order for Michelangelo to carve a beautiful sculpture out of it. Was the mountain's effort wasted?

So I'm trying, really hard, to write backstory that might never see the light of day, exposition that I will keep in my laptop for my own reference and no one else's eyes, chapters that I know, even while writing them, really are manure and will inevitably be cut. It's all of a piece; it's all work that helps me to write a finished product. Even if, at the time, it feels like a total waste, it all adds up to something.

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