Storied Creativity : A new storytelling series

One day in Mrs Pilkington’s second grade,

our entire class was sent to the “extra room” {a room sometimes used for art and sometimes used for computers and sometimes used for watching movies during recess when a spring thunderstorm ruined such things}. When the long procession of students finally filtered into this large room our beloved Mrs. P shut the door and headed to the break room. We were placed at individual stations spaces far away from one another and given coloring sheets of tree branches.

“Be creative!” we were told.

And then... nothing.

No directions, no check list, no paint by numbers.

Just crayons and colored pencils and creativity. Go.

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As a small, quiet, not yet buck toothed girl of six and a half: I was frightened. This was not a normal assignment. The absence of structure was startling for a girl who was used to the routine of Sunday school and the accompanying nighttime prayers that were always the same.

One by one students would finish their coloring sheet. They would then be assigned a group.

“Thank you Jessica. Could you please go sit at that table in the back corner?”

“Thank you AJ. Could you please go sit outside in the hallway?”

The longer I colored the more I noticed the two groups growing as more and more students turned their work in. The back table group, though smaller, was filling up with the girls I wanted to play with and the boys I thought were cute. I wanted to be in the smaller group.

I had to be in the smaller group.

But how would I get assigned to this special subset of my classmates? My inner rule follower told me that to get into this group I had to follow directions.

“Be creative!”

But how?

I looked down at my coloring sheet. A tree branch. A pine tree branch. Who cared that some guy in antebellum Arkansas had declared this a magnificent specimen of a tree?

To me, this was a very plain pine tree branch. Just like the dozens of pine tree branches that the groundskeeper of Beryl Henry Elementary School picked up every day in the area around the playground and parking lots.

This was the everyday thing that was the first thing I stepped on when I got out of my mom’s car and into the babysitter’s driveway {who took me to school} in the morning. This was the thing that rained down long prickly leaves that didn’t even have the energy to turn pretty colors in the fall like all the “normal” trees. This was the thing that made the pine cones that poked my tender white hands, the same pine cones that my grandparents gave me a penny for each one I collected {making me the wealthy owner of $2.14 come the end of the school year}.

This was such an non-creative plant. It didn’t even have the decency to turn red. How was I supposed to do anything special with this everyday thing?

As the time drew to a close I was one of the only artists still working on my piece. Green pine needles.

Brown branch.

More green pine needles.

More brown for the branch.

And suddenly I saw it, the rings that I, in my rule-loving, read-everything-in-the-library, tiny nerd heart, had learned each tree possessed. So even though the outlines on the coloring sheet were small, I very carefully etched in the small circles of tree rings that would be at the cut end of the branch.

I hesitantly gave the instructors my completed coloring sheet feeing mild terror. If I ever expected Joel to notice me or the chance to experience a slumber party birthday with Meredith I had to be in the smaller group. 

“Hmm. Seems pretty standard. And she was slow.”

“No. Look at that branch. The end. Those rings. No one else made the rings of the tree. I say see what happens.”

I was told to go sit at the table in the back of the room. The remaining two students were sent outside to the hallway where they were presumably marched back to class to learn about the state gem {the diamond}.

At the small table in the back of the room we were told that it had been decided that we were going to be given a special opportunity to learn and make things outside of the normal classroom.

“It’s called Gifted and Talented. But you can call it GT.”

:::::

I am 98% sure that this is an inaccurate description

of how, even in the dark ages of the early nineties, children were chosen for GT. However, not knowing or being aware of any other testing or documentation, this is the story I’ve told myself for almost 30 years. I’ve told myself that I got lucky. I had remembered a book fact and it was my book knowledge that got me into the cool kids club. I’ve carried that around with me for a long time.

“You’re not creative. You’re smart.”

Please note: Being awarded with the descriptor “smart” is never a bad thing. “Smart” has been a talisman, the shield and sword that I carried with me through the hormones of middle school and fast cars of high school and the overseas trips in college and the altogether questionable establishments here there and yonder I found myself in post college.

But “smart” can be a straight jacket. In my small-town, limited experience vocabulary of a life it was. Smart wasn’t charismatic or funny or passionate. Smart didn’t have a good eye for design or a sense of style. Smart didn’t meet eyes with someone who was the son of a Senator unless she had already had two martinis because smart wasn’t enough and they don’t teach flirting in books. 

Funny how the the fictions that we carry around in our heads fossilize into the truths we lug around with us as we continue to grow.

:::::

Post script number one:

Joel never noticed me {though I do have a funny story about him and Willy Nelson} but I did eventually get to go to a slumber party at Meredith’s house and a swimming party at Jessica’s so, I’m officially declaring my sneaky ploy for social acceptance a win.

Post scrip number two:

I just remembered that Mrs. Pilkington follows me on Instagram and I need to tell you that other than learning about all the state symbols we also learned how to count to ten in French and I have always felt the tiniest bit fancy ever since because of that. Also- I was convinced in 1992 that she was more beautiful and kind than a Disney princes.

I had such a good childhood y’all.

Post scrip number three :

Hat tip to @lbmartin who is a storyteller in her own right and who’s sweet mama was the one in my memory who convinced the other teacher to give me a chance.

:::::

Inspired by Jennifer Cooper and Meanie Biehle, I want to start sharing more stories. I’m aiming for sharing one a week until I have shared fifty. The math tells me I should be done around this time next year. Reality tells me to not hold so tight to inconsequential deadlines. However. I want to push myself to share because I think we learn more about our own stories when we see ourselves reflected in those of others.

On The Needles: Hickory Socks

Happy Friday friends!

I'm still happily working away on my personal Knitter Book of Socks challenge {My goal is to knit ALL the socks in Clara Parkes' book of the same name }. Check out the  #kboschallenge hashtag on Instagram to see everything I've made so far.

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These are the hickory socks designed by Jane Cochran and knitted with yarn dyed by Loralee at my LYS Mockingbird Moon. These lovelies are basically ribbing that is stacked wonky-ily {but not unprettily} making the sock look like the bark of a tree when it's worn. Ribbing = tightness, so these are knitted hugs for feet.

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They made their way to my favorite social worker in Texas last week {Ie. my sophomore roommate and one of my life long soulmate people}. If anyone deserves a foot hug it's her.

Technically, these socks were a lot more fun than I thought they would be. In part this is because it was the first that I used the chart exclusively.

I've realized a big benefit to this class is that it's forced me {in a nice, gentle, and kind way} to read charts. Charts are pictorial abbreviations yes; they allow a person to knit without worrying that they've missed a line in the directions. {Because that's never fun.} But they are also an a sort of picture of what the finished product looks like. And that's lovely isn't it? To know that what you're doing as you're doing it. A visual pat on the back of reassurance.

At least that's what it is to my "always question all the things" self. I wonder if that's just me...

Regardess : Here's hoping your upcoming weekend brings signs of Spring or hope or hugs. Or all three.

Book Review : Emma by Jane Austen + What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Critical Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

I had a hard time getting into Emma. As in, every time I listened I would become physically upset. All my hackles would raise. A main character that knew everything and who shoved her opinions onto everyone else: gross. So imagine my horror when I discovered that she was me.

You see, I had told myself that I had to read Emma before I could dive into What Matters in Jane Austen? {heretofore referred to as WMIJA}. I had heard about WMIJA on Heather Ordover's CraftLit and it promised to give me the same things that Heather's podcast gave me: the historical and cultural context that so often hung me up when attempting to read classics. 

In fact, CraftLit was how I listened to my first three Jane Austen novels. Heather's former life as a theatre and literature teacher gave her the base knowledge, accompanied by what I assume to be curiousity and research skills, to help me, and the rest of her listeners, distinguish the difference in 3 and 30 pounds sterling*. 

*I just made up that reference but I think you get my drift.

It's the details like that which matter. Putting things into a modern day perspective helps a current reader understand a work more fully. It's the difference between thinking, "I guess that means that character is wealthy," and thinking, "What a horrible human being!!! With money like that and he's basically leaving his three younger sisters to care for themselves! Ridiculous!" 

Yes, that was a lot of exclamation marks. But that's what true knowledge does: it incites true feelings. 

All that to say, I wanted to read WMIJA because I thought it would be interesting to supplement my Jane Austen knowledge. "But," I told myself, "before you read WMIJA you should read at least one more of her books." {I had started listening to a bit of WMIJA and quickly realized that it was full of spoilers. It's a book about books, that's how it works. But I wanted at least one more where I went through the story all the way before WMIJA ruined the surprise.}

But for Emma, I didn't have the CraftLit podcast to hold my hand. I had to use my previous knowledge I had gleaned from three other novels. And sure enough, that knowledge was enough to get me started. The difference in language wasn't a terrible barrier and the references to whist didn't throw me like they would have before. 

No. The thing that most bothered me was the main character. A well brought up young lady who shepherds a young naive woman away from her true feelings because of her own prejudices. I didn't want to spend time in the presence of this chick.

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I eventually realized that I had stopped listening all together. As a voracious reader this isn't something that happens terribly often soni went to the closest thing I could find to a support group for a book lover who's having a hard time getting through a book: The CraftLit Facebook group. 

It was there that I found a bit of solace. 

"Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I dislike Emma too!!" 
"I can't even finish the book. And I've tried." 

But in the midst of my fellow haters {because hating on poor Emma we were} there were a couple supporters.  

"Keep going." 
"Yes, she's annoying there at the beginning but push through."  

And the encouragement that most propelled me was one that, at first, I didn't think would effect me. "Did you know that the movie Clueless was based on Emma?" As soon as I read that, my 16 year old circa 2000's era self who wore belly shirts while listening to Brittany Spears and The Backstreet Boys, decided to read on. If it was good enough for Alicia Silverstone it was good enough for me, gosh darnnit. 

And, sure enough, that 16 year old wisp of a memory was the one who needed to read it. And the 33 year old that she's a part of. 

The quote I plucked from WMIJA sums up both Emma and my teenage self perfectly: The truth is hard. Especially when one's had an exceedingly amazing life and people shield hard things from you. It is much easier to displace a partial truth with a full blown fairy tale. With just a touch of imagination one adds missing details to an mysterious woman who soon becomes a witch {with an inappropriate love affair in her past} and a young man with an easy smile becomes a shiny knight surely in love with you. 

The full story of Emma fully explains to me, in the non-preachy way that Jane Austen excels at, that we who prefer fairy tales to truth are missing out. Life, real life, is much more varied than the black and white of a children's story, but that variation makes it that much more rich and wonderful. 


Emma

Highly recommended for:

  • Dreamers who get stuck in the worlds they create in their own minds. Belly shirt optional. 

Drawbacks:  

  • As noted, the beginning is tough. Push through.  

Best Bits:

  • I viewed this as love story second. In the fore front it was about the comings and goings of the privileged few of a particular small town. {Which is actually a pretty accurate description of my high school.}
  • The ending. It was long and satisfying in a way that very few stories I have read are. Because the focus of the book isn't romance forward it's makes sense that Jane Austen gets to take a long leisurely stroll "around town", tying up loose ends and explaining pieces and parts that had been dangling out of sight. 

What Matters in Jane Austen

Recommended for: 

  • True Austen-philes who will automatically understand every reference the author mentions before he has finished the description.
  • OR someone, like me, who is simply curious about gleaning more context about the time period. 

Drawbacks:

  • While the author keeps it flowing nicely, like any non-fiction part history part literature based book it gets a bit dry at times.  

Best Bits:  

  • The knowledge of context as explained above. Stuff like this makes you a more interesting dinner guest.  

Read either of these? Let me know what you though. 

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, The Memoirs of Lady Trent Series.

The cover illustration was the thing that originally caught my eye. Yes, even though I'm an admitted audiophile, I get caught up in the romance of good book design.

I had just coming off a binge listening to the entire Harry Potter series {thanks LASEK} and I needed more. More of the fantastic and more of the otherworldliness tinted with an English accent.  It was winter and I needed an escape.

This book is about dragons, yes. And it's set in a alternate reality {more about that below}. And it's set in an era that mirrors Victorian times. And it's got loads of travel and adventure: mountains and tropical rainforests and piercing deserts and the volcanic islands. But...

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Peel back the layers of science fiction {because I would argue this is science fiction, not fantasy} and, at its core, this is a book about growing up as a curious child and becoming an intelligent woman. This book is about the hard work that happens alongside curiosity. This is a book that addresses race and class and socioeconomic differences. This book is about science and the good and bad that often comes about because of scientific discoveries. This is a book about {as trite as it sounds} reaching big goals through failure and strife and embarrassment and ridicule and not knowing if the work one is pursuing will make a difference in the end. Spoiler alert: It does.

As a psych major, I am not terribly educated in the difference between fantasy and science fiction {though I welcome to any helpful links and/ or discussion in the comments}, but this book didn't "feel like" the Harry Potter that drew me to it. Harry Potter lives on Earth that has magic. Isabella {Lady Trent} lives on a different planet. This is never explicitly explained but a quick reading will clue you into the fact that it is the same as Earth in that the continents are arranged the same and the climates are the same and most of the animals are the same and the natives of all the disparate countries have accents that one would expect to have on Earth.

But this planet has dragons. And they are fantastic dragons. But they're not magical dragons. There not things that are only seen in the "magic world"; they are natural occurrences that occur alongside the lions and tigers and bears and butterflies of this  particular world.

I explain all this to say that, to me, the entire series was more real and vivid to because of this subtle difference.

The memoir style is particularly effective to me. It has the benefit of letting the reader know what she was thinking when she was a 7 year old wondering what the purpose of a wishbone grounded by the experienced tone of a much older woman. It is, I think, because of this device that I developed a sort of relationship with Isabella. A relationship which, to those of us who have an appreciation of a conversation that takes place via the written word, was immediate and initiate despite the differences between the reader and the "memoirist".


A Natural History of Dragons
{and the entirety of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series}

Recommended for:

  • Smart girls {and by that I mean teenagers who are looking to step out of YA and explore while still being safe context-wise}.
  • Anyone who likes a heavy helping of science with his or her adventure {surely I'm not the only one who didn't previously know the meaning of "crepuscular"}.
  • Someone looking for beautiful escapist fiction.

Drawbacks:

  • I can't think of any. I tore through these books so fast, the only thing I can find to dislike was that the series only contained five installments instead of twenty-five.

Best Bits:

  • I appreciated the authenticity of a woman talking about the drudgery of the baby years... and the resulting mix of guilt and resentment that go with that. On the other side of that issue, it was a delight to see how the main character and her son's relationship evolved into something beautiful.

I would love to hear your take on this series if you've read it.

Did book 3 have you holding your breath as much as someone who is supposed to be doing housework can hold one's breath? Did the description of the sandstorm in book 4 make you itch all afternoon as it did me? Did book 5 shock you as throughly as it shocked me?  {I had to stop listening for a bit to process guys. Which is a delightful feeling : pleasant creative shock doesn't happen much for adults does it?}

On the Needles : Basics Basics Basics Lesson 2

In my last post I implied that the real fun started with my TKGA experience with Lesson 2 of the Basics Basics Basics correspondence course. 

Partly, this is because I am a huge nerd. No, actually, this is entirely because I am a huge nerd and both of these lessons allowed me a "peak behind the curtain" of the "why" and "how" behind different knitting techniques. It allowed me to see why some directions list one thing while another set lists another. It allowed me a chance to demystify some techniques I had always wondered about  {"How DOES one knit a v-neck sweater that has two divergent directions?" "Why DO handmade and machine made garments look different?" "What is all this talk about GAUGE?"}. 

The best part of the learning was the de-mystification didn't take the joy out of it. Instead, it increased the magic. It showed me that things can be greater than the sum of their parts.

Read on to see the specifics.

Lesson Two was about decreases, but it also taught me how one makes v-neck sweaters {swatch 5, 6, and 7} and why certain decreases are used in lace instead of others {check out the last swatch and you will see that the middle stitches below the yarnover holes are all arranged differently}.

It also taught me to not be a cheapy and to buy proper finishing pins. {Swatch 5 and 6 have tiny punkers around their edges because I used sewing pins to block them and they don't distribute their weight as well as the "good pins".} 

But the brightest light bulb moment of Lesson Two is that I finally started keeping a legitimate knitting "diary". For Lesson One, I made-do by writing my how-to's on the margins of the course notes. But this time, I would start a new section of my notebook and write down exactly what I did on each swatch. 

  • Stockinette: 6 rows.
  • k2, ssk, k14, k2tog, k2.
  • p20.
  • k2, ssk, k12, k2tog, k2.

Writing this down, it sounds utterly inane.
I wasn't actually using these swatches for anything. It's not as if my instructor would be too terribly concerned if her directions weren't followed perfectly.

But the ambiguity of the instructions, "Knit one inch of stockinette before starting decreases. Decrease until you have 14 stitches on your needles then knit one more inch in stockinette." were ambiguous to a woman who likes knitting for the rules it allows me to follow. Tell me to knit one inch and all the sudden I need to know exactly how many rows one inch is. And I also need to knit that same number of rows on the opposite side. 

In two thousand years, if humanity has managed to keep itself going that long, a future archaeologist will find my magically petrified notebooks and be convinced that she has come across an unknown language.

And that makes me smile. 


Lesson 3 coming soon.

On the Needles : Basics Basics Basics - Lesson One

"Why did I do this? Why am I using my coveted making time to go toward lessons and instructions and courses rather than just doing the making?!" These were the things my brain was yelling at me as I waited for my results to come back from the instructor for the TKGA "Basics Basics Basics" Course, Lesson 1.

I had told myself before that it was because I loved learning. And that's true. I do.

But another truth that this first lesson brought to my attention is that I have a massive inferiority / imposter complex. I haven't been knitting since I was 5 do surely I'm not a "real" knitter. I don't live in a particularly cold climate {the Rockies / Canada} and my home doesn't have a particularly strong knitting culture {New England / Sweden}. Surely this also means I'm not a real knitter.

Yes, I'm able to read patterns and make things that... mostly... fit. But that's just basic comprehension. That doesn't make me "real" does it?

Yes, I've had an idea and then made it happen with skeins of yarn and two needles. But that's just problem solving and working through mistakes. That doesn't make me "real" does it?


The thing that this first lesson taught me, first and foremost, is that I'm not a "fake" knitter. I'm as real {ie. individually strange} as they come- I know how to make the basic two stitches and, with some written instructions and the occasional youtube video, I can make lots of things happen. Sometimes they happen less than perfectly, but they happen, and "things happening" is the essential part of me that needs to come out. That's the stuff that makes me a maker.

I learned that I need to get over my silly complexes so that I can truly focus on the learning. And I learned I'm ready for Lesson 2.


Below are the five swatches I knit for the first lesson.
Scroll past the images to see the instructors comments and my results.

The first thing that Arenda helped me realized was that this class and it's next step {TKGA's Master Hand Knitter certification} doesn't initially help foster creativity. The first steps are about following directions and knowing how to exactly make another's pattern. This is, she says, a stepping stone to knowing best how to get your ideas onto paper and into someone else's hands.

She then went on to address specific questions I had while working through these swatches.

Tension: I had mentioned that my last purl stitch always seemed loose. She explained that this was a common issue and directed me toward these two articles {ridges + enlarged bind-off} by Suzanne Bryan {whose website I find to be a treasure trove of nerdy knitting information}.
She also mentioned that the yarn I choose had "high twist", and that this generally contributes to wonky tension but that by tension was "quite nice" in the center of the swatches. {my reasoning: more twist equals more energy which equates to yarn pushing out and wanting to do its own thing}.

Weaving in ends: This was one of the things I MOST enjoyed about the entirety of this course... though I didn't realize it in this lesson. Anything related to finishing was foreign to me. As a mostly self-taught knitter I never had a problem with knots or random unwoven ends... I just figured that was a quirk of a self-made garment. But something that came up over and over in Arenda's course was the difference in "handmade" versus "homemade".
She explained that a garment that is finished with the same acuity as the "proper" knitting makes a much more beautiful and elegant finished piece. 

I really appreciated this from an artist perspective. If an artist obsesses over an oil painting for hours only to realize that it has been painted on a refrigerator box and mounted it on toilet paper, its value is suddenly in question. Something that I learned from a wise artist is to let one's work be intentional. Proper finishing is intention and, in that, an art. One that, I confess, I still have to work on, but am light years ahead of where I was before this class.

Blocking: Again, a finishing issue that I had never made myself learn. I viewed the resource she shared approximately one thousand times. If you are new to blocking you should too: White Horse Designs "Blocking for TKGA".

Increases: As this was the main part of lesson one, she went into lots of detail about this. One of those details was about how I had done the right side of swatch 04 incorrectly. Scroll up and it's pretty easy to catch: I made an open M1 stitch instead of right leaning M1 stitch. As such she requested that I make it again and re-send it to her with my lesson two stuff. ie. I failed!! 
Well maybe not failed, but I didn't do it perfectly. Scrolling up again you can see that it is a bit wonky and would probably catch the eye of someone admiring the sweater you've spent literally days of your life toiling over. Might as well figure out how to make it correctly, right? 


This was a great start to my TKGA experience: mostly "known" concepts presented to me in a super structured format, with enough "new" to make it interesting. What I didn't realize was that I would enjoy the next lessons even more.

More on those soon.