Kim Adrian’s short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, Ninth Letter, the Raritan Review, and elsewhere.
Among the awards and recognitions she’s received are a P.E.N. New England Discovery Award, an Artist’s Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, three Pushcart Prize nominations, and the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction from the New Ohio Review, as well as residencies at the Edward Albee Barn, Ragdale, and VCCA, and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars.
1. Taking Chances
To the novice, the craft of knitting can seem a fussy and bewildering thing, but really, even fairly complex patterns are doable with nothing more than patience, diligence, and a modicum of skill. Still, one must always approach the activity of knitting with a keen sense of adventure. As one of the nicotine-infused salesladies who work at my local yarn shop once told me (disgusted by another customer’s fear of improvisation), “Knitting is all about taking chances!”
You will need, of course, a pair of needles and some yarn. There are many options in both departments, but steel needles are cold, noisy, and unyielding, while plastic ones are much too slick, providing little to no traction. I advise wooden needles. Bamboo is fine and generally cheap, though the cheaper the bamboo, the coarser the grain, which can be annoying, because after a while—say five- or six-hundred stitches—you will come know every groove, no matter how shallow, in those needle tips. My point is, look for a good brand. As far as yarn goes, cotton is for masochists. Ditto linen and silk. Cashmere is expensive and, though beautiful, does not last. Acrylics—we won’t go there. But wool smells good, is generally economical as well as forgiving and friendly, meaning that it will, to at least a limited extent, correct a whole range of knitters’ mistakes in the all-important area of tension, as it is both naturally elastic and grippy. This cannot be said of the other fibers. Be sure to buy a beautiful color—one that makes you happy, or sad, or some other interesting emotion. And take special care to consider the texture. It must be of a consistency that will not bore you, which doesn’t necessarily mean what it sounds like. Tweedy, chunky, overenthusiastically gorpy yarns are the most monotonous of all after only a few dozen rows. On the other hand, completely smooth, unvariegated yarns, particularly in unnaturally bright colors, have been known to make sensitive types faintly suicidal.
3. Anatomy of a Knit Stitch
A knit stitch is nothing more than loop, and a row of knitting is simply a row of loops—not circles, as in chain mail (to which knitting is frequently and erroneously compared), but open at one end. What makes them knit, what makes them stitches, is the fact that each row of loops interlocks with the row of loops above and below it. In other words, the belly of each loop is the receptacle for the “legs” of the loop directly above it, while at the same time, its own “legs” are anchored by the loop beneath it. Meanwhile, each loop is connected, of course, to its horizontal neighbor by the simple fact that it belongs to the same piece of yarn. And herein lies the real magic of knitting. It is possible, in fact quite normal, to knit a complex three-dimensional garment with but one, albeit extremely long, piece of yarn. Knitting, in this way, may be seen as a metaphor for time, narrative, and even, to stretch the point (though not by much), life itself. What I mean is, knitting teaches us that all those linear constraints to which we humans are so well accustomed (birth-to-death trajectories, one-word-at-a-time linguistic progressions…) are configurable in decidedly non-linear ways, in ways that, with just a bit of patience, diligence, and a modicum of skill, might even keep you warm.
Linear or not, all things have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and while middles usually preoccupy us most, they are worth precisely nothing without decent beginnings and ends. Thus we arrive at the art of casting on. There are many ways to cast-on, including the Spanish two-needle method, the invisible or provisional method, the twisted German method, and the cable method, to name but a few. However, for our purposes, the long-tail cast-on will suffice. It is, in fact, one of the best methods of beginning nearly any knitted piece, being quite stretchy yet neat in appearance. Simple as it is, however, it would take an inordinate amount of space and time to adequately describe in words, therefore I advise you to make your way to the nearest yarn shop or your closest knitting-acquaintance and request a tutorial. In any case, it’s a kinesthetic learning process, and you will never know how to cast-on, or to knit, for that matter, until you’ve actually tried to do so with your own two hands. As you will see, once you’ve found yourself a teacher, the long-tail cast-on is especially satisfying because it goes quickly once you’ve got the rhythm, and the rhythm is dictated by the pleasant physics of knot-making, which is essentially what you are doing—making a string of knots into which you will knit your first row of stitches. Just as when you were very young and learning to tie your shoelaces, so casting on using the long-tail method can be learned by mentally repeating a simple but effective mantra to yourself, one that describes the neat constellation of points the tip of your needle must trace against the various surfaces of your hand as it entangles the yarn at specific angles so as to lure it into its proper configuration on the needle. “Twist down to thumb base, thread up to index tip, draw through loop, pull snug,” might work. In short, casting on is not difficult, just a little intricate. Unlike so many other ways of beginning so many other things, the beauty of casting on is that you know precisely when you are done with it, and so you know exactly when you’ve entered the middle of your own linear non-linear adventure. This can hardly be said of most things in life. Children seep slowly into adulthood, sometimes never quite fully arriving. Spring sighs itself into summer, only to collapse, slow-motion, into autumn. And so on.
5. Continental vs. English
I learned to knit not from my mother or grandmother or any other theoretically beneficent relative, but from an intelligent woman who owned a fancy yarn store in San Francisco. I’d just had my first child—a girl—and as I wanted to be an altogether different sort of mother than my own, I thought I’d begin by knitting my daughter a sweater. The intelligent yarn-shop owner was an excellent teacher, though I, lost in the woods of confusion that sprout up around any knitting neophyte’s first efforts, didn’t realize this at the time. For instance, she taught me to knit in the “Continental” style, which involves holding the yarn in the left hand and which is, for this reason, more efficient than the much more widely practiced “English” style, in which the yarn is held in the right hand and literally thrown over the needle with each and every stitch. The difference between the two styles is comparable to the European vs. the American manner of eating with a fork and knife—the European manner being the one in which we cut our food with our fork in our left hand and our knife in our right, then lift the morsel to our mouths directly, as opposed to the American manner in which the food is cut in the identical way, but the knife is then put down on the plate and the fork transferred to the right hand, only to be raised to the mouth. There’s an entire extra step there—completely unnecessary, just like throwing your yarn. (I did once see an older Chinese woman knitting an elaborate jersey on the subway; she used, as far as I could make out, the Continental hand/yarn configuration but on her right hand and she knit—with a pair of actual bamboo skewers bounded by rubber bands at one end—extremely quickly; perhaps there is a Chinese style of knitting that is to both Western styles what chopsticks are to the clumsy and brutish fork and knife?) In any case, when you find someone—whether a nicotine-infused saleswoman at your own local yarn shop, a relative, or a friend—to teach you how to knit, request to be taught, if at all possible, in the Continental style. Eventually, you can learn the English style as well, which comes in handy when doing colorwork. This is down the line, of course, but something to look forward to: holding two different colored yarns, one in each hand, and knitting with them in turn. It’s a wonderfully streamlined operation and, as an added benefit, can keep young children and fellow transit passengers in a state of quiet hypnosis for a few minutes at a stretch.
6. Knitting vs. Purling
It is probably a good idea to clarify at this point what we mean by the term knitting because it signifies two different activities, however closely related. Knitting is a craft, but it is also a specific way making stitches. Every way of making stitches that involves a pair of knitting needles—slipped, cabled, twisted, woven, increased, made, multiplied, purled, or knitted—falls under the general activity header we call knitting. The most common type of knitting happens to be knitting. Running a close second is purling, which essentially mirrors knitting, or inverts it, mimics it but at the same time reverses it. Besides increasing and decreasing, as well as casting on and binding off, there is little aside from knitting and purling that you need to know in order to create a wide variety of objects, from sweaters to shawls to blankets to children’s leggings and toys. The creation of cables, bobbles, lace, decorative edgings and all that is just icing on the cake, or what more experienced knitters do in order to keep themselves amused. Stockinette is a fabric created by knitting on one side (the “right” side) and purling on the other (the “wrong” side). It is what most people picture when they think of knitted fabric. Ribbed fabric also consists of alternating knit and purl stitches though on the same side (or, as it were, both sides simultaneously, since a knit stitch on one side will look like a purl stitch on the other, and vice versa). Many basic textured patterns, such “seed” and “moss,” are nothing but alternating knit and purl stitches, variously syncopated. Common as it is, purling constitutes many a knitter’s bête noire. According to the intelligent yarn store owner, people dislike purling because they learn it second, after becoming thoroughly accustomed to the smooth, more or less intuitive slipping and sliding motions associated with knitting. Purling, by contrast, involves picking and twisting motions and thus goes somewhat slower. For these reasons many people find it annoying. Technically, the difference between the two stitch-making procedures is this: when you knit a stitch, you pull the yarn through the front of the loop below it and when you purl one, you pull the yarn through back. In this way, knitting may be seen as a tiny metaphor for taking, since you bring the yarn toward yourself, whereas purling may be seen as a tiny metaphor for giving, since with every stitch you move the yarn away from yourself. The larger metaphor, then, would be to keep the two actions in balance. It’s something I like to think about. In any case, it is imperative that you find some way—philosophical or otherwise—to make friends with purling because to be a purl-hating knitter is to be in a state of constant ambivalence. It is like being a cook who hates cleaning up, or a gardener who hates weeding, or a talker who hates listening. Equilibrium is key. Allow the act of purling to teach you patience. After all, life is full of little irritations. And it is also short.
7. Choosing a Project
The most common project for first-time knitters is the garter-stitch scarf because to make one all you do is cast on a certain number of stitches, knit straight for as long as you want the finished product to be, then bind off. Voila—you’ve got yourself a homely handknit scarf. Another popular first-time project is a hat with a curled edge because these are small and, like garter-stitch scarves, do not require any purling as the work is done in-the-round, which means that the “knit” side faces you at all times. But knitting-in-the-round presents its own challenges, and I, personally, found it impossible in the beginning. Despite the protestations of the intelligent yarn-shop owner, the first thing I ever knit was a little red cardigan, size 6 months. The yarn was a wool-cashmere blend in a bright strawberry color and the buttons were old-fashioned brass half-barrels, embossed and enameled on top with a transparent red glaze. The overall effect was clumsy but sweet. My daughter is now thirteen years old. I’ve knit her many toys, sweaters, vests, ponchos, and even a very ugly felted coat in the intervening years. Most recently, I gave her a white cable hat for Christmas, but she lost it in the snow. Before that I gave her a long, slim, lavender-colored cardigan in an Italian yarn—all wool, but with such a soft “hand” it almost seems like cashmere. She wears it all the time. I have son, now, too, a lovely little boy, and every day, it being mid-winter, he wears a pale grey turtleneck with a deep ribbed yoke that I made when he was three, because although he’s five-years-old now, it was originally enormous. My father likes this sweater so much that he’s requested an adult version. My husband wants a vest with buttons. My daughter would like a new cable hat, my mother a plain black cardigan, my niece a pink jumper with pockets, and a woman I’ve known less than a year has hinted broadly that a blanket for her baby, due in two months, would be much appreciated. At some point every serious knitter bumps into the question of exactly how generous he or she wants to be. Do I knit for myself? Do I knit for others? Do I go back and forth? It’s a personal thing. I go back and forth, though the bulk of my knitting winds up being for myself and my children. At the moment, for reasons I recognize but do not fully understand, I’m on an especially intense jag of knitting for myself. My current project, for instance, is a Nordic-style pullover with some delicate colorwork on the cuff and neck areas. It’s complicated, but I’m hopeful I’ll finish in time to wear it at least once or twice before spring gets here. I feel I should knit my father’s sweater next, or my husband’s vest, but there’s a pretty blue gilet that I’d like to make myself for the summer. And then there’s a brown cardigan, the design of which I’ve been mulling over for months now, that I plan to knit in the Tyrolean style, which involves embroidering tiny flowers into the hollows of pronounced cables, and this, also, would be for me. I try not to fight my nature on this score. I often feel I don’t have enough. It’s an emotional thing. A holdover from childhood, when we always managed to get by, materially speaking, but survived on next to nothing in areas like affection and gentleness. Of course, I’d like to be more mature, but in my experience you are where you are with this sort of thing. And I’m still in the knit-myself-a-boatload-of-sweaters stage.
8. The Importance of Gauge
You will not believe me, not deep down, and you will ignore me. Most beginning knitters are very dubious about this. But I would be remiss not to stress the importance of testing your gauge before starting any significant knitting project. Gauge is essentially stitches per inch, and even a quarter of a stitch, more or less, per inch, could mean the difference between a knitting success and a disaster. Terms, here, should be crystal clear. There is needle size, yarn type, and tension, and the combination of all three of these results in your gauge. The smallest knitting needles are very small indeed and used only for lace projects. These can be as thin as pins. The largest are so fat as to be frankly obscene, for which reason one rarely sees people knitting with them in public. Yarn, also, comes in many weights or diameters. Due to variations in texture, it also “blooms” at different rates. Blooming is what yarn does once it’s been knit up, washed, and blocked. Some yarns need to bloom before their true beauty becomes apparent, while others seem to loose their character entirely once bloomed. Lastly, tension is how tightly you knit. Generally speaking, the more perfect your tension—not too loose, not too tight, and above all, unchanging—the more uniform and ultimately handsome your knitting will be. I tend to knit loosely, though most people with imperfect tension go the other way, too tight, and must wrestle with every stitch. Give five knitters the same size needles and exactly the same yarn, and ask them to knit up a swatch of precisely the same number of stitches and you will quickly realize the role tension plays in knitting. It is tempting and probably not entirely incorrect to see the individual knitter’s tension as a reflection in some way of his or her personality. In any case, this is how to test your gauge: a proper test swatch is roughly 4 x 4 inches square and knit using not only the very needles and yarn you plan to use on your project, but also the exact pattern—inclusive of cables, colorwork, and fancy stitches. Once knitted, your swatch should be washed, pressed, and carefully blocked until it is bone dry. Only then do you measure, and if, at this point, you find your gauge is off—for instance, maybe you’ve come up with 5 stitches per inch whereas the pattern specifies 5.5—you must start the entire process over again. Why? Is half a stitch really so important? It is. An extra half stitch multiplied by the circumference of your garment, if you’re making one of those, means a baggy fit. Alternately, a quarter stitch less than indicated might translate into an uncomfortably tight sweater or simply an ugly fabric. The commonest measure for adjusting gauge is to go up or down a needle size or two. You could also conceivably change your yarn to achieve the same end. The other variable is, as I mentioned, tension, but that, being a matter of physiology (hand size, etc) and, above all, temperament, is a much more difficult thing to alter (though not altogether impossible).
9. Time and What to Do with It
Knitting, of course, takes time. For this reason, the activity is often snidely derided by folks who believe they have “better things” to do with theirs. Ignore these people. Time, much more so than the actual materials used or techniques employed, is what gives handknit items their inimitable beauty. Look at any finely constructed piece of handknitting. Examine the stitches closely. Meditate on them. What do you see? Time and care (and maybe the occasional dog, cat, or human hair woven in—these things happen). I am at the moment, as I think I mentioned, working on a Scandinavian style pullover with some delicate slipstitch colorwork at the cuffs and collar. This sweater is being done in very fine Norwegian yarn on small needles. My estimated number of stitches for the entire sweater is 64,800. This sounds like a mind boggling number until you consider the fact that I knit, with moderate speed, approximately 35 stitches per minute. In an hour, with no serious distractions, I can get through 2,100 stitches, which means the sweater will, by its completion, have taken just over 30 hours to knit. If I were to knit for an hour every day, I’d have a new sweater every month. But at most I knit two to three hours a week, in small, random increments. Knitting was originally done by shepherds, who knit as they walked alongside their flocks. Later, in the house, by women, it was done near simmering pots and napping babies. Now, for most part, it is done, at least in my house, on the couch. I sometimes ask my husband to read to me while I knit, but he usually puts himself to sleep this way, so I also listen to audio books—lately it’s John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, though I’ve also knitted my way through the Iliad and much of Sherlock Holmes. Knitting is a good thing to do while you are doing something, but not much, else. Waiting for the doctor, the bus, or for your son’s after-school origami workshop to let out all offer excellent knitting prospects. It’s also perfectly acceptable to knit among friends, in-laws, and other intimates at casual gatherings and, as it keeps your hands busy, knitting can be a very effective diet-aide when dessert-time rolls around. Lectures and meetings, depending on contexts, also present fine knitting opportunities. Some people claim even to read while they knit, though I don’t believe them. However you round out your knitting experience, do try, every once in a while, to do nothing but knit, and see how that goes. It is, I won’t lie, tedious. You will feel yourself slipping slowly and inexorably through the invisible fingers of time, just as you feel the yarn slipping through yours. And yet you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are making something of it.
10. Correcting Mistakes
While caught up in the long and sometimes seemingly never-ending middle of a project, small errors are frequently made without your noticing. You drop a stitch. You inadvertently increase (or decrease) a stitch. You split your yarn. These are all extremely minor mistakes that can be fixed with patience and a crochet hook. With slightly larger problems (or minor problems in complex patterns), you will on occasion be obliged to tink, that is, knit backwards, sometimes for many rows, carefully liberating one stitch at a time from your needles until you reach the problem. With the worst sorts of mistakes, however, it will be necessary to frog—or rip out—portions of your project and even, in the most hopeless cases (as when you discover late in the game that you actually hate the color fuchsia), the entire thing. Honesty is imperative in these situations. Close scrutiny not only of the work you have done but also of the work that lies ahead, as well as your own motives and inclinations is of paramount importance. Many an unsuccessful knitter is unsuccessful because he or she practices the art of self-deception. Oh, I need to lose a little weight anyway. Or, Oh, so-and-so should really branch out fashion-wise. Resist this. When you realize deep down that the sweater you are knitting will under no circumstances flatter its recipient, stop and frog. You will soon see that the most painful part of the process is the decision, as frogging itself is weirdly captivating, in an existentially eerie sort of way, since the stitches, so painstakingly assembled, jump with such mind-numbing rapidity back into the void of formlessness. Once a work is frogged, there’s a great sense of liberation, at which point, you simply begin again, making the required changes. If you are an honest knitter, you will frog more often than you might care to admit, and people in your life might consider you neurotic. Rest assured that you are not neurotic, only smart, and that the people in your life are lucky, because their sweaters flatter them. There is, however, another category of mistakes that are a bit trickier to deal with as they can only be remedied with ingenuity and flair. In these cases, there’s nothing overtly wrong with what you’ve got, but you know that if you continue along your charted course, nothing special will have been created. For example: when knitting a simple pullover, you might realize as you approach the shoulders, that it is too simple, though the fit, the fabric itself, and the color are pleasing. Here you might opt, as I have on a couple of occasions, to incorporate a bit of texture, such as some simple smoking or Quaker ridging , for the last few inches. Incredible what a small touch like that can do. Or, after the knitting is completed, you might choose to change the neckline with a bit of steeking (see below). Also, embroidery is always an option. Another example occurs to me just now. This is slightly off-topic but perhaps informative: looking back over these pages, I see I’ve adopted a formal and somewhat arch tone. In this way, I have succeeded, as I so often do, in hiding vast portions of my true self. Why do I care about knitting? Why am I writing these instructions? I wish I’d been a bit clearer about these things. But perhaps it’s not too late. I care about knitting because it seems to me a form of love. I’m writing these pages because love confuses me and I thought, sub- or maybe semi-consciously, that if I spent some time dissecting the act of knitting, I might get somewhere in my more or less remedial understanding of love. My understanding of love is remedial because sometimes I don’t know if I feel it or not. Sometimes it’s crystal clear, as with my children. Sometimes it’s pretty murky, as with my mother. It’s murky because she is so emotionally deformed as to be, herself, incapable of it. She’s had a hard life. She is mentally ill. She was sexually and otherwise abused as a child and has since that time abused her own self ceaselessly and remorselessly. I understand that. And yet I have never knit her a sweater. A hat, yes, once, but it was silly. Her suicide attempts, addictions, and self-mutilations confuse me. Her paranoia exhausts me. Her hospitalizations depress me. Above all the things she says to me deflate and deaden me. I rarely speak to her anymore, but when I do, the old nastiness is still there, still sharp, wily, ruthless. I am a middle-aged woman. My mother is an old woman. I’ve worked hard on my emotional armor, but she can still kill off small bits of me. Someday, maybe I’ll knit her the plain black cardigan she asked me for, years ago. Someday, I may feel I’ve given myself sufficient amounts of that which she was never able to give me. Someday, maybe I’ll learn to love her despite her faults. And someday after that, maybe (who knows? all things are possible), I’ll learn to love her because of them. After all, we cannot frog people, not ourselves, not others, not even partially. Mistakes are part of us, and not so much wrong or ugly as in possession of their own sad and irrefutable logic.
For the first several dozen rows of any project, the needles seem to handle the weight of the work. You hardly notice it. But at a certain moment, a moment that differs with each project, you will suddenly realize that out of the linear monotony of yarn, yarn, yarn, a thing is growing, making itself known, taking form, becoming real. It is a feeling that I, personally, never tire of. As this form takes on greater and greater clarity, as it curls in your lap—almost alive and full of something you might even call personality—your excitement will no doubt grow, as well as your confidence and expectations. Most knitters get so carried away with the seemingly magical fruition of form as it slowly accrues in their laps that they forget that the act of making a knitted object does not end with the knitting itself, but with the finishing. Some people hate finishing so much that they hire out to have it done. But this is unnecessary. The trick is to build up a head of steam. As you bind-off your last row of stitches, remember, you are far from finished. Steel yourself. Eat some baked goods. And move on. Even with the most ingeniously constructed seamless sweaters, there will be countless ends to be woven in and carefully snipped. There will be washing, pressing, and blocking to do. In most instances, there will be plenty of seams to sew, which is an art in itself. For coats, jackets, cardigans, and some vests, you’ll have to choose, buy and attach buttons—occasionally ridiculous amounts of them. There may be embroidery or overstitching involved. There may, as well, be some clever doctoring necessary (some after-the-fact shaping with creative seaming, for instance, or aggressive blocking). There are even instances in which you will be required, as part of the finishing process, to steek, or actually cut the work you’ve just completed in order to make armholes and/or front openings, as in traditional box-shaped drop-shoulder designs from Sweden and Norway. In short, all of this takes time and enormous reserves of patience, but it is imperative that you not let things languish at this point. Keep going. Keep going. You are almost, but not quite, there.
12. Care of Knitted Objects
And then, suddenly, you are. You’re done. Properly worked and finished, a newly completed piece of handknitting is a vaguely mystical thing, almost humming with love and intention. At this point, you might neatly fold the work, wrap it in tissue paper, and give it to someone. You might slip it over a child’s head. You might mail it away to Chicago, for your sister. Or you might try it on, yourself. It’s wonderful to wear something that’s been knitted by hand, and not only because it’s beautiful (or at least cute, or at least sweetly clumsy) but because it is time—it’s a part of someone’s life, your life. It is also tradition. (The earliest known example of what we think of as knitting—as opposed to nalbinding, an older and visually similar craft—is a pair of elegant two-color socks from Egypt, ca. 1,000 CE.) For these reason and others clearly alluded to in the preceding pages, the act of knitting can be seen as one of resistance. To knit something by hand is to resist our culture of cheap, instant and corporate. Of unremitting conformity. Of convenience at all costs. To handknit something is to celebrate the individual as well as the miracle of opposing thumbs. Yet even now, after having completed this noble act of individuality, resistance, tradition, and skill, your job is not completely done, because well-loved handknit items will wear-out at the cuffs and elbows, the seams will separate, the wool will pill. Here are a few things to keep in mind. To wash a handknit object, use a gentle shampoo or liquid soap and tepid water. Never scrub or wring the work, but press it gently to remove soil. Never, ever let it soak. Once it is clean, gently knead the object to extract as much water as possible, then roll it in a large bath towel, then unroll it, and, finally, block it on a large, flat surface in precisely the shape you want it to be. Air-dry until not the faintest hint of moisture remains. To remove pilled balls of wool, do not pull, which only loosens more fibers, ultimately exacerbating the problem, but carefully snip off at the base with a pair of tiny scissors. To patch heels, elbows and cuffs, my best advice is to watch a you-tube video. Search under “darning” or “Swiss darning” or “sock mending.” That’s what I did. Never store your sweaters on hangers, which will deform them, but fold them neatly and keep them, if possible, on open shelves where you will have the opportunity to give them a good stiff shake every few days so as to dislodge any potential moth larvae. I hate even to mention these creatures, but wool moths constitute a real and constant threat and it is important that you be on your guard against them at all times. Wool moths are different from food and other moths. They do not fly toward the light. They do not come out at night. Pheromone-based lures and other kinds of traps don’t work with them. They like protein, and so they like wool. They especially like wool that has trace amounts of human saliva, blood, or mucus on it, also bits of food, and they will seek out these spots to lay their eggs. The best way to prevent or fight a wool moth infestation is to be an excellent housekeeper. Keep things tidy. Vacuum weekly, and not just the tops of your rugs, but the undersides as well. Move your furniture and vacuum underneath it. In this regard, I do not practice what I preach. I am, by nature, a messy person, and wool moths have been a part of my life for years, I’m afraid—even though, I can assure you, nothing sickens me in quite the same way as the sight of one of those silvery little Lepidoptera fluttering limply out of my closet, drunk, it would seem, on my work. Mothballs reek, but are the only effective method I’ve found of killing the creatures. I have tried for a more Buddhist approach. I have tried to embrace the wool moth as part of the natural cycle of things. I have meditated on the deeper reality of this situation and come to the quaint but not untroubling conclusion that a wool moth is nothing but wool. Wool transfigured. Wool woven by a bit of moth-y genetics into the form not of the sweater or blanket I worked so hard to create, but a tiny, voracious, dart-shaped bit of shimmer. Kill a wool moth and you will see it is practically nothing, nothing at all, just a faint smear of iridescence, like a bit of taupe-colored eye shadow. I would like to say something wise and poetic about wool moths, something sage. But wool moths make me worry, like the small patches of grey in my husband’s beard make me worry. Everything wears out, eventually. Everything gets older, and older, and then, finally, it gets old. My children are growing up. Someday, I won’t be able to cover them in woolen artifacts of my affection. Someday, they will go away. I know this but opt for deep-seated denial. In the meantime, I knit. And I knit. And what I knit wears out, is eaten by moths, lost, or given away. But slowly, I am starting to understand. Every sock, hat, scarf, and shawl, every sweater and pair of mittens that I make is only a transient form. The constant is not what’s knitted or who knit it. It’s knitting.
Interview with Kim Adrian by Gary Percesepe
You are working on a memoir. What are the challenges that you face in writing this genre, and how do they differ from writing a novel or short fiction?
I feel freer writing nonfiction than fiction—I think because plot has always seemed an artificial constraint to me. I struggle with it. But in memoir, and in exploratory nonfiction in general, you have a lot more latitude in terms of structure. For me, the most liberating way to shape prose is to think of it as a kind of investigation. I like the process of unearthing—through the writing itself—a mystery and making sense of it. The past and memory are natural subjects for this approach, so memoir’s a good fit. In terms of the challenges of the form… For me, the biggest issue is that in memoir your subject is such a moving target. Because you’re manipulating your memories so much, putting them in order, putting them to use, and this changes them. Your memories are your material, your fuel. This is a funny comparison, but I was watching a Marx Brothers film with my husband the other day, Go West. There’s this amazing race at the end. The villains are on horseback and the Marx Brothers are on a train and they’re all vying to get to the next station because whoever gets there first gets a big contract and a lot of money. The problem is, the steam engine has run out of coal, so the Marx Brothers decide to feed it wood. At first they feed it some logs that are lying around, but then they run out of logs, so they start feeding it suitcases and shipping boxes, but pretty soon they run out those too, so then they start dismantling the train—the seats and tables, even the floors and the walls—until the whole body of train disappears into the engine just to keep it going. When I saw that, I was like, “It’s just like writing a memoir!” When you’re writing a memoir you’re going somewhere—you’ve got this goal: you’re writing a book, you’ve got to finish, reach your destination. But you use up huge portions of yourself in order to do that, because when you spend a lot of time with your memories, writing about them, you kind of kiss them goodbye. They don’t belong to you in the same way anymore. They become a story, outside of you. In a way, it’s freeing. In another way, it’s kind of scary.
That puts me in mind of something James Salter said in his memoir, Burning the Days, where he wrote, “to write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well–in describing a world you extinguish it–and in a book of recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.”
Right. And is it really worth it? If I were truly comfortable in the present, content with it, would I be writing this memoir? Writing entails losing, but it’s what writers do. And while I agree that you lose much of the shimmer of things for yourself, internally, it’s not entirely gone because that’s your job as a writer—to put something like light on the page.
Are there any memoirs out there where you read them, you say to yourself—yes, that’s what I am trying to do. Or not do.
As much as I appreciate them, I’m not trying to write a memoir that reads more or less like a novel—with a cast of well-rounded characters, lots of dialogue, and a classic sort of plot. I mean memoirs like Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle or The Liars’ Club. My favorite memoir is Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard. Also, although it’s usually called a novel, Remembrance of Things Past, which is the ultimate investigation of memory. That’s a big part of what I’m interested in—an exploration of what the past actually is—how do we know it? How does it continue to exist inside us and between us? How do we escape it, if that’s what we’re after, or embrace it, or just find peace with it? Now that I think about it, Bernhard hardly does anything along these lines in Gathering Evidence. His is just a pretty straightforward autobiography. The thing I love about that work is that he never hedges. He’s bold. There’s this common thing in memoir these days, especially memoirs about difficult childhoods or families, like the one I’m writing, where it’s considered important to show that everyone in the story is both good and bad. Maybe in varying amounts, but this kind of “shading” is de rigueur. But in his memoir, Bernhard is the absolute hero—not in any big, macho way, but just because he’s clear-sighted and he believes that seeing the world clearly is important and rare. He also writes about really limited or awful people, and he doesn’t bother to shade or nuance most of them. In a way I find this much more honest than going out of your way to give gradation to characters just to make them palatable or comfortably recognizable or not too ugly. Bernhard was a child when the Nazis were in power, and he is absolute about their evilness and stupidity. It’s more courageous, I think, to sometimes deal in black and white than endless greys.
I’m currently writing a memoir and I find the character I have the most difficulty being fair to is myself.
It’s hard to create a character of yourself. You have too much information and can get all tripped up trying to explain yourself. I’ve noticed this particularly when I write about difficult things, like my mother’s mental illness. I get this very distinct persona going. It’s more than a voice, but less than a character. It’s like a filtration system. I figure my character is going to get on the page whether I want it to or not, and this persona helps me feel less vulnerable, which, ironically, helps me reveal more, be more vulnerable, tell more of the story. Sometimes she surprises me, because she’s pretty different than I am in real life. She’s bossy and sometimes she gets this oddly litigious thing going in her diction, which always baffles me, but it makes for an interesting alchemy between my memories and her approach. She’s tougher than I am and the story comes out differently than it would if I were just telling it in person. It’s clearer.
Where do your characters come from, and what is the truth in fiction?
I admire writers who can concoct characters. Make them up. This kind of thing seems related to acting or play-acting. It’s a great ability. But I don’t do much of it. Someday, maybe something in me will shift and I’ll be able to do that. In the meantime, my fiction is just one or two degrees away from non-fiction. I did write a novella once that was more purely invention. But generally, I don’t do it so much. In any case, I think you can cram as much truth into fiction as you can into nonfiction. Don Quixote is as fictional as it gets, but it holds a boatload of truth. Honesty has always been a kind of obsession for me. A compulsion. Fudging things, even if it’s to get to a larger truth, is definitely a complicated process for me. This is why fiction is such a struggle, and nonfiction so comparatively easy.
Would you agree with one of your characters who states that it is possible to fall in love with parts of people? And if so, which parts are preferable?
I agree with that. In fact, I think we can only love parts of people. Never the whole person. People are just too big. Too complex. The parts of people that interest me, that I fall in love with, or think are intriguing, are usually the parts that they’re less aware of themselves. Self-consciousness throws up a big screen, and usually that’s boring. But when people get outside of their own heads, their own self-interest, let go of their own self-image and engage with something they love, that’s interesting. I just had an image of a dad with a baby bottle sticking out of his pants pocket. That’s the kind of thing I mean. I like it when people forget themselves. Like on the subway, when someone’s really into what they’re reading—that look that goes over their face. It’s like they’re outside of themselves because they’re so into their book, but at the same time, they’re more purely themselves. If someone’s really into their work, you can see that look then, too. I think this is basically what happens in romantic love, or even just flirtation, but between two people. Because when someone has that kind of reaction to another person, when they’re really intrigued or absorbed by another person, they lose track of themselves. And when that fascination is mutual, it’s called love.
I like what you say about self-consciousness here, and would like to invite you to unpack a comment John Updike once made in this regard. Interviewed at Paris Review, Updike said, “I really don’t think I’m alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first eighteen years of their life. Hemingway cherished the Michigan stories out of proportion, I would think, to their merit. Look at Twain. Look at Joyce. Nothing that happens to us after twenty is as free from self-consciousness because by then we have the vocation to write. Writers’ lives break into two halves. At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey—whereas when you’re young, you’re so impotent you cannot help but strive and observe and feel.”
I don’t think it’s exclusively a writer’s issue. Our childhoods are just richer. In part, it’s because when we’re young, everything feels mythical. Your parents, your home, your neighbors, your extended family, your favorite tree. Everything seems to point to some enormous mystery you can just barely make sense of. And every once in a while, a little piece of the mystery seems to detach and make sense of itself, come into focus. You understand your relationship to it, and it shrinks to real-world proportions. Though the whole thing never completely comes into focus, and we keep being haunted by that mythological feeling for the rest our lives. What he says about receptivity to experience also seems not exclusively a writer’s issue. Maybe it’s a little worse for writers, because we’re willing to use up our experience in a different way, but mostly I think it’s just a rotten trick of growing up. Children have an easier time being in the present. They have less static on their brains—fewer judgments, stories, worries, assessments. They’re less experienced and so naturally more neutral, more objective. I figure impressions just take better to that kind of surface than they do to the surface of the adult mind, which is so muddied with concerns outside the moment. As we get older, our minds get more crowded—ironically, memories do a lot of that crowding—and it gets increasingly difficult to form the kind of gorgeous, crystalline memories we associate with childhood. My grandfather pouring ketchup on his scrambled eggs, for instance. Why do I remember that? The colors struck me, I thought it looked horrible and couldn’t imagine wanting to eat it, but mostly I think there was just nothing else on my mind at that moment. In that moment, I was all about those scrambled eggs and ketchup. To this day, I can still see them.
Kim Adrian’s short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, Ninth Letter, the Raritan Review, and elsewhere. Among the awards and recognitions she’s received are a P.E.N. New England Discovery Award, an Artist’s Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, three Pushcart Prize nominations, and the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction from the New Ohio Review, as well as residencies at the Edward Albee Barn, Ragdale, and VCCA, and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. Find more at kimadrian.com