The Second Sleeve
November 28, 2010
The title of this post might sound like it’s suited for a horror movie or a detective novel, but it’s not. It’s about writing (and, by extension, about life), as you’ll soon see.
Right now I’m knitting a complicated Fair Isle sweater. It’s called the “Thistle Coat” and it’s made from two different yarns – one solid black, the other, self-striping. The colors play against the black gorgeously.
So far, I’ve finished the back and the fronts (these were knit at the same time). I’m now working on the first sleeve, doing the shaping for the cap (the very top of the sleeve) and I’ll soon be finished with it. I’ve been knitting at this sweater for a few months, now. And I’m at the stage of the process where I want it to be over. I’m bored to tears by the pattern. It was exciting when I started. But it’s now routine. And I still have that blasted second sleeve to knit. By the time a knitter gets to the second sleeve s/he’s had it with the sweater. It takes a great deal of persistence to finish that second sleeve, I can tell you. It’s a stage of the knitting process that I have to push myself through every time.
One of my knitting teachers once told me that she wished she had a dollar for all the sweaters in the world that are languishing in closets that are missing that second sleeve. A knitter chooses a pattern and the yarn for it happily. S/he’s excited, often even thrilled to be starting a new project. Casting on is a special kind of high – for a knitter, there’s nothing like it, the joy of seeing the work begin. Knitting the back (which most knitters complete before moving on to the fronts, and then the sleeves) goes easily. Knitting the fronts, no problem. But then there are the sleeves. The first feels like purgatory. The second, like hell. So, at this point, many knitters throw the thing in a drawer, go to their knit store, to plan another sweater. They tell themselves that, this time they’ll finish the whole thing, that it was something with that other sweater (and not with themselves) that forced them to abandon it and not complete it.
I’ve felt that high that happens in beginning a new sweater. In fact, there’s scientific evidence that we get endorphin rushes when we begin a new project. We are, in some ways, creatures that can become addicted to newness, to starting new things (and, by extension, abandoning old ones). Which is fine, in a way, because it’s important to start new things. But it also means that this human trait makes it hard for us to finish what we started. It takes a shift in awareness, a different skill set, to finish that second sleeve, to complete the garment, to sew it up and wear it. It takes awareness that it’s hard for us to finish things for us to be able to finish things.
So…how many manuscripts do we have tucked away that are missing that second sleeve?
Maybe we realized that we needed a new ending, or a new beginning. Maybe we realized that we needed to overhaul the piece, or that something central in the piece wasn’t working. Maybe we realized we needed to split the piece in two, and that we needed to develop each into their own separate pieces. Maybe we realized we needed to change the point of view as I did in the piece I’m now finishing, from an “historical” voice to one that was more personal.
Did we stick it out, do the grunt work that it takes to complete the work? Or did we thrown the damned thing in a drawer, sick of the whole thing, bored to tears by the work, or puzzled by what needed to be done, eager to get on to another piece of writing that we hoped/promised ourselves we’d finish because it (magically), at the end of the process, it wouldn’t be like knitting that proverbially second sleeve.
Virginia Woolf had something to say about that “second sleeve” stage of the process. She said it felt like hauling bricks over a wall. I remember her words every time I get to the “second sleeve” stage, of knitting, of writing. Because that’s just what it feels like to me – it feels physically difficult, not mentally difficult. It feels like my whole body is working hard at the “second sleeve” stage of the work. And it is: it’s working hard to keep me in the chair rather than getting up and doing something far more pleasurable.
Still, we’ll never get to finish the piece/the book/the sweater unless we push ourselves through that “second sleeve” stage.
I’ve been asked it I have any hints on how to get past it. I don’t really. All I can say is that, for me, knowing this is a normal stage, knowing that someone like Woolf went through it, helps me. Knowing that I’ll get to start something new after I finish what I’m working on helps. Knowing that, if I abandon what I’m working on and start something new, I’ll just get to that “second sleeve” stage again and then I’ll have, not one piece, but two pieces that are incomplete.
And let me indulge in a knitting metaphor for a moment. Knowing that, I knit about 24,000 stitches for the front and sides of the Thistle Coat, and about 5600 stitches for the first sleeve, means that if I abandon the sweater and don’t knit the second sleeve, then I will have wasted 80,000 stitches of my knitting life. Only 5600 stitches to go sounds better than 5600 stitches to go, damn it. If we abandon a piece of writing at the “second sleeve” stage, we will have wasted the equivalent of 80,000 stitches of our writing life.
Just as my knitting teacher wished she had a dollar for every unfinished sweater in the world, I wish I had a dollar for every unfinished piece of writing in the world. I know I’d have a million dollars at least, maybe more, much more. (But I’d rather see those pieces finished.)
I’ve talked to writers who haven’t finished a project (which is different from deciding to abandon a project because we learn it’s the wrong project to be writing). And what they all tell me is that the abandoned work feels like a thorn in their side. They think about it often. Thinking about it makes them feel bad.
So if pushing through that “second sleeve” stage of writing feels not so terrific, and not pushing through that “second sleeve” stage of writing and abandoning a project feels even worse, why not push on through? I can’t answer why writers don’t. But I suspect that some of us use our work (or our not working) to beat ourselves up. That’s the kind of thing we need professional help to solve.
I remember the day when I met Mary Gordon for lunch years and years ago. She’d just come from a meeting with her agent about her novel, Final Payments. It wasn’t published yet, though it would be in a year or so, to enormous acclaim.
Mary told me that her agent and she had decided that she had to change the point of view in the novel. The whole novel. She had, in effect, to rewrite the book from beginning to end. Now, that’s not just like knitting a second sleeve. That’s like ripping out an entire garment, putting all the yarn in little piles, and reknitting the whole garment in a different way. But imagine if she hadn’t.
I believe, also, that not finishing something that we start erodes our sense of self. If we abandon something, it becomes harder to finish the next thing. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird wrote that we should work every day, and finish things. Finishing things is essential in the life of a writer.