Inspiration vs perspiration: 5 things about creative work, 5.9.2016

1. It is my entirely unresearched belief that “inspiration” and “ideas” are the most misunderstood aspects of creative work. Whether painters, writers, musicians or yes, even needlecrafters… going by the ubiquity of questions such as “Where do you get your inspiration?”, our business is “ideas”, but how many of us* would agree with that? Ideas are abundant and low value. Actual artistic products are maybe 5% idea, 95% execution. Which is to say: it’s not about the Muse. It’s about the WORK.

I’ve previously mentioned the cowl that came together perfectly in the back of my mind while I was working on other things, and that’s a happy story; that’s how it goes when the ideas have time to germinate, and they just work. That was great. That’s not exactly the rule.

2. Consider Project A. I’d been planning this sweater for years, and it fit right in with new requirements, so I expected plain sailing. Well, the yarn was discontinued and I decided to change from a sportweight to DK, for faster knitting. Plus the original shape felt a bit stale, so I came up with an exciting new silhouette. And I had some new ideas for finishing. But basically it’s the same thing. I was super confident in this design, especially after I’d done all the maths, planned and graded the whole thing before I even cast on. So professional!

I tried it on halfway through and hated it.

I had to sit that sweater on the naughty step for a few weeks. I just didn’t know how to fix it. I think I do, now – although it’s basically the same thing, I’ll have to start over completely. So much for my great idea.

3. Then there’s Project B. The idea for this started with a word. I knew exactly how I wanted to translate that inspiration into knitting; but my swatches just didn’t work. Maybe the wrong yarn. Maybe just a bad idea. I tried it this way, tried it that way, changed it from a shawl to a T-shirt, tried different yarn, tried different ways of interpreting the concept… and then incidentally learned that my putative name, that oh so inspiring word, was already in use by half a dozen patterns. Annoying! But also freeing. Suddenly I didn’t need to worry about conveying that specific idea – but that left everything wide open. So, a T-shirt then, with this other great yarn, a yarn I love but that doesn’t show stitches well at all, so what to do with it? How to make it pretty AND wearable AND interesting? Imagine the photo up on Ravelry: what is the point? Why should anyone care?

I swatched and swatched and swatched and finally I was starting to get somewhere, but I didn’t really have a clue where I was going, and then one night as I fell asleep, suddenly I could picture the whole thing. I still have to actually MAKE it, mind, and as we’ve seen from Project A, that could ruin it all. But still: I’m getting somewhere.

4. It takes an awful lot of exploring to get to a creative product. I’ve written two other patterns this year that look simple. They’re not. They took so much swatching to get right. So many different yarn combinations were tried. So many increase methods. So many variations of a four-row stitch pattern (does the purl bump belong just here or there?). So many yarns. So much erosion to my creative confidence, as I wandered ever further from my original ideas. (They came out fabulous! So that’s all right then. But mid-journey: quiet panic.)

5. Also worth remembering: knitting, designing and self-publishing are three different things. All are creative work; all require substantially different skill sets. It just occurred to me last week (!) that I get a very similar satisfaction from making a pattern to that from knitting a thing. Every layer of the cake provides its own rewards: I love the knitting, obviously. I love the maths and aesthetic choices that go into creating a fully graded design** (whether for third-party or self-publishing); I love the slow, sometimes agonising process of getting it all just right. And I love bringing my communications and layout skills (my actual day job, or was when I was employed) to bear on putting out an actual pattern. And that’s why I can’t see myself not designing – even while sleep-loving me has to get up at 5am to do it. It’s just too much fun.  

But it really is a lot of work.

* I squirm a bit lumping myself in with the “artists” or even “creative workers” because I am nothing but a dabbler. Still: I’m writing about creative work, and I do creative work, so: “us”.
** If you’ve seen my occasional Excel-related rants on Twitter you might be questioning this love, but I swear it’s true. If you’ve ever sworn at a knitting project yourself, you know I’m right. And if you’ve never sworn at a knitting project, I suspect you just haven’t done enough knitting.

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