The Craft Muscle | Fay Musselwhite

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

It’s occurred to me lately how many years I’ve been honing and flexing the parts of my mind I write poetry with, and how transferable the craft skills I learned as a child and in early adulthood have proved to be. With this in mind, talking to someone who runs for fun has revealed shared strategies for sustained focus.

I’ve always read, and written a bit, but my childhood creative apprenticeship was in sewing, knitting, crochet, macramé, embroidery, patchwork, any kind of textile alchemy. By the time I was nineteen, I understood the rudiments of several processes, and felt at times like a stream of whirling ideas about colour, texture, line; with an urgency to try making the things I could see and sense in my mind.

Materials were begged, found or bought cheap: friends brought me interesting cast-offs, and charity shops were quite idiosyncratic back then. One of the best things was going on missions to Wilton Carpet Factory, where they sold end-lengths of wool too short for their looms, in the vast range of hues and tones required by carpets. I was enthralled by the subtle distinction, visceral contrasts, and journeys of gradation evident in the colours. Skeins were randomly mixed, so I’d always bring home surprises, some of which became treasured shades that ran out too soon.

Commissions were sometimes for specific designs: occasional wedding outfits, a cover for a pub piano; while most orders for jumpers, other knitted clothing, cushion covers and bedding, were for the design as well. Waiting their turn were my own projects, often generated in part from demands made by commissions, these were where necessary experimentation took place. I was on the dole with no children: if little else I had time, and a free flowing mind, each to do what I wished with.

I’d be up at the crack of midday, eager to get on with whatever was current, to see last night’s work in daylight, to master the next difficulty. My fascination with materials and processes, and the growing field of their possibilities were both purpose and reward. My drive was to express in a garment, or surface design, the flavour or tone of a notion, scene or story that I’d glimpsed in a barely accessible region of my own primordial swamp – by that I mean the colours and textures evoked by emotions and memory, some real, some conjured from personal and cultural sources.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

That much of what I made had practical and aesthetic value, and that people liked it, was validating, meant it didn’t pile up too much, and must’ve helped with my sense of purpose. But really, that seemed faint and far away compared with the actual work, the thrill of flexing my creative muscle, striving to translate the inside of my head into things in the physical world: the colour palette on a pair of socks, the cut of a jacket, the tone of a freestyle patchwork. My partner through some of this time commented on the serenity in my face and posture at work, especially when at the sewing machine. What I remember feeling is that I was doing precisely what I was supposed to be doing.

At the helm of the craft that carried me, I was channelling my energies in their natural direction, learning how materials behave, honing skills, experimenting, and especially learning from when experiments go disastrously wrong. If I was learning then I wasn’t failing, whatever the thing in my hands looked like. This was the first time I’d experienced my brain laying down new information of its own free will, then keeping it alive by addition and adaptation, and it felt as though I’d found a way of letting more oxygen in. I fully realised that the mind is a muscle not a sponge – it’s not for filling up and squeezing out, but for flexing and bringing to bear on things.

State education in this country seems unwilling to seek out, validate and explore what pupils bring to the art room or creative writing class. Instead it imposes rigid and spurious templates for ‘creativity’, then only evaluates whether or not the rules have been followed. Art can’t be made under these circumstances: tools and techniques need to be tested, then taken on board accordingly. To make a thing that offers truth in a usable form requires us as artists to retain full access to our inner selves – our hopes, fears, emotions – as that’s where we source our unique materials.

As we mature, the journey is sometimes distressing, and I found the practical elements of craft helpful in this, by keeping me grounded while I risked going about in my own murky interior. Attention to rhythms, like knit one purl one for so many rows, protected me from getting burned by some of the coruscating demons I was colour-conjuring. It’s as though the physicality of the craft absorbed some of the energy, and stopped me becoming overwhelmed by my strongest responses to the world; let me look at my own fear, for instance, without being afraid, afforded the space to hold it away from me, draw from it without indulging it. To knit a jumper for someone to wear, the knitter needs to not be overcome by rage, lust, or any emotion. By the same notion, to write a poem to send out in the world for others to use, the poet must master shame, grief, or rapture, while writing. Years later, a chance viewing of Tony Harrison, on TV, explaining the craft of sonnet building, was one of the sparks that led me towards writing.

Defining ‘craftsmanship’ might demonstrate how these skills transfer. To paraphrase Coleridge, craftsmanship is the best available materials brought together in an arrangement best suited to the use of their finished product. Those materials include the craftsman, who melds tools and materials from her own mind with those in the workshop, some of which are uniquely adapted or made from scratch, to create something she believes the world needs – otherwise she might not be a craftsman but some kind of charlatan.

So craftsmanship is the antithesis of shoddy goods made quickly for profit or status. In writing, I want to make something that didn’t exist before, and I want it to cast my own light on a shared human experience. Crafting a poem isn’t taming timber or chipping away at marble: the material is word, the craft is in negotiating between sound and meaning, the only muscle to wield is the mind.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

Walking the dogs by the river, we often see runners; in the last few years my sister Mary, visual artist by trade, has become one. For her it’s meditative, about feeling part of the land. Talking about it, we find parallels between running as meditation and poetry as craft: she trains and flexes muscles in her body as I do in my mind, and for the same reasons.

A runner who runs alone only competes with himself; a poet writes his own poems the best he can, and must be his own most rigorous critic. Like me with writing, my sister’s not asking for it to be easy. Here’s an extract from a piece she wrote about running by the River Rivelin in Sheffield: she’s just forked left off a main path, and says –

I especially like this part of the run because the path changes; it narrows and undulates round quick corners, tree roots everywhere, as well as rocks, and brickwork forming curved tunnels where the run-off water re-joins the river. You have to really watch where you place your feet and I like this focus, hearing my breath coming hard but steady, concentrating on every step.

Sometimes, for me, writing feels like this – I’m in my stride, words bounce along for a line, maybe several, sometimes a whole stanza, and more. When I miss my footing, I go back, find surprisingly apt solutions, carry on, as if in my own backyard. Then in the next draft I tease out connections and meanings that I never thought I’d the skill to bring to a poem, and by the next draft it’s starting to sing. An explanation for this kind of flow is that I’m applying what I now know – what I’ve found hard before and struggled to learn has become available, it’s in my mind’s muscle-memory and can be deployed to greater effect than before.

But there’s always more to learn, that flow won’t last long, and new depths soon become shallow. The next obstacle will require another kind of path: the only poems I know how to write are the ones I’ve already written.

The running analogy holds for when the writing again begins to flag. At the river, I sometimes see a runner walking. I don’t like to see it as they look out of place in their running gear – as though dressed up and out, but not up to it. However, this is a stage of the process: the runner has run as far as she can, pushed herself still further – just to that next tree, then the next one, dragged up the energy from somewhere, nearly made herself sick, and now needs a break. This option of walking is very useful: it’s a thing a runner can do to stay on track, stay on the river path, keep propelling himself through the material, keep his muscles moving, warm and supple, all this while temporarily unable to perform what he’s there to do, due to a snag in terrain or energy supply, but after a while of this walking, he will be able to run again.

Similarly, when I get stuck in a poem, I just write dull for a while. I know it’s dull, yet when I try to sharpen it nothing works, my mind’s muscle isn’t toned for it. If it’s the poem I’m supposed to be writing, then it will take off when the muscle is ready. “Memoir of a Working River”, which runs to twenty pages, forced me to dig out new resources to stay with the project, especially as it piled up behind me and seemed worthwhile.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield (photo by Mary Musselwhite)

For as long as I’ve understood the Rivelin’s history I’ve wanted to write it as poetry, yet for years my efforts stumbled, led only to short poems of smaller journeys. So, fail better… I kept trying, and eventually tricked myself by beginning where I wanted the poem to end, wrote fifty odd lines, got stuck again, and this time, those lines alone would not make a poem. But I was onto something, and though I didn’t know how, I pushed on for the sake of what I’d written, and for the tale that needed telling.

At such times, I recall a runner walking and write dull for as long as it takes. If I can’t admit it’s dull while it’s costing the same effort as past gems, then I’d be afraid of writing dull forever, so I must acknowledge this and stagger on. Some of the output is useful – a word or phrase, narrative progress, a solution for some half forgotten problem, but the lines on the page are leaden. Nevertheless, I’m by the river, and in motion; soon I’ll learn what I need to go further.

To alleviate the drear, and tickle the muscle, I actively read poetry that seems spurred by the same energy as what I think I’m doing; this helps me tune to that energy. The competitor in me hates this: how come these guys can do it and I can’t? So I shut that voice up, like the walking runner, when another runner passes her, must rinse it from her mind. The poetry I’m reading is published; I wasn’t there while it was made. I didn’t see the poet walking by the river in her running gear, her hair all straggled, mud splattered up her aching calves; listening to the same stuff in her head, fighting the urge to give up and go home; and at the same time waiting, hoping, willing herself to be ready again to drive on. With both disciplines, staying with it is the only way, and when the flow kicks in, whoosh – what a payoff.

My sister started running with a friend who, when she slowed, would grab her wrist and pull her along, forcing her to run further before taking a walk break. My sister hated this, as I would. But it must be like being told by a respected fellow poet that you probably need to redraft a section or line of your poem, when you know how long it took you in the first place, and don’t believe your mind’s muscle can work harder, write it any better. Yet the giver of that advice believes you can, as the wrist grabbing showed my sister that her legs could run further, and she’s grateful to her friend for risking verbal abuse at the very least, by encouraging her to risk trying harder.

When I’m at home, alone, working on my poem, I have to grab my own wrist and pull myself on. Forget the fear of not being up to it. The poem’s arriving, whatever the sacrifice I must learn all I need to deliver it, keep going till it’s done – this time to another, further tree. The marvellous thing is, as poets, we do this in private. So, I snuggle into my writing chair, exposed only to the terrifying rigours of my own mind.

Fay Musselwhite’s debut full-length collection Contraflow is available now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Contraflow microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:

Contraflow cover (6 Apr)Contraflow: £12.99 (inc UK P&P)

£16 (inc Europe P&P)

£18 (inc Rest of World P&P)

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