Tag Archives: annotation

Zen and the Art of Knitting

book by Bernadette Murphy

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

Bernadette Murphy in her first book Zen and the Art of Knitting uses clear and simple language that is simultaneously vivid, evocative, colorful, and, here’s the author in her— reflective—to make apt and often metaphorical connections between life and knitting without overreaching.

“Few things lend themselves so easily, so wisely to a metaphorical understanding of life as does knitting” Murphy says, adding that it “seems to be a metaphor for turning chaos into order” (31, 103). As she interviews knitters from all over the world, she finds some consistent patterns—namely, that knitters “associate their knitting experiences with the lessons they’ve learned about life” (152). Among those lessons: We construct the patterns of our lives as we would a sweater: “piece by piece, stitch by stitch” (31); we can “go back to the place before the mistake and correct it”, thereby “undo[ing] what we’ve done”, which is different, of course, from how things work in the real world (12, 31); “We are all made of the same materials, we are all joined in the knitted garment of life”—the old adage, cut from the same cloth comes to mind here (193); furthermore, “we are each stitches, necessary for a completed work” (193); we can “metaphorically weav[e] the disparate parts” of ourselves “back into a cohesive whole” (which certainly sounds cheaper than therapy) (15); we can, through our craft, build “elements of self-esteem that cannot easily be unraveled” (78); finally, we can reveal “a beautiful pattern” behind each of our distinct lives (154). These connections roll effortlessly off the author’s tongue (or more accurately, off her fingertips) and onto the page for our eyes and ears to soak up. And we know Murphy isn’t getting carried away with double meanings in verb choices like knit, weave, interweave, stitch, hook, and unravel because the folks she interviews make similar connections, too.

Knitting is “‘like praying with beads, stitch by stitch’” a Waldorf School handwork teacher and abbey oblate adds. She’s so quick to jump on the simile bandwagon, you’d think she weaves words—not blankets—for a living. (67)

A marriage counselor whom Murphy interviews is quick to use a simile to describe her knitting practice (not to be confused with her private practice): Knitting is “‘like eating a piece of pickled ginger after sushi to clear the palate’” she explains of knitting’s soul-cleansing effect (53). What an unlikely comparison, and yet—how apt!

Although I personally have the hand-eye coordination of a four-year-old and thus have never tried to knit anything in my life, I think the reason that Murphy and her interviewees manage these comparisons without coming across as overreaching is that they do so seemingly effortlessly—with the ease, one might argue, of knitting itself (once it becomes mindless, that is; once it takes on the Zen-like quality from which this book derives its very name). I don’t get the sense as a reader that Murphy kept a writer’s notepad by her nightstand and another miniature one in her purse in which to fastidiously record one-liners to sprinkle throughout her debut book. And I hardly think her interviewees had the time to rehearse answers over the course of their knitters’ tête-à-tête with the author. On the contrary, their answers flowed smoothly; they weren’t going for the next bud-um-BUM moment. For them, the comparisons were as natural as sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea, a “ball of wool and two pointy sticks” (30).

And that is exactly how I experienced the read: like I was catching up with a good friend I hadn’t seen in years (knitting herself), but it was as if no time had passed. I grew so comfortable around the knitter’s terminology, I almost felt like—to hell with my four-year-old hand-eye coordination! I can totally knit after reading this book. But then I remembered how riding a bike went after I hadn’t done that in fifteen years, and that’s something I actually once knew how to do. (Think: forgetting how to brake or turn and jumping off the thing in frustration, mid-peddle, faster than if I’d seen my own ghost.) So perhaps knitting isn’t in my immediate future. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-written, well-researched, well-thought out book on the matter. What makes Murphy so successful is her ability to use knitting as a vehicle to convey universal truths. Perhaps Tara Ison said it best on the back cover: “A wise, illuminating book for knitters and non-knitters alike.”

Just as I don’t have to be an alcoholic to appreciate a compelling memoir on addiction or a survivor of abuse to be drawn in by a powerful story on the subject matter, I also don’t need to be a knitter to know that I like to hear truisms about living and how to do it better. We all want to know how to correct a mis-stitch here, a fumble there. It’s as though Murphy is telling us, we can repair the world by repairing ourselves, and we can do that through the Zen-inducing effects of knitting. And even if we never take to knitting personally, we can bliss out while reading about how others are becoming less tightly-wound while unwinding a ball of yarn. We can read about how they are making connections from self-to-world: the friction of their metal sticks creating the inspirational charge—their knitters’ needles the conduit to universal truths.

As a writer, I am reminded that readers will care if you make them. And that is exactly what Murphy does in Zen: She sticks it to us. (I couldn’t resist.) It doesn’t matter that she writes about knitting. She could write about any topic that is dear to her be it cooking, motorcycling, mothering, or mentoring. That she chooses to write about knitting is irrelevant. What matters is how she’s able to use it as an entry ‘point’ if you will, to speak to the human condition—to weave her way into our collective hearts and minds.


Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud


Book by Martin Gayford

Annotation by Susan Tuttle

Martin Gayford, art critic and curator, asked his friend, renowned British portrait artist Lucian Freud (a grandson of Sigmund) if he would paint his portrait. As he states at the beginning of Man with a Blue Scarf:

… my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence…. The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. (9)

Gayford’s curiosity to “see how it was done” doesn’t start and stop with a description of palette, canvas and technique. It transcends the boundaries of mere description of how a portrait is painted from the viewpoint of the sitter to become an accounting of process, revealing much more about both the artist and the sitter than he could have predicted when he sat down in that chair in Freud’s London studio in late November 2003. In Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford chronicles the process from start to finish in a series of dated narratives, often, but not always, starting with his arrival at the artist’s studio. As the book unfolds, the reader becomes aware that the sittings are just the scaffolding onto which Gayford’s observations, conversations, musings and remarks on Freud, art and his role as the sitter take purchase. The reader is afforded an intimate, unique and rare view into the working life of a world famous but reclusive portrait artist, as well as a glimpse into the psychology behind what a portrait is, and what it means to paint it.

One doesn’t have to have any particular pre-knowledge of art to enjoy Man with a Blue Scarf, but an interest in the creative process and some curiosity about what it means to be a working artist will make the reading experience more enjoyable. Gayford lives in a rather exclusive world, and a very British one at that, and while he usually makes an effort to explain the names dropped, sometimes he assumes we all travel in that circle. It could be taken as a compliment to the reader’s worldliness; seldom does it come across as stuck up. This is partly thanks to the fact that his subject, Lucien Freud, is about as down to earth as they come. And this is a strength of the structure of Man with a Blue Scarf: Gayford never fails to return the reader to the moment, back to the studio where wiry and spry octogenarian Lucian Freud is behind the easel, often half naked, wielding hog’s hair paintbrushes and thinking out loud.

The narrative is well balanced, taking advantage of conversations between Gayford and Freud to gain insight and reveal background without reverting to contrived flashbacks. Gayford recognizes early on what he has to gain:

While the artist is gathering the materials necessary for the portrait, the sitter – accidentally and automatically – is provided with a similar set of observations of the artist. By the end of this picture, I shall be in possession of a mental portrait of LF, culled from all the hours of looking at and listening to him. (21)

 What the author perhaps didn’t anticipate was a slow and not overly obvious parallel to the development of the painting concerning how Gayford the sitter appears to Freud the painter. Months before the portrait is complete, Freud reveals to Gayford:

‘You look different every day.’

‘More than most people?’

‘More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered. The features don’t change, it’s more the way that they are worn.’….

Throughout all the sittings to date I have thought of myself as a fairly unchanging object that LF is slowly tracking around, taking a long series of sightings as a surveyor might. Now it suddenly seems more like mapping a cloud, wave, or similar object in constant flux…. Josephine [Gayford’s wife] concurs that indeed I seem to alter in appearance from day to day. (136)

There is a nice dynamic between Gayford’s observations and his take on Freud’s observations that keep the narrative active and relevant. About midway through the book, Freud decides that he has painted Gayford’s head too large and needs to “shrink it” by applying dark paint (104). Gayford later makes an interesting comment in regard to this shrinking that could be applied to all art forms:

He continues with the process of ‘shrinking my head’, which is clear evidence that the picture is – like any work of art, in words, paint, stone or any other medium – an entity that follows its own inner laws. (107)

When I think of art – literary, visual or even auditory – as an “entity that follows its own inner laws,” I feel justified as a reader, viewer or listener to respond in my own way to the piece. As a writer I enjoy the dichotomy of controlling the medium while at the same time being aware that my work is taking on its own life, and letting the story lead me. In Gayford’s writing about a process through observations, the discoveries are multi-layered, running the gamut from what he has discovered about painting and Freud to what we the reader discover about Gayford.

Indeed, Man with a Blue Scarf is “an entity that follows its own inner laws” as is made clear sitting after sitting with all that is divulged and discovered. Abundantly punctuated with full color reproductions of paintings discussed in the text, adding a true visual to a discussion on the visual arts, the book is calm and thoughtful, and surprisingly revealing in an understated way. Gayford makes good use of the form, and is discrete when it comes to inserting himself into the narrative, careful not to push the main subject, Lucian Freud, offstage. This, in spite of the fact that Gayford himself is the Man with a Blue Scarf.

Embalming Mom: Essays on Life





book by Janet Burroway

annotation by Wendy Fontaine

The title piece in Janet Burroway’s collection of essays is an imagined discussion between the author and her deceased mother that says as much about how fiction writers strategically choose details and create dialogue as it does about how we, as human beings, process and reprocess our memories to fit the moment.

“I want to put you in a story,” Burroway writes in the opening of “Embalming Mom,” one of sixteen essays in her collection of the same name. “Apparently it’s a matter of some importance.”

The essay takes its place somewhere in the gray space between fiction and nonfiction. It is based on a real memory – Burroway watching her mother iron the puffed sleeves of a cotton dress – but it is thoroughly fictionalized in that the two women never encompassed the same space as the author describes it.

In the piece, Burroway is 45 years old, recently divorced and sitting in the breakfast nook of her childhood home. At first we think she is a grown daughter who has returned to her mother’s home after a bad breakup. As the story develops, we realize it is Burroway’s dramatization of a memory: she is watching her mother, a devoted 35-year-old housewife going through the domestic motion of ironing clothes. Burroway is imaginatively goading her mother into a mock conflict for the sake of a story she wants to write, while her mother is wrestling with an ulcer and admonishing Burroway for being indiscreet, in her life as well as in her fiction.

The author has put herself in a fictitious scene with her mother in an effort to recall and capture her as a character. As the narrative moves through time and place, Burroway sets the stage and creates dialogue between herself and her mother. She chooses the items to place in the scene, such as a fishbowl for an ash tray, and even goes so far as to chide herself when the details of the scene fall short. Burroway revises until it feels authentic. She writes:

She turns again, one eyebrow raised and a mocking smile, “What, then, am I the most unforgettable character you’ve met?” Not like her, neither the eyebrow nor the words, which have the cadence of a British education. I’m the one with the British education. I try again. She turns back like the film run backward…and turns again robotlike, profile gashed with a smile. “Honey, write for the masses. People need to escape. They need to laugh. (39)

The essay is similar to the way we replay personal conversations and experiences of the past and how we try to recast them in a more favorable light. At the end of the piece, Burroway acknowledges that the morticians have done what she was not able to do herself. “Everybody says they have done a splendid job,” she writes. “They have caught her exactly, everybody says.”

As a writer of memoir, I am fascinated by the process of how we recollect. I enjoy reading how other writers stumble across their memories, and how hard they work to pull the fragments of remembrance together to create a more cohesive picture in their mind – and then, of course, how they render that memory to the page. Each of the essays in Burroway’s collection focuses on a certain trigger of memory. Whether it is a photograph, a picture frame or the electrical stove in the first apartment she rented after her first divorce (“the paraphernalia of an ongoing life,” she calls it), Burroway allows these triggers to open the narrative to a time when she was able to make meaning of some aspect of her life. Using objects to activate memory is a good practice not only for memoir writers, but for writers of any genre. Because memories themselves are prone to distortion, the lines between genres are slightly blurred when one writes about memory – as Burroway shows us in her collection of essays.

In “Dad Scattered,” she remembers her father by going through his things – not substantial things like clothes or tools, but the seemingly insignificant things, like tie tacks, old keys and foreign coins. By swapping a photo out of a frame in “Freeze Frame,” she reflects on the ways in which we frame our lives. “We Eat the Earth” is a reminiscent piece about the English garden she never could quite manage. And in “Soldier Son,” she draws distinctions between her two children, who are very different but similar in how passionately they embrace their divergent lifestyles.

I admire Burroway’s expertise at getting under the skin of her subject, and her writing reminds me of what makes an essay great: the ability to connect the small moment (installing a pool in the backyard) to the bigger question (how do we bury our past?).  Each of her essays contains an element of doubt, followed by evidence to the reader that she is doing the difficult work of examining her life in order to find meaning in her chosen subject. Therein lies the value of memoir, and Embalming Mom is an example of why readers gravitate to the genre.

As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story, “truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.” Burroway fully engages with her experiences. Her essays reveal confessions, convey transparencies and offer readers some wonderful surprises.