I’m so excited to be teaching The KNITSONIK System (formerly Quotidian Colourwork) in a new way – to be offering the class online, in a context wherein participants have loads of time to swatch, process ideas, ask questions and develop a rich creative project. I am also really excited about the Agony Aunt Uploads – a new feature for the self-paced edition of the course that allows me to continually shape, update and enrich the content that is there. With this feature, folks who are enrolled can email me questions that arise through their process of translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork; I then consider their questions and produce content that directly addresses them.
Structuring feedback like this has several benefits.
Firstly, it takes time and effort to think through problems and I wanted a way for all course participants to benefit from the work I put into supporting individual creative processes. It makes no sense to duplicate content. If one person has a question, maybe someone else has it too; creating a supportive resource that everyone can use makes the best use of my time and labour.
Secondly, the metaphor of the Agony Aunt places a caring framework around asking for, and giving, help with solving creative problems. It also acknowledges the emotional component of trying to learn something new and finding that things don’t always go right first time.
In years of teaching the creative process of translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork, I’ve received lots of questions that are a version of HOW CAN I DO IT PERFECTLY FIRST TIME or IS THERE A RULE ABOUT COLOURS I CAN LEARN THAT WILL MEAN I GET RESULTS I LIKE IMMEDIATELY?! Along with this immobilising perfectionism, I’ve encountered much anxiety amongst my students and concerns about getting it wrong, wasting time, wasting yarn etc. I know from personal experience how unhelpful and unhappy these critical feelings can be. The context of knitting is full of concepts of RIGHT and WRONG which are very helpful for some things (you want your sweater to fit!) but less helpful to more open-ended creative processes involving ambiguity, discovery, and trial and error. The Agony Aunt persona is a way for me to offer encouragement, warmth and reassurance to students while also placing boundaries around my own limited resources so that I am not in the unsustainable position of trying to supply a 24/7 colourwork design support desk.
Finally, the process involved in producing the Agony Aunt Uploads puts valuable time and space around problems as it’s not instant. It takes time for course participants to write an email formulating their problem(s) and for me to then read that email; schedule time to record and edit a response; and then carefully craft helpful video advice. That time and space is a good thing as more often than not, when things are feeling frustrating in the creative process, it can help to step away for a bit.
The motto for the Agony Aunt Uploads is that “there is no problem in stranded colourwork design that can’t be fixed with kindness, time and tea” as this is what I’ve found in my own creative practice and in all my collaborations, too.
Anyway, these were my main reasons for setting up the Agony Aunt Uploads. Last week I filmed and edited the first two sets of video content. I thought a little of what I unpacked in the video content in The KNITSONIK System might be helpful in blog post format, and so today I want to talk about my methods for getting UNSTUCK in a creative project when I’m feeling STUCK.
I don’t know if you’ve been there but sometimes when you’re trying to work on a KNITSONIK swatch – just like with any creative project, really – there are moments when you don’t know what to do next; are unhappy with what you’ve made so far; are looking for ideas and can only find blank space. It’s very normal and happens all the time but can still be a source of shame and very disconcerting if you’re not used to it. Like anything new and uncertain, practice makes instances of STUCKNESS easier to manage but without ideas of what to do next, it can be easy to think “this is too difficult; I can’t be arsed”.
So, what to do when you’re stuck? I can only say what works for me, but I thought it’d be worth sharing here in case it’s helpful.
1. Get a change of scene or a change of perspective
Staring at a problem never helps. Going for a walk or a drive pushes a problem to the periphery, rather than having it front and centre. I find that the distraction of new vistas – a sunset in our local park or the world seen through the cinematic prism of my windscreen – can radically shift my perspective on other things. Something about the rhythm of moving and seeing new things can yield unexpected solutions.
I always think of the time I was panicking, working on the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook and had gotten STUCK about the best way to represent my favourite road in stranded colourwork design. I had hundreds of photos from which to choose (the road is 24 miles long) and was totally overwhelmed. I needed to go back and find a new way to look at this extremely familiar scene, and so vowed to simply go to the road and look at it as though I’d never seen it before – to bring the eyes of a tourist to the familiar scene – and to try and forget everything I thought I already knew about it.
Once I got to the road and parked up on one of its verges, I started taking photos of the actual road itself, at which point I noticed how many different colours were involved in its tarmac surface.
This simple action (take photos of the road) and simple revelation (wow, there are loads of colours in the road-surface itself!) gave me a framework for approaching my swatch: I’d focus on the road-markings to describe its winding twists and bends, and on the colours of the road surface as the basis for my colourway.
Without that drive with my camera and the willingness to try looking again, I never would have finished the A4074 swatch in the Sourcebook that led to #TarmacTuesdays and then to #TarmacTuesdays bunting (in the Playbook).
A change of scene is one of the most appealing aspects of going away for a bit. For many of us, going on holidays means time to relax, permission to play; with this mood in place, we take millions of photos of everything we notice. I love this about holidays.
However, if you think about it, this offers a blueprint of all we need in order to appreciate looking at the world around us… permission to play; curiosity; a state of relaxedness; a willingness to explore.
You don’t have to go on holiday to look at things with the same curiosity as a tourist – you just need to remind yourself to see things as though you’ve never seen them before.
I recommend finding new ways to reappraise familiar journeys (what happens if we take this other road / this secret pathway between the houses / another route? what happens if we look up at the buildings and try to notice what is above the street level?) as an everyday way of changing the view; these are the strategies I employed for developing my swatch based on the brickwork of Reading (the Sourcebook) and then the Bricken cowl (the Playbook). Never underestimate the creative energy of exploring a new way to navigate a familiar route – some of my favourite local spots were found by taking random detours down unexplored passageways, pathways, or roads.
I also love the lifeat.io website for days when I want a change of scene but have no energy to leave the house: https://lifeat.io/
2. Do something you enjoy – that’s relaxing, physical, and has rhythm.
One of my favourite places to think is at those rare times when I’m swimming in the pool near here at 7.00 in the morning. Something about the rhythm of my strokes and kicks in the water and my breathing plus the sensuous ripple of light and blues and tiles in my view sets my mind up in an ideal way. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve written, knitting ideas I’ve come up with, or daily plans I’ve laid in the process of swimming lengths.
Going swimming takes a lot of resources; I don’t always have the capacity to get up early enough to get to the pool when it’s quiet and a really busy pool has the opposite effect on my mental state than an almost empty one! For all other times, my favourite rhythmic activity (and my passionate hobby) is cooking. Yours might be walking or knitting or crochet – or sorting and tidying. Whatever rhythmic activities you have in your daily life and that you enjoy, when you feel STUCK in a creative process is exactly the time to go and do them.
I love the processes of weighing, peeling, grating, slicing and arranging ingredients into bowls ahead of the cooking or assembly stage of meal-production and then watching everything come together in the pot(s). When things are stressful with my creative work, nothing sorts me out like a cooking marathon. Something in the sorting and preparation of ingredients helps align things in my mind, as well.
Two weeks ago, working on the Agony Aunt Uploads, I sat down and wrote out some pointers in my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal and some notes on how I’d deal with each of the queries that came in. However, it took making several soups, salads and stews for me to work out exactly how I was going to approach the filmed responses for each one.
In fact, I happen to think that without last week’s Grand Sourdough Hot Cross Buns Experiment (of which more another time) the content would not have been filmed.
I’m trying to stop judging every instance when I do something else before starting a big project as “procrastination” because more and more these activities seem like important processing steps between different stages of a project. Sometimes the reason we are STUCK is that we need more time to process what we know so far, before moving onto the next phase. Cutting up carrots (or making Hot Cross Sourdough Buns) might be just the right mix of rhythmic, familiar and mundane that a more complex problem can be processed at the same time.
3. Use visual reminders and put the things on which you’re working in your view, allowing your mind to mull them over them during other tasks.
It’s surprisingly powerful how the presence of an object or image around us can exercise a subliminal influence; if you’re interested in something but don’t know why or what you want to do with it, put it somewhere you can see it and let it work its magic quietly in the background. Visual reminders can be objects or photos placed around the home; pinned to a board; used as a background or wallpaper on your phone; or stuck on (or inside) a notebook you often use. It doesn’t matter where you put visual reminders as long as they go somewhere where you’ll see them often.
When I was working on the Skystone Armwarmers for the wonderful Arnall-Culliford Techniques book, Boost Your Knitting, I taped photos of the sky and the stones of Porlock beach onto our kitchen cupboards.
I knew I’d see them every day while cooking, and that this daily visual reminder would both prompt me to get on with the project and stimulate ideas about which colours to use and how to approach my design.
4. Be kind.
It’s very easy to undermine tentative creative experiments with judgemental, unhelpful thoughts. WHY DON’T I KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT! WHY IS THIS SO BAD! I’M NO GOOD AT THIS etc. it’s also easy to be incredibly dismissive of our efforts; WHAT’S THE USE IN DOING THAT? WHAT A WASTE OF TIME! HOW TRIVIAL, WHY BOTHER GOING TO ALL THIS EFFORT TO DESIGN AND MAKE SOMETHING WHEN YOU CAN BUY IT FOR £20 ON THE HIGH STREET etc.
Nothing will get your project stuck quicker than a spiral like this and the only thing I’ve found helpful at such times is to amplify counter thoughts with a special focus on curiosity and enthusiasm:
When I am STUCK it’s often because I am at my lowest ebb: tired, anxious and out of capacity to come up with solutions. This is the worst time to launch an attack or start demanding more from myself. What’s needed instead is rest and activities that will replenish – rather than deplete – precious creative reserves. When we are tired or stressed, our fight or flight response kicks in. In this state, we make snap decisions rather than thinking flexibly and with nuance, and are least able to deal with ambiguity. In this mood we would like to set fire to the annoying project or, as my Dad used to say when my three brothers and I had worn him out and wound him up “RIGHT: THAT DOES IT! LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF! EVERYONE BACK TO BED”.
I feel vulnerable sharing this but, as it’s proved to be one of the most appreciated aspects of my KNITSONIK Bullet Journaling Course, I’ll include it here. To keep my stash of counter thoughts well-stocked, I use my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal (amongst other things) as a cheerleading space.
If I’m having a bad day, I go straight to my journal to set up practical lists to get me out of the fug, and to write myself kindly reminders. In my journal I also sometimes write out positive feedback I’ve received on the value of my work; when folks take time to email me something meaningful and positive about the impact and value of KNITSONIK it goes into my Bullet Journal. I can then use it as evidence to boost the counter arguments when worrying and self-criticism try to gain a foothold and trash whatever it is I’m trying to do. I also have a medallion of power that lives on my studio wall; it’s a small embroidery hoop covered in wool fabric onto which I have attached affirmative and uplifting enamel pins from some of my favourite fellow small-business owners.
This is my creative solution to all creative projects but perhaps especially to the project of being self-employed, running my business alone, and needing a supportive framework for reviewing my own performance and assessing how I’m doing. Too often I end up focusing on all the things I need to do better without taking a moment to confirm the value of what I have already made. This is true for the project that is running KNITSONIK LTD. but it’s true for all creative projects – even designing new stranded colourwork, based on an everyday inspiration!
I don’t think I could do the scary adventure of building a tiny creative business were it not for the skills that I keep honing through being an artist (managing uncertainty and risk; having faith in my ideas; practicing self-kindness). Self-kindness isn’t about insulating myself from critical feedback or evaluating what’s going wrong. Rather, it’s about ensuring I have the resources to deal with those things so they don’t destroy me when they inevitably arise (and they always do). Crucially, practicing self-kindness, encouragement and reassurance in my own creative work means I have those things at hand to share with participants who are taking any of my online courses. I feel a great deal of responsibility as an educator and one of the things that means I can continue to support other peoples’ creative processes is the generosity I try to extend to my own.
Last week I had a bad mental health day – I’d had a rough night of anxious and unrestful sleep and had woken several times to the unhelpful MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT THOUGHTS. After lying in bed unhelpfully turning over, in my mind, EVERYTHING WRONG I EVER DID, I was not ready for a good day of productive work. As my boss, I told myself to take the day off: no emails, no driving, more rest, kind thoughts.
Once I recognised that I was not feeling well, it was easy to make a list of doable things. Clear off a cluttered table. Put clean dry laundry away. Empty and reline the kitchen bins. Sort out my fulfilment spreadsheet. Make a salad. Have a shower. And write some encouraging notes to myself in my journal: TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER; YOU’RE DOING YOUR BEST; I BELIEVE IN YOU; IT’S GOING TO BE OK.
The next day I filmed and edited a rich set of short Agony Aunt Uploads which gathered a positive response from the person who had submitted their question, who said it had pushed them forward and given them the nudge they needed in order to get back to it. Had I not rested and been kind to myself when I needed that, the helpful upload would never have been made.
Which leads me to my last and final tip for UNSTICKING a creative project that’s got stuck, which is sort of a mix of everything we’ve talked about so far:
5. Keep going.
It really raises the stakes and makes it feel extra scary to encounter BEING STUCK if you learn that reaching this point means the whole project comes to a crashing halt (“everybody back to bed/let’s call the whole thing off!”) Instead it builds confidence and feels reassuring to know that there is always a next step that feels doable and that means you can continue, even while uncertain and unsure. For my KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork swatching projects, these steps might be:
…but I reckon these general ideas can be adapted to unsticking any creative projects that isn’t working out. What do you think? As I said these are the things that work for me, but I’d love to hear what you do when you’re STUCK. Mostly, I think GETTING UNSTUCK is about demystifying creativity and relating it to our mental health, wellbeing and resources; it’s not a magic process at which you are either a success or a failure but an ongoing practice that’s grounded in lovely normal comforting everyday life and that requires rest as well as action (just ask my cat, who is a deeply wise and creative being if ever there was one).
I hope you’ve enjoyed these thoughts on UNSTICKING creative projects that are STUCK – you’ll find The KNITSONIK System and the Agony Aunt Uploads that inspired me to write it here. Also, if you enjoyed this post, you might also like this guest post that I wrote for the excellent KDD&Co. Allover Club. Writing that piece provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the mechanisms of my creative practice which has inspired me to say more on the subject.
Yours in kindness, time and tea –