The Jumper Analogy: Unpicking Reading Like a Writer

Emma Strong completed a Creative Writing MA in 2008. After a couple of years off to have two children, she’s now completing the MFA and PGcert. Before motherhood she worked in legal publishing, the youth homelessness voluntary sector and local government.




Thinking about how to teach a subject while studying it yourself provides an interesting intertwining of perspective (as well as roots in need of urgent attention, a furrow at the top of the nose and a chaotic mound of paper, books and files where our table used to be – there’s method somewhere). During the MA and MFA I’ve loved reading and picking apart books, those recommended by the course and those I’ve loved and been inspired by over the years, in terms of how they might guide me. Now also studying the art of teaching and reading around the pedagogy of creative writing I am conscious of just how intrinsic to studying CW it is to read as a writer. I am also coming up against how tricky it is to explain this skill to some of the undergraduates we’re teaching. It’s more than one person who’s said good writers borrow, great writers steal. We’re all aiming to steal, right? We all want a great palate to steal from; to understand the palate of other writers and how they used it. I want to find a way to illustrate the process of critical analysis. I want my students to learn to do it well. I want to do it better myself.

Going with the idea that a good analogy is often a good start to explanation, I’ve been mulling over a jumper analogy … I’m working on it but I’ll share where I’m up to. Let me know if it works for you.

It is human to spin a yarn for each other. They were doing it in the caves at Lascaux. We’re still doing it now. We love stories. All the stories we ever share evolve apparently around seven archetypal yarns. What kind of yarn are you reading? What kind of yarn are you writing? Does it conform to one of the archetypes? How’s it been spun? Does it make the yarn interesting? Does it push the particular yarn somewhere new? Is it roughly spun and raw or super refined, like cashmere? (Come with me. It’s a jumper analogy. What are jumpers made from? Yarn … boom boom. I’m here all week; still cheap at twice the price.)

The yarn being considered, is it still spooled in a ball, or spooled right out, unravelled and messy, ready for the cats to play with? Or has it been made into something else, such as a jumper? What sort of jumper? What’s the form and structure of it? If it’s been shaped into a twinset does that ruin it?

What about a traditional Aran? It’s pretty amazing to see yarns worked so beautifully to conform to all those age old twisted knots and stitches. Fashion says we need a batwing or an asymmetric sleeve right now. Does that matter? Of all the jumpers you’ve loved before, is there a particular shape you always return to time and time again? Admit it. Most of us have a type. The black turtle neck, the grey slouchy v-neck, the cream twinset, the rainbow striped baggy number, the cobwebbed nearly-a-dress-now jumper bought at Glastonbury?

What about style? How should the neck, shoulders, and cuffs be shaped? Turned back or not? Was it working up to the turtle neck but now it’s ruined? Is it too long or too short? Does the way it floats away at the edges make it? Are the buttons down the front adding to its overall impact or detracting? Are they actually the essence of the piece? What do the stars say? How do they add to the meaning of the jumper? Can a jumper mean something? Yes! How do the stars affect the jumper’s meaning? Why do you think that? Is it influenced by couture or street fashion? Has it been critically acclaimed? Does that affect its meaning for you? Thinking about all the stylistic touches you know, which have you tried to re-create? Which worked/ which didn’t? Which do you repeat and repeat?

What about the language of the jumper: the stitching, patterning and colour? What’s its register and tone? What about those Aran knots? That intricate Fair Isle patterning? That plain black chunky yarn knitted up using only garter stitch? Does it make your year to see 2-ply merino worked in moss stitch into an experimental form? Or do you just want a reliable Miss Marple twinset or an easy going goes with everything M&S romantic comedy? Is garter stitch a doddle, moss stitch unnecessary too-try-hard faff, rib the only way to go?

What about the genre, commercial or not, mode of production and marketing? Is this the first jumper someone at home has ever knitted? Or has it been crafted by an artisan on a far off Scottish isle? Is it conforming to mass demand, machine knitted and mass produced? Is the yarn pure wool or mixed with unnatural fibre? What about the needles? Are there other jumpers out there like this one? How does it compare? Has the knitter knitted other jumpers? How does this one compare? Do you want to knit just like them or is it just the way they use colour that you love? Is this just the sort of jumper you wear or would it look out of place in your collection?

Overall, does it feel like this jumper has a premise, an argument to state? Does it have to have one? Why do you think that? Is it successful? Can you learn from it? Adapt it? Argue it from another angle?

Could this analogy make it easier to unpick a writer’s yarns and learn from them? Or does it just make it trickier to put a jumper on?

BTW: As well as completing my novel, I’d like to poke my finger in the eye of the boring blokes (it’s always a bloke) who lament the proliferation of creative writing courses and the pursuit of them by bored housewives. What’s education for? Did he miss the feminist movement? I’m not bored!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Guy de Ferrer
    Mar 15, 2013 @ 10:22:30

    But beware the tangled ball of wool some charlatan claims is a deconstructed novel.


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