Today I’m featuring Sandra Hurtes, author of The Ambivalent Memoirist. She’s a talented wordsmith with an interesting life story to tell. She’s mesmerized me with her words, and I’m happy to share a bit of her story with you. She’s both a knitter and an author, so I asked her to compare the two processes. Read on, and you’ll fall in love with her writing, too.
TeacherWriter: It is said that knitting is a healing art. It’s also said that writing can be part of a healing process. Can you compare and contrast the effects of knitting and writing in your own personal life journey?
Sandra Hurtes: In the mid 1980s, I worked at three yarn stores around Manhattan simultaneously. On the Upper East Side I wrote patterns; on the Upper West Side I sold the yarns that would reproduce the newest Calvin Klein; in Midtown I catered to the customers who ran in for a few minutes during lunch or between business meetings, briefcase in one hand, knitting bag in the other. Late at night, finally having a chance to pick up my own needles, I sat on the edge of my bed unable to stop the mantra of “just one more row” from going round in my brain. I fell asleep to patterns imprinted into my eyelids.
In the hours between my jobs and bedtime—6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.—I went to college. At 30, I was an older student, desperate to be a college grad. I wanted to be like my friends; they were educated and professional, worked as teachers, speech therapists, social workers. A few were out in the business world as film producers, editors, writers. But I’d been raised to work as a secretary after high school, and that was the path I took. That is, until I passed a trendy, in a 1980s-fringed-poncho sort of way, yarn store with a “Help Wanted” sign in the window.
I was looking for a job; but using the skill my mother had passed on to me when I was a child wasn’t what I had in mind. If I took such a job, would that mean I was moving backward not forward? Would I be able to pay my bills? I went in the store, gazed at the cubbies filled with yarns in every shade of red, blue, green, brown I could imagine. I walked through a film of angora and cashmere hairs floating through the air. My concerns faded. I found the store owner and talked up my knitting prowess. I got the job. That night I wrote in my journal. “I’m no longer a secretary.”
For the three-and-a-half hours I attended classes, I studied psychology, philosophy, and social science. I read Freud, Nietzsche, Marx. They were creative thinkers with complex theories about the mind and social ideals. All the while, I observed my knitting process. I liked turning out sweaters on thick needles with bulky yarns. I didn’t undo mistakes telling myself dropped stitches gave my work personality. But I knew that I was lying to myself. I needed the immediate gratification of products, as if each filled a hole inside of me.
One day, while working on a difficult pattern, my mistakes took me too far astray; I had to start over. The first row I ripped out was painful, as I thought of the lost hours of work. I began anew, carefully paying attention to yarn-overs and cables. My sweater took several weeks to finish. I was proud of the hard work I’d put in to making that sweater; I can still see the delicate silver-grey lattice pattern.
Through that sweater, I learned the value of quality versus quantity. I learned that no work is wasted and mistakes are needed in order to move to the next level. I wrote in my journal, “Knitting helps me to grow.” I was intellectually gratified by my school texts; but they didn’t teach me as much as knitting did about how to live.
I graduated from college. I found an entry level editorial job in publishing and quit my knitting gigs. I accomplished what I had set out to do. I had my college degree. I had a “real” job. I still knit (of course) and that gratified my creative yearnings. Working with words as an editor gratified me as school had; I was intellectually fulfilled.
I discovered at my publishing job that I had a way with words. I wrote an article for an in-house magazine and took a writing class. Eventually I became as passionate about writing as I had been about knitting. My essays were getting published in national newspapers. When I wrote, I shook as if something foreign had entered me. I was scared of the power words had over me. I was joyously happy. Even when I cried in front of the keyboard. Especially when I cried.
Knitting took on a very different place in my life. When I had a long subway ride or an appointment where I’d be kept waiting, I took my tools. But when I had serious business to do, meaning dig into my feelings or confusions about the world, I needed a pen, a keyboard, something that would give me access to thoughts I didn’t yet understand. Knitting gave me a way to make beautiful things. Writing gave me a way to look beneath the beauty and see what I was covering up.
There are many people who find hope and healing in knitting. It’s easy to see why. There’s the repetitive motion, the nostalgia for a simpler time, the sensory overload of sumptuous yarns. For me knitting was less about healing then about growing. By using my childhood skill, I became more of an adult.
But writing. Well, that’s been a lot about healing. Not just myself but my relationships. Words are my energy source, my bounty, and my way to affect change. All I have to do is begin.
“. . .[an] honest memoir full of compassion and wit that infuses ordinary events with intimacy and intensity. . .Teaching college English courses and preparing her first essay collection, she must address her own pain. . .as well as her parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. . . Writing as art and psychological salvation is at the heart of this book, taking “readers deep below the surface” of words toward personal vindication.”
The Ambivalent Memoirist has received fourteen reviews on Amazon with a 4.9 star rating. Here is a beautiful excerpt of descriptive narrative from the book.
Brooklyn soil. Rife with thick, gnarly accents and high-pitched emotions that peaked into the air then fell heavy upon the earth. Those sounds and feelings had reverberated within me from the moment I was born in 1950, three years after my brother, Lenny. The woman who shared my mother’s room at Brooklyn Women’s Hospital and gave birth on the same day was an Auschwitz survivor, like my mother. Their delirium over their second babies fell upon my tender ears, slid into my pores. Brooklyn was an emotional patchwork, and I was sewn into its seams.
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AUTHOR Bio and Links
Sandra Hurtes is the author of The Ambivalent Memoirist and the essay collection On My Way to Someplace Else. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and this legacy is examined in her work. She is an adjunct assistant professor in the English Department at John Jay College and teaches creative nonfiction in private workshops.
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