A book like our recent West Highland Way project involves many different kinds of work for me: when producing a collection I spend time coming up with the design ideas, swatching, knitting, re-knitting, pattern writing, working with Mel (who tests the pattern and produces many samples), working with tech editors (who check my patterns and whip them into shape), styling and modelling a finished piece, then putting my own editorial hat on during the layout stage.
(Oran do Chaora was the first design that I produced for the collection)
While I’m designing, I’m also thinking about the background of my design ideas, and this process allows me to develop the contextual material which later gets included in the book itself. For this project, I’d planned twelve designs, each inspired by a place or person associated with the West Highland Way.
(Oran do Chaora – Song to a Ewe – was inspired by the work of Donnchadh Bàn)
Researching those places and people in some depth means I get to find out about things of which I might initially know very little (for example, the history of aluminium processing at Kinlochleven or how the 1927 nobel prize for physics began life at the summit of Ben Nevis).
(The Observatory – inspired by the work of the Ben Nevis metereologists)
Over the past year, these research activities have made my experience of my local landscape much richer, as well as occasioning much enjoyment and hilarity (such as the morning Tom and I spent tracking down a particular statue of Rob Roy in Stirling). The project of course involved pursuing ideas through images, as well as in words and design, and Tom might say much more himself about how the process of photographing the West Highland Way has deeply enriched his understanding of it. But from my own perspective, I certainly now know much more than I did about the geology of our West Highland landscape; about the long history of the islands and crannogs of Loch Lomond, about the particular realisation of the eighteenth-century British imperial project in the Scottish Highlands; about Romantic tourism, Victorian engineering, the Scottish outdoor movement, the wonderful songs of Donnchadh Bàn.
(long-armed Rob Roy)
The twelve essays in the book are together around the length of a novella, and I absolutely loved producing them. I also felt a particular kind of ease in the writing that I think partly came from the familiarity of the activity (I’d spent the immediately preceding period happily producing around 1500 words a day for Handywoman) and partly from the fact that I was putting my feelings about and knowledge of my local landscape into words. These essays have several dimensions (aesthetic, personal, political) and I honestly feel proud of writing a book about the West Highland Way that lends my local landscape the social and cultural dimension that I feel some books about walking often lack.
(one of my favourite essays in the book is about ways of seeing Rannoch Moor)
Design, knitting, photography, research, writing, editing, production: there’s an awful lot involved in making a book. People often ask me what I love most about the process, or which part I find most difficult. I can honestly say that I genuinely love all of the work I do (with the occasional exception of modelling, which sometimes involves cold or other kinds of discomfort)
(my hands are in my pockets for a reason)
That said, bimbling about the landscape while wrapped up toasty warm can also be rather pleasant.
(The cosy Electric Village photo shoot)
And the gargantuan efforts involved in styling can also bring their own rewards.
I love what I do, and I also feel incredibly thankful that I get to do it: how many former literary historians with weird creative streaks can say they spend their days researching and writing about what takes their fancy, and at the same time making things that mean they actually get to go about wearing their ideas?
It often still seems nuts to me that this is my actual job.
So yes, I love my work, and in answer to the “what’s the worst bit about it” question, I would always say “finishing a project.” And by this I don’t mean that I have a problem with bringing a project to a conclusion – because drawing that line is one thing I seem to be quite good at. Rather, I’m referring to what happens to me when a project finishes.
I hate finishing a project because I always fall to pieces a wee bit. This has happened to me for a long time, and at least since my mid ’20s, when I finished my PhD (anyone who has been there will, I suspect, be familiar with the crazy downer that follows the completion of a doctorate). But I’d say these post-project effects are much worse now, after my stroke, since I’m always having to manage my work alongside limited energy levels and other associated health issues. And as I’ve got better, I’ve also become a little worse at these activities of health management – for me the sheer creative joy of making something — of pulling a wonderful project like West Highland Way together — means I’m not always paying enough attention to the basic requirements of my brain and body.
Over the past few months, for reasons that are not entirely clear, I’ve lost a significant amount of weight, and, from being an occasional annoyance, my migraines have become recurrent and really debilitating. And the past few weeks have involved the kind of sheer physical exhaustion I can’t remember feeling since the months that immediately followed my stroke. I have crashed really very badly this time and need to take some time to understand what is going on with my body and my brain, as well as to just get well again.
Our wonderful West Highland Way book is at the printer. Handywoman is approaching publication. These are both really big projects, and I’m immensely proud of them, as well as the work that went into making them. I suppose its obvious (from the outside) that anyone would feel exhausted upon finishing this work, yet why do I never allow myself space to experience that possibility? These periods of intense productivity are always followed by crashes of equal intensity and part of me also knows that such creative peaks and troughs are also constituent of my (annoying) personality. Perhaps, over the past few years, I’ve found I love my work a little too much? Perhaps I just don’t know how to stop or what to do with myself when I do? I wouldn’t say that what I’m experiencing is burnout (though much of Lisa’s post rings true to me) but I do know that somehow I have to find a better balance — one in which my own intense creative impulses and workaholic tendencies don’t result in situations of such severe physical and mental debilitation. I’m going to take the next few weeks to try and do that.
(Don’t worry – I’m ok – but it is useful for me to get these things out in the open from time to time)