Monday, December 16, 2013

I'd rather do it myself!

Patty here

I’m an occasional knitter. I’ve talked about this before. I made a pair of socks some years ago. Sometimes I look at them and wonder how I did it and question if I could ever do it again. Writers often feel that way after finishing a book.

After a long dormant period where I didn’t have the time or inclination to knit, I'm making a scarf. The pattern requires new skills and I’m making all sorts of mistakes—mistakes that are difficult for me to fix because the pattern is complicated. The lovely women at Compatto Yarn Salon in Santa Monica where I bought the yarn are always willing to help me get back on track, but I’m not the type of person who likes to ask for help. In fact, it’s torture to do so.

What does this have to do with writing?

Before I start a new book, I do character bios of everybody who appears in my novel. This includes a personal anecdote, often from childhood, but always one that shapes the character’s behavior. The most effective use of this tool is to write about something that happened to me that informs my behavior today. On the surface, the event may seem trivial but it’s not.

Case in point. When I was young, I had trouble figuring out math “story problems.” You know the ones I’m talking about: a train going sixty miles per hour passes a farmer leading a herd of goats, walking 2 miles an hour. How long will it take for the… I’d often get stumped and would trudge up to the desk of my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Taylor and ask for help. She would explain how to structure the math until the proverbial light bulb went off in my brain and I’d be on my way.

However, when I got my first report card from her, this note was included next to my grade: Patty too often asks for help when she is capable of puzzling out the answer for herself. I remember feeling wounded and betrayed, that asking for help was somehow a defect in my character. I decided to never ask for help again.

Fast forward to today. I have returned to Compatto several times but each time I experience the same tortured thoughts that in their heads these lovely women are thinking that I too often ask for help when I could puzzle it out myself.

I’ve loaned this childhood experience to the main character in my WIP, an LAPD homicide detective. The reader will probably never learn about this incident but they will see that she is determined to go it alone, even when asking for help is the better option.

Last Saturday I returned to the store once again for help. This time, I decided to stay and knit for a while with a group of other knitters. An amazing thing happened while I was there. Several other people came into the store, looking as tortured as I felt, also asking for help with a project. Apparently, correcting a dropped yarn over is a universal conundrum. If this aha! moment sounds like the makings of a character arc, you might just be right.

Happy Monday!


  1. I felt as if I had been wounded and betrayed on your behalf when I read that comment. Congratulations on the alchemy of putting it to such good use.

    1. Thanks, Mims! For me it's the difference between describing the rain and feeling wet.

  2. Ugh! Adults & teachers can really wound do readily. Why is it seen as wrong to ask for help, for coaching? It might make a difference if it is a case of laziness or slacking. How much better the world might be if we rewarded teamwork and collaboration and mentoring! Grrrrrr on your behalf!

    1. I agree that we should all be careful what we say. One never knows when one might appear as a villain in a novel. Thanks for the Grrrrrr!