Creative Insights: Laura Birek

Ed. Note: Laura and I completed this interview before the election. But I love her advice about living a creative life. Let it be a light to remind you to keep creating!

laura birekYou’re involved in so many creative outlets– writing and designing, web development and crafts. How has your creativity changed and developed over the years?

 
For the longest time I was somewhat embarrassed by all my different types of creative pursuits. I thought a “real artist” would be focused and spend all their time on one type of art. And when I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a writer, so any time I was drawn in a different direction I felt some shame. Almost like I was cheating on writing, or like it was proof that I wasn’t serious enough or focused enough to really become a writer.  But of course, nobody hired me to write a million dollar screenplay right out of college, so I had to get a job. That’s where web development came in.  And then I went to grad school for screenwriting, but by complete serendipity I ended up getting a book deal to write a knitting book right afterwards. (Knitting was a hobby I picked up in college for stress relief — I never really considered it “art”.)   I was so terrified of screwing up my book deal that I didn’t dare get distracted by writing a screenplay, and then I didn’t write for stage or screen for a few years after that.  And at that point I thought I had “lost” screenwriting, somehow. As though there was a deadline I had missed.
I honestly think two things lined up perfectly to change my attitude: I turned 30 and quit my full-time job.  There was something incredibly liberating about turning 30. For so long, I thought if I didn’t accomplish something huge before the age of 30 I’d be a failure. Or I’d be aged out of Hollywood. Of course this is so ridiculous in hindsight, but I think a lot of 20-somethings are fed this lie about precocious success.  That same year, I finally had saved up enough to quit my job and go freelance full time.  When I was rebuilding my web site to support my freelance career, I had to decide whether I should have different sites for all my different endeavors.  But when I decided to just keep laurabirek.com a site for all my work, it was a little breakthrough. Because I suddenly realized that all my work was related and wrote the following for my homepage:
People often ask me why I don’t have separate web sites for my different professional endeavors. I suppose if I wanted targeted branding for each specific skill set I could have three different sites: one for writing, one for knitting, and one for web development.
 
The truth is I don’t see the point in compartmentalizing myself in that way. All my endeavors inform my work, and I bring the same professionalism to every project, whether it’s writing a magazine article, designing a knitting pattern, or developing a web site.
 
While my three jobs may seem disparate, I’ve always considered writing, web development, and knitting to be complementary pursuits. Each requires fastidious attention to detail, a specialized understanding of language (whether it’s CSS, English grammar, or pattern abbreviations), and creativity.
 
Also, being freelance allowed me to stop considering web development as my “day job” and the other things as just hobbies — some days I got paid to write knitting patterns, some days I got paid to build websites, and some days I got paid to write articles for magazines. It was all creative work. 

Since you do write screenplays– what kinds of stories draw your attention? 

 
I’m a real sucker for small, interpersonal stories about all kinds of relationships.  I love an ensemble drama.  I’m also especially fond of magical realism — so if your story is set in normal, everyday life, but there just happens to be a ghost that shows up and does things, sign me up.  
 
I recently read the Neapolitan novel series by Elena Ferrante and, like everyone else, was completely blown away. I’m also on an Anne Patchett kick right now, and can’t get Bel Canto out of my head.  How that novel manages to take place entirely inside a hostage situation, yet somehow seem so universal… it’s just breathtaking.
I also love TV, and not just because I can knit while watching. There’s an embarrassment of riches on small screens right now.  I love CasualJane the Virgin, The Mindy Project, and the FX networks are just with Atlanta, You’re the Worst, Fargo, and Man Seeking Woman. I know talking about the “golden age of TV” is so 2015, but hot damn do we have some good TV shows on the air right now.

Your site, nocturnalknits.com, has some pretty awesome knitting projects and designs. How does working with a physical medium like yarn correlate to working with intellectual creativity, like writing screenplays and essays?

The most satisfying thing about fiber arts is having a tactile and useable result from your work. Knitters call them “FOs” — finished objects.  You spend two months working on that sweater and then you get to wear it out. Your FO keeps you warm. People comment on how cute it is and you get to say “I made it!” All that focus and labor actually has a tangible result.  It’s very gratifying in a way that writing often isn’t.  So often with writing we don’t get to see our work anywhere other than on our own computer screens.  But it’s a good reminder that all creative work is just that: work.
Being a knitter, I pay close attention when people describe writing as a “craft,” and I also take notice when people refer to knitting as “art.”  There’s a hierarchy to the terms “art” and “craft” that requires a full dissertation to unpack. But in my experience, there’s a lot of class and gender baggage in those labels.  To so many people, “crafting” is a thing bored housewives do, while “art” is something men of genius create.  That’s obviously very oversimplified, but it’s something I think we’ve all experienced first hand, and it’s such bullshit.
I recently heard the poet Mark Nepo on Liz Gilbert’s “Magic Lessons” podcast, discussing what it means to become a writer. He said “notice that we’re being told to become a noun, and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.” That really resonated with me. Notice that there’s no verb “to art” — just to paint, or to create, or to knit, or to write.  Art is an object that comes out of the work of crafting a thing, of making it.  So to me, writing is as much “crafting” as knitting — it helps me remember that every word is a stitch.  Eventually, if I write enough, I’ll have a FO.

Now, I definitely noticed your Hillary hat photo. How on earth did THAT come around? It’s awesome! 

full article here: http://nocturnalknits.com/2016/10/full-freak-mode/

full article here: http://nocturnalknits.com/2016/10/full-freak-mode/

Thanks! In 2008, I knit an Obama sweater, adapting the Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster for the design.  I put out that pattern for free, and a bunch of people made their own versions and shared them online, despite it being a fairly advanced and ambitious pattern — it was awesome! This year, I wanted to knit something for Hillary, but decided a smaller project might be more useful for the average knitter.  Hillary’s campaign logo was so simple and just screaming out to be a knit chart (we crafters love anything that’s geometric and can be made with just a few colors — a bunch of quilting patterns have popped up with her logo on it at well).  So I wrote up a pattern for a simple hat and put it up online for free.
Then, about a month after releasing that pattern, I got a photo from a stranger saying she had made two hats for some people to wear to a Hillary rally.  And apparently Hillary saw the hats and liked them so much she asked to take a picture with them! That’s pretty much the coolest outcome I can imagine.
 

How can we support your projects? Do you have an Etsy or online shop? And how can readers keep in touch on your future projects– both wooly and not?

I have an Etsy where I sell my patterns and a few knit items: https://www.etsy.com/shop/iwriteplays
 
You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Ravelry as @iwriteplays. And you can sign up for my newsletter on Nocturnal Knits: http://nocturnalknits.com/#contact

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