When sheep are wandering out in a meadow, passing by prickly bushes and rubbing up against trees, they leave bits of their wool caught on the branches and fence posts. Back when farmers had to keep track of every little thing someone would be sent out to catch those little lost tufts of wool and that was called woolgathering. It was a mindless task and on a nice day it must have been a pleasant one with room to let your mind wander. But the other thing about woolgathering is that you were, of course, gathering lots of little pieces to pull into something large enough to spin so mindless it may be but you were going to end up with something at the end of your walk. The task becomes a lot less pleasant if you’re stuck on the goal — the skein of yarn you’re hoping to spin or the sweater you’re planning to knit — and you’re out there in a meadow where it’s maybe raining and muddy or hot with the sun beating down looking for these hidden pieces of wool all so you can get back to the project you have your eye on. Put it that way and woolgathering sounds frustrating.
I was thinking on this because at the start of most projects you have to do some (or a lot of) woolgathering. Right now I’m working on a big piece of writing and all this wandering I’m doing is driving me a little crazy. I keep thinking I have all of the pieces I need then I sit down to write and partway through I realize I need more wool so back out to the metaphorical field I go. Fortunately I’ve done enough writing now that I know this feeling of frustration and I know it ends so I have faith in all of the preperation. I won’t say that I’m exactly enjoying the time I spend gathering wool but I do know that when I’m sick to death of thinking on this topic that it means I’m nearly at the point where the writing will get smoother.
But it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t know my writing process very well and so I would think, “Oh it’s not supposed to be this hard! Maybe I’m supposed to give up!” And sometimes I would. I have a folder on my computer labeled Frozen and it’s all the articles and essays I tried to write but couldn’t.
It’s difficult to know when to keep going and when to stop but the best teacher is experience. We have to keep heading out into the field until we know the best places to look, the best places to gather those caught ideas, the best time for wandering and the best time for down-on-your-knees searching under things even when it’s cold or rainy or muddy or too hot to think. It takes practice not just to discover that some hard things get easier but to learn that some hard things really are hard and there’s just no way around it.
At the end, hopefully you’ll have something to show for all the frustration.
I will end with a quote from Dorothy Parker who, of course, says it better than I could: “I hate writing, I love having written.”
You gotta gather your wool to make your sweater. Right? Right. Back to the field I go.