Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Tying the knot

leave a comment »


McKenzie Funk’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine on the wreck of the Kulluk, the doomed oil rig sent by Shell to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic Sea, is one of the most riveting stories I’ve read in a long time. The whole thing is full of twists and turns—I devoured it in a single sitting—but my favorite moment involves a simple knot. Faced with a rig with a broken emergency line, Craig Matthews, the chief engineer of the tugboat Alert, came up with a plan: they’d get close enough to grab the line with a grappling hook, reel it in, and tie it to their own tow cable with a bowline. After two tries, they managed to snag the line, “thicker than a man’s arm, a soggy dead weight.” Funk describes what happened next:

Now Matthews tried to orient himself. A knot he could normally tie with one hand without looking would have to be tackled by two people, chunk by chunk. The chief mate helped him lift the line again, and together they hurriedly bent it and forced the rabbit through the hole…Matthews had planned to do a second bend, just in case, but he was exhausted. “Is that it?” Matthews recalls the chief mate asking. His answer was to let the towline slide over the edge.

And although plenty of other things would go wrong later on, the knot held throughout all that followed.

The story caught my eye because it reminded me, as almost everything does these days, of the creative process. When you’re a writer, you generally hone your craft on smaller projects, short stories or essays that you can practically hold in one hand. Early on, it’s like learning to tie a bowline for the first time—as Brody does in Jaws—and it can be hard to even keep the ends straight, but sooner or later, you internalize the steps to the point where you can take them for granted. As soon as you tackle a larger project, though, you find that you suddenly need to stop and remember everything you thought you knew by heart. Most of us don’t think twice about how to tie our shoelaces, but if we were told to make the same knot in a rope the thickness of a fire hose, we’d have to think hard. A change in scale forces us to relearn the most basic tricks, and at first, we feel almost comically clumsy. That’s all the more true of a collaborative effort, like making a movie or staging a play, which can often feel like two people tying a knot together while being buffeted by wind and waves. (Technically, a novel or play is more like one big knot made up of many other knots, but maybe this analogy is strained enough as it is.)

Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot by Fedele Fischetti

Knots have long fascinated novelists, like Annie Proulx, perhaps because they’re the purest example of an abstract design intended to perform a functional task. As Buckminster Fuller points out in Synergetics, you can tie a loose knot in a rope spliced together successively from distinct kinds of fiber, like manila and cotton, and slip it from one end to the other: the materials change, but the knot stays the same. Fuller concludes, in his marvelously explicit and tangled prose: “The knot is not the rope; it is a weightless, mathematical, geometrical, metaphysically conceptual, pattern integrity tied momentarily into the rope by the knot-conceiving, weightless mind of the human conceiver—knot-former.” That’s true of a novel, too. You can, and sometimes do, revise every sentence of a story into a different form while leaving the overall pattern the same. Knots themselves can be used to transmit information, as in the Incan quipu, which record numbers and even syllables in the form of knotted cords. And Robert Graves has suggested that the Gordian knot encoded the name of a Phrygian god, which could only be untied by reading the message one letter at a time. Alexander the Great simply cut it with his sword—a solution that has occurred to more than one novelist frustrated by the mess he’s created.

You could write an entire essay on the metaphors inherent in knots, the language of which itself is rich with analogies: the phrase “the bitter end,” for instance, originates in ropeworking, referring to the end of the rope that is tied off. Most memorable is Fuller’s own suggestion that the ropeworker himself is a kind of thinking knot:

The metabolic flow that passes through a man is not the man. He is an abstract pattern integrity that is sustained through all his physical changes and processing, a knot through which pass the swift strands of concurrent ecological cycles—recycling transformations of solar energy.

And if we’re all simply knots passing through time, the prospect of untying and redoing that pattern is far more daunting than doing the same for even the most complicated novel. We’re all a little like Matthews on the deck of the Alert: we’d like to do a second bend to be safe, but sometimes we have no choice but to let the line slip over the side. That’s true of the small things, like sending out a story when we might prefer to noodle over it forever, and the large, like choosing a shape for your life that you hope will get the job done. And all we can really do is tie the knot we know best, let it go, and hang on to the bitter end.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2015 at 9:58 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: