Writing with My Hands

CW: ableism

Whether they are holding a pen or tapping keys, these hands are often erased in articulations of the relationships between the writer and the page. I have erased my hands, too, and the arms that are connected by cartilage and nerve and sinew to the spinal column that holds erect the head that I am taught to associate with creation. 

Before I was young, I was conceived by two bodies. One of these bodies was paralyzed above the lungs and still knew how to pump its blood and breathe its breath and release its semen. When I came to be, this paralyzed body was seen as a tragedy and a blessing and a limitation to overcome. The person of my parent was seen as being trapped inside this body, but never of it. Never the body itself.

When I was young, I was taught that my soul was eternal and that my body dies here and returns to the earth. I was taught that the soul is the most important thing; the body, just matter. I was not taught that these distinctions helped justify our caste system.

Several centuries before you and I were young, a European man organized the five sanctioned bodily senses into racialized categories. The result was a hierarchy that has hued the way you and I were taught to interact with the world. 

Lorenz Oken (1779–1851), German Naturalist

Hierarchy of the Senses

Eye Man: European
Ear Man: Asian
Nose Man: Native American
Tongue Man: Australian
Skin Man: African

When I was young, I was told not to talk with my hands. I was told this indicated a lack of education and class.

When I was young, I was shown that girls were only as good as their bodies. That no matter what I did, I would always only be body. To rebel and to be valued, I sought what was called a life of the  mind

When I was older, I ignored the needs of my body until I found this body in an emergency room. Twice. 

When I was older, I began to make writing—that is, books—with the whole of my body. I placed the letters one by one on the page, then bound those pages together. I began to make books like one usually makes its content—a careful consideration of the whole. My writing changed then. It was made with the shape the book would take but did not dictate it. The body of the book was no longer severed from the writing it contained. 

When I am older, I break the wrist I write with and am forced to live outside written words until I learn to shape sentences with my non-dominant hand. As I write these sentences, I notice hidden sounds emerging from inside. Tiny sounds. Previously unspoken sounds. In the weeks I do not write, sounds bang against my skin to get out. The fractured bone weaves itself whole again, uninterrupted. I know then, finally, from this body, that there is no writing without my hands. I do not write by dictating, though I know others are capable. My writing depends upon these things we call appendages as if they are not vital to thought. As if they are not an origin of intelligence itself. 

This is writing about writing with the hands. This is writing I write with my hands. This is writing by a body that does not rely on its hands to speak in sign. This is writing by a body that currently has use of its hands and still looks at what the hands do when I ignore them and deny my body. This is writing that asks why, in English, we follow the word body with the word that and not who. This is me writing with my hands and showing you a lack of classification that defines my work. 

When I make, this mind that is valued and these hands that are not enter into collaboration. The whole does the making in a culture that only values certain parts and only after these parts have been dissected and labeled and displayed in glass cases. 

When I make, I begin with a practice like the vocalist who warms up on the scales. I warm the hands or unstick the thoughts by pressing a bone folder into a signature or pulling a slip of thread through pre-punched holes or watching ink absorb into cotton stock. When I co-composed the text of my best-selling book, it was dictated aloud in a bathtub. But this text was only written months later, on an empty studio day, as I was warming up my idle hands by pushing a tracing wheel across scraps of paper. In perforating these small, hand-rolled lines, the book began to be written. The words we had spouted amid splashes and whirls slid into place on either side of a dotted line and then behind it, only to be revealed upon opening. The hands at work had made the writing and this particular way of reading possible. To read this book, a reader must tear the paper at the perforated line to expose the full text. The fingers pinching each side of the sheet, ripping it away from the other, is the only way into the reading of this book called it’s fun to be naked. How else could one write a body without requiring the reading body to touch?

When I was commissioned to design a stitch that doubled as a reading ribbon for a poetry chapbook, I ran out of possibilities. I fishtailed an actual ribbon between the linen thread that ran along the spine, but that looked gauche. I tried making a belly band with the linen thread after securing the final knot at the outside middle. That did not work either. Stuck, I sat at my drafting table with the printed cover in hand and loose threads from a simple saddle stitch in my hand. I stared at the cover image of St. Francis of Assisi and twirled the two strands of linen between my fingers. An idea arose from the nerve endings in my fingertips and ricocheted its way to my eyes, which focused in on the rope that tied the friar’s robe. This! it called. These two threads I am holding will be the ribbon if only I move the knot to the top exterior of the spine. 

When I wrote a book shaped around the making of an heirloom quilt, I often had to stop writing to quilt instead. I did not have to stop to quilt because I needed to take note of the quilting technique, but because only the motion of hands outside verbal language could free whatever thoughts or visions or aching was lodged too deeply or had trailed away. It was only in the emptying required by touch that I could go into that nothing and come out again. It was only through the interplay of writing-stitching-writing-stitching-stitching-writing-resting-stitching that I came fully back into my body and stayed there, began to make work from there, affirmed by the very thing I thought erased me. The essay that took shape around the making of a quilt became a book that was a quilt itself. Language and tactility were finally bound one to the other into the same body. 

This is writing about writing with the hands. This is writing that is written with the hands. This is writing that looks at what the hands do to bring us back into our bodies. This is me making with my hands and showing you a lack of classification from which writing can arise.

Stephanie Sauer: I am the author of Almonds Are Members of the Peach Family (Noemi Press Book Prize for Prose) and The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press). My writings have appeared in Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, Asymptote, Lavender Review, Grain, and Entropy, with works forthcoming from Sinister Wisdom. I have been an artist-in-residence at Yaddo, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and my artist books have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art, and the National Library of Baghdad. I currently serve as a prose instructor in Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program, work as co-founding editor of A Bolha Editora (an in-translation feminist press in Brazil), and co-develop Lolmen Publications for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.

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