Corner Post: “Dirty Your Hands”

Tapping on a computer keyboard always reminds me of when I played the piano as a kid. Back then the tapping made music. Now, words. Both creative acts through the use of hands. There is something, too, to making words with a pencil. Granted, my handwriting is awful, and sometimes I have difficulty interpreting what I’ve scribbled down, but those scribbles give my words a different shape than a standard computer font, a fluidity particular to the way my hand moves and how I go about creating things. To press lead to paper and then see those scratches presented on the page opens up words for me, their connotations and possible arrangement. It’s like seeing a different side to someone. And it’s important to see the many sides of things—not just, for example, the many sides of our characters, but the words we use to describe them and their motives. It is why I constantly switch back and forth between keyboard and pencil. How my hands shape the many layered notes of a story is something I’m always aware of and grateful for. But more than just tools for getting down inspiration, my hands are a source where creativity begins.

They give me a truer sense of the world for my hands are better receivers than my eyes. I can watch the trees, how they branch out in the wind and how the wind moves their leaves about. But that is not the same as putting my hand to bark and leaf. To touch is to know contour and texture, hot and cold, wet and dry, rough and smooth, the very grit of things. To move a hand over the leaf is to know the motion of the wind that pushes the leaf and to gain a sense of how to put images in motion on the page so they can come alive in the reader’s mind.

To use your hands means you have to be there—this is something my wife told me recently. Taste is another sense where you have to be there. Sight, sound, and smell can be used from a distance. All senses are important when writing, but there’s that old saying about getting your hands dirty, which for me is knowing something at its most elemental. Words are removed from the real, so it’s imperative we get as close to the real as possible when we’re not writing. And to do that, we have to be there.

Part of it, too, is that writing is a craft, writing is about the act of making. As a potter, my wife finds that shaping clay helps shape her writing. One creative act feeds the other. We both find the same is true building the house we currently live in.

But it goes beyond the making of things. Just washing dishes or cutting firewood is helpful. We don’t have running water yet and the woodstove is our only source of heat, so our life here requires a good number of chores be finished daily. If the wood doesn’t get cut, the house gets cold. And if we don’t wash those dishes, there’s nothing to eat on. But while I work through the dishes, my mind is able to work through a scene in a story. There is a connection—focusing on a project, a physical one that requires the use of my hands, allows my mind to wander. I’ve talked in my essays about the different types of time one needs to write—and that time of wandering, when the mind doesn’t have to be focused on the words on the page is crucial to figuring out who characters are, what they want to do next, and where plots need to go. So get your hands dirty. Doing so will feed you creatively, and allow your mind to open up stories, and give you the very grit of this world.

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About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.