Monday, 17 March 2008

Hand, eyes - and mouths

Mark's comment about my last blog and my father makes me think some more on this topic of craft skill.
For me, the most beautiful features of the human body are the hands, the eyes - and the mouth (though I suppose I mean the lips).
Mark is right. My father 'thought with his hands'. With his eyes (and after years of experience) he could look at a wall, for example, and tell you it was an eighth of a inch - a couple of millimetres - out of vertical. With his eye and his hands, he could cut a piece of wood (when making a mortise and tenon joint, for instance) to a millimeter of accuracy without measuring it.
But what he was not, with me anyway, was physically affectionate. The men around me in my childhood (the 1930s and 40s) were like that. There was a cultural taboo on tenderness. I don't remember ever being hugged by my father, grandfathers, uncles, or any man. For tender physical affection you went to women. You went to men for vigorous action. One form of my father's physical affection was fights with rolled up newspapers. The game was to hit each other with the rolled up newspaper to see who could land the most blows. It ended sometimes with both of us in uncontrollable laughter (good) and sometimes with me in floods of tears (bad).
Two mistakes.
One: It's a mistake to suppose that men who 'think with their hands' do not think with their brains. My father never did more than draw a plan for something he was making, whether in wood or in his garden, than sketch it out roughly on a piece of paper. This was nothing more than an aide memoire for what he imagined in his head. The rest was down to the skill of hand and eye - and what he'd learned from experience. His garden was a masterpiece of design, colour, and understanding of how it would look in each season. Yet he always said he hated 'head work'. Who had taught him that craft skill wasn't head work as well as hand work? What he was not good at was talking about what he imagined. His mouth was used for eating and drinking and telling funny stories. That's why he liked pubs.
The second mistake is to think that what my father called 'head work' - writing a novel - has nothing to do with the hands or the mouth. I think with my hands as much as my father did. (What's the strongest of your five senses? Mine is my sense of touch and then my sight.) I think best - imagine best - when writing words with my hand. Just as my father was making things by cutting, planing, and joining wood, I am making novels by 'cutting' words (out of the lexicon in my mind), joining them together and refining them by their association with other words.
But I only know they are 'right' (what I imagined) by speaking them with my mouth.
The great Gertrude Stein, the first writer to compose modernist prose in the twentieth century, said that she felt words with her eyes. I know what she means. To me, words are tactile objects. I feel them with my eyes. Words in my mouth are like pebbles, shards of glass, leaves of trees, flowers, etc., and often feel 'of the air, airy'.
Nothing is real until it is imagined. Nothing imagined is real until it is made as a visual, tactile object. The visceral quality of music. The sensational quality of paint. The erotic potency of an actor speaking brilliantly orchestrated words on the physically sacred temenos of a stage.
'We are such stuff as dreams are made on,' says the great Master. But when that line is quoted, how many of us think of that word 'stuff' rather than the emphatic word in the line: 'dreams'. How many of us dwell after hearing 'dreams' on the word 'made'. (And this 'stuff' is 'made on', not 'made of' - a frequent misquotation.)
For me, all true art involves the maker's hands, eyes, and mouth in the employment of the imagination.
Selah to that sermon for today!


Inge said...

What an interesting piece you wrote there. My father never speaks without his hands. He waves them in the air, as if his words need the gestures too.
When I write, it is definitely with my eyes. I don't see words though, I see images. A film is playing in my head and my fingers are struggling to keep up with it. That's why I can never write on paper long. I simply have to get to my computer, when my head takes over the story. It's very real, because I can hear the noises, the voices, everything and I can smell the smells too. Quite weird sometimes.
Now I'm very busy writing stories for beginning readers. There are a lot of rules about how many words or syllables you can use in each level, but I find it a very useful excercise, because it teaches me to put different feelings into different words over and over again, and that is quite a discovery. To say a lot, without using difficult, long or a lot of words.
And my brother is a carpenter too, I just love the scent of wood.
Inge (jam)

Bobbi said...

Hi Aidan,
I was very pleased finding your new blog today! I'm Bobbi, from Sweden.

This morning I finished reading Dance on my grave after staying up until late.
I have read it once before, when I was about 15 or 16, and now I'm 33. I remember liking it very much the first time around, but it made an even bigger impact on me this time. I even had to take breaks during reading, to be able to cope with the suspension building up in the two first parts of the book - restlessly walking around in expectation of being calm enough to go on reading again! :)

I am also an aspiring writer, right now working on two novels with young adults in the main parts. Those are my first attempts of writing novels, but I've been wanting to do it for a long time.

I've been having a bit of a hard time defining the "target group" for those novels but when I read your definition of your own work (in another post):

"/.../ my novels are adult novels for young people and young people's novel for adults."

I felt that's something I'm aspiring as well!

I'm looking forward to reading and commenting on the blog. :)

Anonymous said...

"But I only know the words are 'right' (what I imagined) by speaking them with my mouth."

Ay words are real, that's for sure, and the thoughts and feelings and flights of fancy that they embody. The orality of the written word HAS to remain central to writing and the experience of it: to feel the weight of the word like a round pebble heavy in the hand. Or awkward and sharp, deeply wounding for sure, then as soft and grounding as clay. In other words the physicality of words and thoughts and deeds.

I'm lucky enough to work with actors sometimes, and negotiating the line through something difficult and rewarding, say a John Donne sonnet, can be enormously satisfying. And it's often helped by standing up to do it, so we're using the whole body.

This is why reading out loud is important, to children and adults alike. We all need it, to be captivated. And it's why the pictures remain better on radio - which is what I do - because they're in our heads.

Aidan - would be interested in some bloggy thoughts on why you chose this word as opposed to that one, why this choice word is the one for the job in hand.

This stuff about fathers is a permanently important and evolving debate for me, being a father and a son. What we do or don't give to the next generation - the action and reaction that our behaviour prompts, in spite of / because of all our best intentions. Hmm...

Thanks for the opportunity for the ramble through the wood yard. Now back to the day job!


Anonymous said...

Yes, Mark, I'd be interested in your bloggy thoughts on this word or that and why.

Anonymous said...

Can I react to your comment, Mark?

I agree with your fascination with fathers and sons (in my case, fathers and daughters: I have always been ‘my father’s daughter’). We are all ‘children of’ and we all relate in some way or another to ‘passing on things’ to generations behind us and receiving from generations before. Especially teachers do, and TV programme makers, also writers.
For me in the relations with the generation before us the key is ‘being grateful’ for the gifts you get and ‘not blaming’ for what you would rather not have inherited … The first endless, the second non-existent. And for those behind us: ‘taking’ the children ‘seriously’ by listening to them and explaining them why we do things, in all honesty … As a mother and a teacher I know no other way …
And referring to yesterday’s blog entry, Aidan: I think that for a teacher his/her face and hands – the whole body posture that would radiate enthusiasm and interest in students and the subject at hand – are his/her tools too. If one of my classes is a disappointment (in the first place to myself!), then looking back on it I know that … my hands, eyes and lips weren’t enthusiastic and inspired enough to make my words come across!


Anonymous said...

Greetings all, overdosed on chocolate, I hope?

Interesting and helpful thoughts there, Anne, on playing the generation game.

Regarding this useful hands, eye and craft discussion, I've just bumped into these words by that fine Scots poet and writer, George Mackay Brown, from his novel, 'Vinland', set in Viking Orkney (one for all you Swedish Weekings, I suspect!).

"Hakon Treeman said he was no poet. It was only that certain images flocked to the tree of his mind, and made a happy disturbance there, and whenever that happened it would be disgraceful to utter his thoughts in grey matter-of-fact words.

'Truly', he said, 'a poet must give his whole life to his art...I am only a poet by chance. I lack the skill to hammer out intricate verses. My true vocation is ship-craft.'

At these words Ard the poet looked pleased."

And, as it happens, I was working with the economics writer Will Hutton last week, finalising the script of a programme we're making (don't ask: it's on the post-war reconstruction of Europe, and the role of nationalisation, and is on Radio 4 at 20.00 on Monday 7th April), his fingers itching at the keyboard and - lovely serendpity this - he said: "I have to feel the words with my fingers, move them around". So of course I had to tell him Aidan's story of the 9-pencil novel. Truly, 2B or not 2B! There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your double entry ledger system. Kick! Ow, that hurt!

Hey ho, back to work. (Anyone know anything interesting about Scottish ballads?)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and another thing whilst I'm at it: unalloyed glad tidings! An excerpt from Philip Pullman's forthcoming novel, 'Once Upon a Time in the North' was in last Sat's Gradient:,,2267338,00.html


Lee said...

I'm reading Richard Sennett's The Craftsman at the moment, which I recommend highly (and which I'll eventually blog about, I suppose). He too speaks about the essential relationship between hand and mind - 'simulation can be a poor substitute for tactile experience'. Thinking and doing are intrinsically linked, so much so that 'conceptual human powers suffer' when the link is broken. Dynamic manual repetition both solves problems and reveals new ones to fascinate, to challenge, to address. Sennett's examples from music and architecture are particularly illuminating.