A left-hand turn

Last Tuesday night I watched a blender fall from my kitchen cabinet and reflexively I reached to catch it. I was either too fast or too slow, because the blender hit the granite countertop and shattered just as my hand arrived. In effect, I wound up punching quarter-inch-thick, cut glass, resulting in an inch-long slice along my pinky knuckle that reached deep, to the bone.

It was my left hand. My writing hand.

My writing hand.

My wife and I spent all that night and into the dawn hours in an emergency room as doctors and residents and nurses flushed the blood from my wound, tied off a severed artery in my hand, and took x-rays, warning me that there might be damage to the tendon. Then they stitched me up and sent me to a hand specialist.

The next day, I noticed my pinkie was dangling, limp. It contracted fine, joining the rest of my fingers in a sore fist, but it could not extend. I chalked it up to residual numbness and swelling from the ER, and maybe a side effect of the painkillers. But on Friday, the specialist confirmed what I feared: the tendon was severed and I would need surgery.

So far, I had been taking all of this in stride. I’m not afraid of my own blood, and I’m not unfamiliar with emergency rooms, having suffered bleeding ulcers and crushed vertebrae in the past. In the emergency room last week, I eagerly watched as the doctors stretched open my wound to expose my bones and manipulate the knuckles and the tendon in there. I was fascinated by my own internal anatomy.

But as I spoke with the hand specialist, who was describing the days of surgery and recovery, the splint or cast I would have to wear for at least a month, the nearly twelve months of physical therapy to recover full use of my hand, I began to feel disoriented. Disconnected from myself. Worried.

As the uneasiness swelled over the next few days, I tried to sit with it, to understand it, and I finally realized that this wasn’t just a wound to my hand — this was a threat to my writing.

I typically do most of my writing these days on a keyboard, mostly my laptop, so I don’t have the same connection between my writing and my writing hand as I might have had a decade ago. And I know that my dread here is a bit ridiculous. Plenty of writers have carried on under much more trying circumstances than this. And I trust my doctors and I know this will all heal up in the end, and I’ll be fine.

But every time I feel that twinge in my pinky, when I see the impotence of it as it dangles below the rest of my fingers, every time I bump this lame finger against something because I’m unaccustomed to its uselessness, I feel somehow shaken in my identity as a writer.

Long ago, I had a discussion with my students about the tactility of writing and the difference between writing in pencil or pen and writing on a keyboard. We all agreed that there is some qualitative difference, though I continued to lean in favor of my machines. This past fall, a new student of mine was adamantly anti-typing and preferred to write all of his essays for class in longhand with a fountain pen on nice paper. I admired — and sympathized with — his desire to feel his writing. He even gifted me an inexpensive fountain pen just to remind me of what writing felt like. I took the gift as a challenge to reconnect with handwriting.

Now I cannot use his pen for at least a month, maybe longer. And for the rest of this term, when I grade my students’ essays, I’ll have to do so by computer, instead of my usual habit of scratching notes in pencil on their pages. The same is true of my own writing — it will all have to be by computer now, by necessity rather than by choice.

Technology affords us so many avenues these days, and I’ve been typing comments on Facebook and writing emails to colleagues and friends. I have voice recognition software on my phone, which I’ve blogged about before, and I’m using it now to write this blog post. So I’ll be able to write, and in much the same way as I usually write.

But in truth, this blog post is the most writing, in both seriousness and in length, I’ve done since the accident. I haven’t written any fiction in a week now. I have materials in my study and beside my bed, waiting for me to get to work. I have files still open on my laptop from a week ago, before the blender. But I’ve had this psychological block for days. Because I can’t write long-hand, I suddenly don’t want to write any other way.

My mother’s first comment when she found out about my injury was to worry about the novel I’ve been working on this winter. And she’s right. Even with the technology of typewriting or voice recognition, the work will be so much slower now that I worry about regaining the kind of momentum that drove me through my first published novel.

I wonder how long it will be before I can write the way I used to. I wonder even if I should be writing the way I used to.

One writer friend of mine, when reading the news of my injury on Facebook, told me this injury and long recovery might be a good thing. He related how he had once injured his hand and in rehabilitating his fingers to a pen or pencil, he had to slow down, which in turn slowed down his thought processes and his consideration of the words he used. He said being injured made him a better writer. I don’t doubt this at all. In fact, I anticipate it. I hope this will make me a better writer, or at least a more mindful writer, which as a Buddhist I should be striving for anyway.

So that’s how I’m trying to embrace this injury: it is a chance to rethink how I write, to slow down and improve my writing. This is a chance to rediscover myself as a writer. To consider all over again what it is I do and why I do it.

One thing I know for certain: I will keep writing even through the injury. Especially through the injury. When my hand specialist said that it might take a year to regain full use of my fingers, I almost laughed at him. I was thinking at the time, before I’d had a chance to walk away and overthink things and begin to freak out, that this doctor didn’t understand what it means to a writer to have full use of his hands. He doesn’t realize how hard I will work — how much of the work I already do is hard — and how eager I am to recover. How fast I will work to regain the use of my writing hand.

Being a writer means living with this bizarre, lurking self-doubt, this fragility that makes us all so prone to fearing rejection, bemoaning hiccups, worrying about any imperfection. We make this myth of writer’s block — and it is a myth — our invented reality.

But writers live a contradiction, because being a writer means also being determined in the face of anything, it means feeling like you have so much to say that no amount of self-doubt can stop the words from coming, that you have to write no matter what.

I’ve wrestled with this blog post for days, feeling I needed to write about what I was feeling and thinking, in part to laugh at myself for being so worried about it and in part to understand that worry and work through it. But I’ve come to think of this writing, these past couple of days, as a siphon. I often tell my students that writing is a bit like siphoning gas — you suck on the hose and spit out the fuel until the gas starts flowing on its own, and then you just let gravity do the rest. You write and you write until the words start flowing, and then you let them come.

It’s taken me a couple of days of thinking and overthinking and worrying and speaking into my phone and typing with one hand and massaging my sore wound, but the words are coming. I’m ready to get back to work.

Writing hand or no, I have to keep writing. No matter what.

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4 thoughts on “A left-hand turn

  1. Wonderful contemplative post. Thank you so much.
    I’d like you to know that eighteen of my words in this reply had to be re-written because of my own issues w/ health and writing (eyes and hands). I’ve learned patience. And that is a very good trade-off.

  2. Like seems highly inappropriate. When I read the first line of this post, I experienced an immediate reaction, having cut myself badly several times before, once badly enough to have to go to an emergency clinic on Christmas. Only the doctor was there and I actually had to help him hold stuff with the ok hand. Life is full of “adventures”, many of which make us slow down, think, and become a better person.

  3. On Facebook I made an offhand remark (no pun intended there) about the affordances that having to write slowly may bring. Maybe in fact it was facile, because now I’m sitting down reading this post again I realise, from the amount of reflection you have put into it, that this is serious, this is a big deal. Of course I’m thinking practical stuff – I was going to suggest an amanuensis, but then I saw that you had voice-recognition software. VRS is a good option, because then all you need to do manually is edit (‘all’???). But then, why not an amanuensis? Why not find someone who can transcribe, and not only transcribe but kick around ideas. A chance remark from John Milton’s secretary, having read the draft of ‘Paradise Lost’, led to the writing of ‘Paradise Regained’.

    Underlying the calmness of this article is the pain and frustration you must be feeling. I wish you swift and complete recovery, and patience in the mean time. Take care of yourself, valued friend and colleague.

    1. Thank you, my friend! It’s not really as big a deal as it feels — but I needed to write this to see that. The bigger deal is, as you said, the opportunity to reflect and adapt. For that, at least, I’m grateful. 🙂

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