Visit theallusionist.org/skin-story to hear this episode and find out more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, am left hanging by language.
Last episode, we heard about adding complications to the writing process, and in this episode, there’s a story that really went for it with the complications. Every word required effort, physical pain, a lifelong commitment and a responsibility waiver form.
The Allusionist tour is happening now, and over the next few weeks of autumn 2018. Tickets have just gone on sale for Toronto, as part of the Hot Docs podcast festival, where you can also see shows by our friends at Nancy podcast, and our beloved Radiotopian comrades Criminal and This Is Love.
The Allusionist live show is also coming to Dublin, Chicago, Austin, DC, Philly, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and LA, and the shows are pretty soon, so get tickets so that you can have an evening of fun fact-based entertainment, and I can stop stressing about performing to empty chairs. The show has received positive reviews from my mum AND my nieces and nephews aged 10-12, and Zaltzmans are harsh critics, so no favouritism happening there. See all the event listings at theallusionist.org/events.
On with the show!
HZ: Thirteen or so years ago, I met a friend at a pub, and she had someone with her who had a tattoo on her elbow of the word ‘cuticles,’. An unusual word to see as a tattoo - unlikely to be the name of a loved one or a birthplace or something. And also it wasn’t just the word ‘cuticles’, it was ‘cuticles’ followed by a comma.
SHELLEY JACKSON: With a piece of punctuation attached, you can really tell that it must be part of something else.
HZ: She was part of something else: The Skin Project, a story, 2095 words long, and each word tattooed on a person.
SHELLEY JACKSON: I got the title - "Skin". Skin. There it is on my wrist.
HZ: The people who got a Skin Project tattoo are known as Words, and this particular Word is the creator of the Skin Project, Shelley Jackson.
SHELLEY JACKSON: My name is Shelley Jackson. I'm an artist/writer/I don't know what.
HZ: Shelley started the Skin Project around 2003.
SHELLEY JACKSON: I think the first inklings of it were actually when I was working on my first book, which was the story collection called The Melancholy of Anatomy, and all the stories were fantastic reinventions of different body parts or substances. So one of the substances I was playing with was skin, but that story never really took off, so it wasn't included in the collection. But it was still sitting there as a few tag ends in my computer. And then I was thinking about whether there might be some way to publish it where the form reflected the content in an interesting way, because I like that sort of thing. And it kind of just hit me at that moment that we already publish on skin in the form of tattoos, and even in a more literal sense in the history of book publishing, books were printed originally on the skin of animals and even on some people, in the case of books bound in human skin. So there was already this great precedent for - or not so great, sort of grim in some cases - but a precedent, anyway, for publishing on skin. And of course I quickly moved on from the idea of publishing my entire story on one person - because that wouldn't really have been feasible - to the idea of distributing the story word by word among the number of people, who would then wander around the world endlessly remixing the words to form brief new constellations, new stories.
HZ: I think you might be quite an unusual writer in actively welcoming the remix of the story because it's out of your control then.
SHELLEY JACKSON: Yeah. The funny thing is, though, that when I first started this project I already had that as a kind of aesthetic principle the idea that the reader is always a creative partner in the work of art or literature. But once I started actually assigning the words to different participants and then hearing that from them about their words and so on, it only then really hit me in a visceral sense that my story was being co-opted entirely by these people. Of course that was my intention, but I had never really felt it before. But cosmically my bluff was called.
HZ: So how many words were in the story?
SHELLEY JACKSON: 2095 total. But they're not all assigned yet.
HZ: Is application still open?
SHELLEY JACKSON: The application is still open. The truth is I have more than enough volunteers - well over 10,000 - but at the same time I'm not just taking people in order; I'm looking for the application that strikes my fancy. So it's still open. To apply, it's fairly straightforward: you just write to me and tell me what your interest is, why you want to be a participant. The complications, the bureaucratic stipulations come in once you are ready to get your tattoo, and then you have to sign a waiver absolving me of responsibility for anything at all, and agreeing to the various rules about the tattoo.
HZ: A successful applicant would be assigned the next available word in the story, plus any adjacent punctuation. If they didn’t like the word, they didn’t have to get the tattoo, but they weren’t allowed to apply for another word. If they went ahead with it, they had to follow Shelley’s aesthetic guidelines:
SHELLEY JACKSON: I stipulated that the words had to be tattooed in something like a classic book font, something fairly sober and traditional and in black. I didn't put any limitations on size, but I did put a limitation on placement, in that I decided that it would warp the presentation of my project if there happened to be a word naming a body part and the word were stuck on that part. Since part of the feel of the project to me was this incongruity or slippage between the word and what it was placed on, so that it didn't seem necessarily to be naming that person or describing that person but alluded to some larger mystery that you weren't privy to.
HZ: So just too on the nose if the tattoo was literally on the nose, saying 'nose'.
SHELLEY JACKSON: Right. Exactly.
HZ: Usually when people have words tattooed on themselves, it's something very meaningful to them personally. And in this case they didn't know what word they were going to get assigned.
SHELLEY JACKSON: Right. But the most interesting thing actually about the feedback I get after the fact from some of the participants is that isn't their word so perfect for them! How did I know that that was the word that would matter most to them? Well obviously I didn't know. And I didn't pick it for them either; I give them out in order. So it was a completely random chance. So what I think it illustrates is really how personal our relationship to a word is, to language is. And this would be true of a normal book as well - that every word in that book means something slightly different to you than it means to everybody else. That's pretty instructive thing for an author to hear, because though I handed this story over to my readers on purpose, the truth is I'm handing any story I write over to my readers, in that sense. That word means that thing to them and not what it means to me, necessarily. So what would happen is that, as time went by, whatever word they got would resonate with more and more things in their personal life, so that it would start to feel like it was the word they would have chosen, even though it was assigned to them randomly.
HZ: When words were repeated, like 'the', did you get one person per instance?
SHELLEY JACKSON: I did. Yeah. As in a book, you don't have just one that that all the ‘the’s are referring back to. You have to have multiple ‘the’s. So I had this idea, that I kind of loved, of getting all the ‘the’s together making - forming a sports theme and playing against the ‘of’s.
HZ: The definite versus indefinite articles! I was wondering whether you managed to get all of the people together at any point to stand in line so that you could read the text. But then I guess a lot of them would be mooning at you.
SHELLEY JACKSON: They would, some of them, indeed. But no, I haven't done that; and I don't think I would do that either, because I mean the text to be scrambled and not legible to anyone but the participants.
HZ: Why did you decide to only let the people who had participated read the whole story?
SHELLEY JACKSON: For some reason I wanted to see if I could contrive to write a story that was truly a living story, that only read itself, in the sense that the Words are its only readers, except in the piecemeal way that people like you got to read cuticles and so on, and where the story didn't have that kind of spooky afterlife that published books have where they live long past - they outlive their authors and they outlive the time they were written for. Not that there's anything wrong with that in my opinion. But in this case I just thought I want a story that actually lives, and actually dies and disappears. If you had the story mass reproduced, obviously it would go on - not that it would go on forever necessarily, but it would linger in a way that I didn't mean it to for this particular project.
HZ: Skin Project isn’t Shelley’s only story written on unconventional pages.
SHELLEY JACKSON: The Snow Project is a story made up of words that I write in snow, very painstakingly, and photograph one at a time. So it's a weather-dependent story that gets rolled out really slowly over time, because each word takes a long time to do, and also it's not snowing all the time obviously. There's always the potential that climate change will put an end to the story before I do! I seem to manage to print out about a paragraph at winter, a small paragraph a winter. I think it's a project that's related to Skin in a bunch of ways. I mean for one thing it's ephemeral - Skin doesn't seem that ephemeral, but of course it's a mortal story, it's ephemeral in that sense. The snow is even more visibly so, because sometimes as soon as I finish writing it someone will come and stomp on it or kids, you know, "Can I mess it up?" Only after I've photographed it! Or the snow - it'll be snowing hard, and the snow will fill up the letters and erase them within minutes.
HZ: Shelley! Why do you make writing so inconvenient for yourself?
SHELLEY JACKSON: One reason is that I've always had this very visceral, almost bodily response to language, feeling for language, and tattooing is obviously a very visceral way of taking the imprint of language upon yourselves. One thing I like to think about is the mixture of pain and gratification that is involved in getting a tattoo, or getting any tattoo really, because it feels to me like a pretty good analogue for what happens in the best cases when you're moved by a book and changed by a book. We want to be changed in some way by what we read. Not to say that we don't like what we are already, but there there's this yearning to be to be imprinted in some way to be altered, and here it takes this bloody, oozing form. Some people might say it's kind of dopily literal of me to make it be that when it's already happening on a metaphorical level, which is true in a way. But I just love the bodily testimony to that desire to be marked by a meaningful experience.
HZ: And the participants had all sorts of reasons for volunteering for the Skin Project.
SHELLEY JACKSON: Some people have told me that they want to be part of something that matters, something that lasts. Well of course, it's designed not to last, but I guess you could say the story of it might last. A lot of them feel they have said they want to be part of something larger than themselves. So this sense of a story that meaningfully binds them all to each other is important to them; even if they don't know what the story is, they like that idea of being bound together by a story and feeling like they are a necessary part of that, that they're indispensable to the story. Some have written me really sad things about feeling like they haven't they haven't done much in their lives and this would be a way they could contribute something. Others have said things more about affirming their love of literature and reading. Like really putting themselves on the line for this art form that they love. I've had people who are dyslexic talk about conquering their fear of language, and this was a kind of testimony to that. So there are a lot of different reasons. It's very personal.
HZ: Did you feel some responsibility for people having your words permanently put on them?
SHELLEY JACKSON: I did. It was a strange feeling. Especially because the participants - I'm sure not all of them, but many of them - seemed to talk about me with an odd sort of proprietary reverence almost, or as if I were a kind of mother hen to them. And it worried me that I might not be able to live up to what they expected from me. I hadn't initially anticipated that it would be so much about relationships among people. Because I was sitting alone in my writing office, thinking about stories and stories distributed over the world and so on; I wasn't really thinking about people wanting to be part of a community and feeling connected to each other through a project and connected to me through that project. I just underestimated the human aspect of my own project. So my participants really taught me something about what I was doing that I hadn't anticipated.
HZ: Have you met many of your Words in person?
SHELLEY JACKSON: A fair number. Yes. They'll come to readings and show me their tattoos. That's always really great, to have someone come up to you and whip up their shirt! And it gives me kind of a family feeling. I said earlier that it was weird to be treated like a mother hen, but I actually do feel sort of maternal towards them, as the one who sort of bonds them together and so on.
HZ: You've created part of their life story.
SHELLEY JACKSON: And vice versa, of course. So yeah, it's a bond. It's a strange bond, but it's real.
This episode is sponsored by Casper, the sleep brand whose products are designed to give you your best rest, one night at a time: pillows, soft cotton sheets, dog beds, and of course, mattresses. My dad wants a new mattress. He has a pretty new mattress, but he doesn’t like it, so he asked me, “What do you know about” - that’s how he speaks - “What do you know about Casper mattresses?” Here’s what I know, dad: there are are three kinds of Casper, the Original with its multiple memory foam layers, the Wave with its premium support system, and the Essential, which is streamlined in design and price. All the mattresses are vegan, both in materials and eating habits, and they’re designed to mimic the contours of your human body to provide comfort and support. There are hassle-free returns if you’re not completely satisfied AND you can be sure of your purchase with Casper’s 100 night risk-free, sleep-on-it trial. You can get $50 towards select mattresses by visiting Casper.com/allusionist and using the promo code ALLUSIONIST at checkout. Terms and conditions apply.
Also, dad, if you do get one, can I be there when you take it out of the box? Because I’ve heard that’s quite the experience. Remember, get $50 towards select mattresses by going to Casper.com/allusionist and using the promo code ALLUSIONIST at checkout.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest shows in the audio realm. Including the Kitchen Sisters, legends of radio, who have a new series The Keepers: stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors, historians — protectors of the free flow of information and ideas. Delve into the Hip Hop Archives, and the film collections of a saviour of French cinema, and ride along with the horseback librarians of Kentucky. You can hear The Keepers on the Kitchen Sisters Presents feed on your podcast apps, at kitchensisters.org, and at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia exists thanks to you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
plantigrade, adj: (of a mammal) walking on the soles of the feet, like a human or bear.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Martin Austwick, who provides the music for the Allusionist. Thanks to Julie Shapiro, and to Matty, aka ‘cuticles comma’.
Shelley Jackson is an artist and writer: she has a new novel, Riddance, printed on paper or electronic equivalent. Find out more about the Skin Project and Shelley’s other work at ineradicablestain.com, and visit https://www.instagram.com/snowshelleyjackson/ to read her snow story as it progresses with the seasons.
If you have a tattoo of a word - especially if you’re one of the Skin Project words - send me a picture, to allusionistshow on Twitter and Facebook! Have a bash at the annual listener survey at surveynerds.com/allusionist! Come to the live shows - allusionist.org/events! Hear every episode, read more about each topic, see the full dictionary entries for the randomly selected words of the day at the show’s forever home, theallusionist.org.