Hands

So much of a writer’s job is paying attention. A photograph on Melissa Noble’s Blog recently reminded me of this. She posted a photograph called Great Gandmother’s Hands. Those hands were absolutely beautiful hands. Hands that had worn life with grace.

The photograph called to my mind the dignity that we often miss in our fellow human beings. And the details of another’s life. Details that are important. Florida writer Robert Newton Peck, in his book Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters, says that you can tell a lot about a character from his hands.

It’s in the details that our characters come alive. You can tell whether a character is a worker bee or someone who does no physical work at all. A guitarist will have callouses on his fingers. What does the reader learn about a pianist with short stubby fingers or long graceful ones? Are the hands of a character manicured or are the fingernails chewed off crookedly? Chewed from worry? Is there dirt underneath the fingernails?

When I was reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, he mentioned that John Updike never wore a wedding ring during his first marriage to Mary. During his second marriage to Martha, he wore a wedding ring. This told me so much, not about the writer, but about the man.

One of the things I love about the photographs of Ansel Adams and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth is how much dignity they bring to their subjects.

My Uncle Howard was a butcher. He was larger than life. He could fill a room just by walking into it. One time I asked him, “What happened to your pinkie?”

He threw his head back and laughed that big laugh of his. “I lost it years ago when I was slicing sausage. You can’t imagine the blood that poured out of that hand, enough to start a swimming pool. Anyway I got that hand all patched up. Decided I would honor that pinkie with a name. So I called it bologna.” At that, he winked at me.

“Where’s that pinkie now?” I asked.

“It’s in heaven, waiting for me. Guess I had better be good or I am going to have to spend eternity with one less pinkie, huh?”