Why Working With Your Hands Helps Your Writing
I put down my pen and picked up a saw.
As a writer who crafts, I am driven by two compulsions — to build things in the real world and to build stories in my head.
Getting messy making stuff with your hands could be beneficial for writing and here are some reasons why.
Building Things Helps Story Fatigue
My story process starts with daydreaming, moves into writing with biro on paper and then the first edit is stabbed into the laptop. Days of cutting and refining follow, alternating with dreaming and scribbling once more.
When the process is going well it’s swift and I’m a swashbuckling hero. When I’m stuck, it’s hell in a swamp with a wooden sword. If my writing brain is tired and the connections just won't fire, it helps to move away from the internal drama being played out behind my eyeballs and knock something together in the real world.
Like good coffee grounds, story ideas need space to swirl around and bump into each other releasing rich imagery that tastes damn fine. We know it’s common for ideas to pop up in the shower or when gardening — a quick antidote to the brain fog that comes with overthinking. Sometimes you just need a stronger brew.
I made a coffee table.
I am a collector of kitsch. A lover of mid-century knick-knacks with an obsession for palette tables. Not tables made from industrial palettes, which are in vogue at the moment, but artist palettes. Elliptical slabs of wood that painters use to mix their colours.
I love the palette shape and so did designers of the 50s & 60s as palettes were everywhere — ashtrays, salad bowls, coasters, wall art, fabric print and occasional tables. Maybe it’s the belly curve we respond to and the almost fractal quality of the thumbhole and paint blobs pregnant with possibility.
An early fixation
There was hardly any kids TV in the 70s, but I watched a ton of TV regardless. I was transfixed by Paint Along With Nancy, a how-to programme that promised much but delivered slightly less. Nancy Kominsky painted on a canvas with a palette knife like she was icing a cake. I loved her smock, her big hair and her throaty American bark.
I had an easel but no canvas. I grabbed a pillowcase — cotton being close enough to canvas I reckoned — then I raided the kitchen drawers. Instead of layering oils onto an azure sky, I daubed poster paint onto the pillowcase with a butter knife. I couldn’t quite comprehend why the end result looked nothing like Nancy’s. But even at that early age, I was experimenting with acting as opposed to merely reflecting, doing rather than endless planning. And I was testing out possible futures — I too wanted a smock, big hair and to be an artist on TV.
I was defeated, but not discouraged. Next Christmas I would ask for a potter’s wheel.
Building Stuff With Others Increases Story Ideas (And Gets You Friends)
It helps to move from cognitive to somatic. It’s the difference between sitting in the corner of the playground hanging out in your inner world and joining in the game of tag that is happening two feet away from you.
Too much time spent alone at the keyboard is isolating, it’s also not very good for your physical body. Having the ability to paddle out in your imagination but also stand on the shore feeling actual sand between your toes reaps rewards. If you can build things with other people all the better.
Introducing a story element to a tag game where you all get to be characters from your favourite TV show makes you the best kid in the yard to play with.
Move from thinking to doing, the great cognitive shift.
I was obsessing over authentic mid-century palette tables online, gorgeous and pricey when I had an I Could Make That moment.
Moving away from rumination I got out my sketchbook and deconstructed the perfect table. I drew out a paper template and reckoned I could knock it together if I could get my hands on some wood. I am not a fan of MDF, it’s the processed cheese square of the wood family — my table would be made with proper timber — how about mahogany.
Enlist a friend for the ride.
A carpenter friend with a workshop agreed to mentor the project. Joe had a stash of found timber and we re-purposed a mahogany tabletop he had rescued from a skip. There is something deeply satisfying about using something someone has thrown away, it reconnected me to kid-hood (kindling my superpower) when my mate Eddie and I would spend Saturday afternoons collecting ‘useful things’ which we hoarded at the back of my house.
Used lightbulbs, rusty screws, tin cans, car parts — none of it at all useful. But we were explorers and inventors, I learned that smouldering charred wood still burns your hands and lightbulbs pop if you chuck them hard against a wall.
Play with power tools.
I am handy with a jig-saw, but it had been a few years since I’d handled a router so Joe gave me ear defenders and goggles. He guided me through routing the tabletop then suggested I sand the edges smooth by hand from an array of graded papers.
‘Is this smooth enough?’
‘Smooth enough now?’
‘You can get it smoother.’
‘Thanks Obi Wan.’
Sanding by hand is very meditative. Joe pottered around his workshop, we co-existed in our respective tasks and there was no need to rush.
Building Boosts The Happy Chemicals
I found the perfect set of used 50s atomic table legs online and had been rewarded with many dopamine hits in the hunt. When my legs arrived in the post I was euphoric — hello serotonin — so perfect was the colour match to the mahogany top I had been working on. The spindly legs looked like drumsticks and came with a history I could only guess at.
The project was boosting my oxytocin levels too as Joe and I exchanged thoughts on sandpaper grades and choice of finishing oils whilst sipping tea and eating bourbons.
The smell of sawdust and the obedient tools lined up on their shadow board brought back memories of my Dad at his workbench in the garage. Born in 1920 my Dad was of the generation that built things to last and did DIY in his spare time.
There was little acknowledgment from my Dad to his tomboy kid but I hung around the garage and knocked together pieces of abstract art from his offcuts. These haphazard sculptures graced the walls of my student digs and were a talking point. One made it to the living room wall of my first home as an adult. Here in Joe’s workshop, silent amongst the wood-shavings I found connection with a distant father and a recognition of inherited DIY DNA.
‘Smooth enough now?’
Don’t be too busy making a living to make things.
There’s long been a growing movement to liberate people from the cubicle workplace towards a richer, fuller life via a return to manual work. It’s an established trope that getting out of the office to tinker with motorbikes or crafting quilts in a sewing bee is an antidote to the soul suck of modern digital-driven capitalism. As Matthew Crawford examines in his book ‘The Case For Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Is Good’:
“Getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.
You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”
Indeed, Matthew has been moved to make his own mahogany table and explore the paternal notion of making stuff your kids will remember you by.
“I once built a mahogany coffee table on which I spared no expense of effort. At that time I had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet I imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work. I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life, the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface textured enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it in unnoticed accretions.”
— Matthew Crawford
I don’t know if I’ll ever have a novel with my name embossed on the cover, a dedication to my kids on the fly page. I have a stack of scripts with my name on them in a filing cabinet and a small mountain of spiral-bound books full of — stuff.
As far as legacy goes, my yet-to-be-born grand-kids may have to make do with a sparse IMDB page and re-runs of Holby City to ever know granny was a writer.
But a table can become an heirloom.
A Real World Sense Of Achievement And Purpose
Finally — and this was no Nancy Kominsky moment — the table stood in Joe’s workshop almost glowing with how right it was. A polished nut colour, the length of the legs (3 of them) in perfect harmony with the surface area. All reclaimed wood with a history of hands upon it, now fully charged with potential for my own home.
I had birthed it.
A note on WIPs…
Works-in-progress sit in baskets on the floor, in folders on the hard drive, in real folders on the shelf. My WIPs don’t bother me as much these days — maybe I’ve got all I need by writing two-thirds of a screenplay, I relished the process more than the finished product.
After 22 years of guilt having never finished the cross stitch sampler I started after the birth of my second baby (I finished and framed the first), it was Barbara Sher’s book ‘Refuse To Choose’ that challenged my notion of needing to finishing everything. To an impossibly high standard.
And don’t bother to finish any of it.”
— Barbara Sher
But sometimes it is good to go out in the world and just build something from start to finish. I love a good story arc and my table had an ending.
The whole table project was completed in four Tuesday afternoons. This was no 10,000 hours of accumulated skill, I am not an expert in woodcraft and I’m not about to open House of Bown anytime soon.
However my cousin Ralph Bown is a master luthier.
My table gets used every day.
It speaks to me of my capacity to get things done and see a project through.
It holds my teacup in the morning when I rise to write.
I made it up and it became a real solid thing in the world.
My table calls on me to provide it with a mate — potentially a magazine rack.
Or a screenplay about lost things, Eddie and his tomboy ally.
This hammer and nails approach to building stories works alongside deep thinking and holds me in balance.
I cannot write unless I am working with my hands.
What Is My Superpower?
Play is my superpower.
Bringing a sense of play to a project kicks out fear and frustration. Sometimes you just have to knock around for a mate and play with his toys for a change.
Together you can build new worlds and scrape your knees.