Archive for May, 2013

Dancing Your Words by Hand

May 31, 2013

(reprinted from a 2012 Willamette Writers newsletter)

Her name was Rachel and she was eight years old and with her hands she was reciting the poem “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. She was the sign language interpreter as the poem was being read aloud by Claire Danes on a wonderful HBO special called “A Child’s Garden of Poetry.” With her arms, wrists, and fingers, Rachel was acting out a metaphor and, in a way, she became the metaphor. Like hope she was sweet, strong, and brave.

This performance was more powerful than the eye reading silently from the page. More than hearing the words read aloud. More even than copying the words out on paper (which I have done with many poems and passages from books and plays—it’s inspiring to feel brilliant words flowing down your arm, into your hand, into your pen and onto the paper—try it sometime.) Rachel was dancing with her arms and hands, creating the poem out of thin air:

Hope is the thing with feathers(she fashions feathers with pinched fingers, flaps small wings)
That perches in the soul (she draws an invisible thread from the palm of her hand)
And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all(her chop of the hand for “stop” is childlike and endearing)


And sweetest in the gale is heard and sore must be the storm(her splayed fingers create the gusting winds)
That could abash the little bird that kept so many warm (she is painting the story of a bird, but she knows the bird is something other than a bird)

I’ve heard it in the chillest land and on the strangest sea (her shrug for strange delights me)
Yet, never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me (I can’t help it—I love her)

Rachel reminded me of one of the most thrilling experiences of my writing life. When I was an English major, I was in a writing class in which we had to create and perform a “piece” as our final project. Mine was called “The Dreamtale Quilt.” I made a simple quilt of squares, each representing a different dream I’d had—there was also a narrative about why the telling of dreams is important:

“Women came from the circles, and they lived in circles, and they lived like circles. You can see their circles through time, behind and in and over the lines of men. Some circles are sacred circles. Some circles are heavy and cold and are made to be broken out of. And some circles are rings of our languages, rippling out, sounding like silence, looking like something else, moving out to touch each other in secret speaking. A chain of voices, listening, surviving, waiting to hear, refusing not to listen and ripple back.”

I’d had many classes where an interpreter signed a lecture for a hearing impaired student. There were several signers, but I had a favorite. A couple of them signed in choppy or drab ways, another had a corny, overly emotional style, but there was one man who was so subtle and intelligent in the way he communicated the nuances of the speaker’s tone and the significance of the content that sometimes I couldn’t help but watch him instead of the professor. On the day of my final project performance, this man walked in the room and set up his chair to the side of the classroom in front of his deaf client. Strangely, I was both overjoyed and nervous as I realized my words would be translated through him.

As I read aloud I could see him from the corner of my eye. At one point the text nearly made me cry (a passage about a woman holding her baby) so I paused. I could see him raise a finger in the air and move it slightly as if to say, “Wait . . . wait . . .”

At the end of the class he came up to me and told me my writing was beautiful.  I wanted to say how much I admired him, but I was speechless (I know, ironic) so I just thanked him.

In turn, remembering that final project (could it really be almost 20 years ago?) I decided that I wanted to feel my own writing in my hands and arms the way he had, the way little Rachel had with Dickinson. So I learned (with the help of my sister, Wendy) to sign the first line of my novel, A Certain Slant of Light.

“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” I especially like the sign for dead, flipping the hands from palm up to palm down as if a corpse is being rolled over.  It feels so good to sign the opening line of my novel that now I want to learn the whole Dickinson poem from which the title was taken. (There’s a certain slant of light winter afternoons . . . )

And here is my advice to you, fellow writers: take the title of your book or movie or memoir, or your opening line, or your favorite paragraph, and learn it in sign language. Paint it in the air for yourself–you deserve to feel the beauty of your work flowing through you all the way out to your fingertips.


May Give-Away

May 7, 2013

The winner of the April Give-Away was Kyley of Indianapolis, IN. The May Give-Away will be a hardcover copy of my new book Under the Light (which comes out on May14th and is the companion novel to A Certain Slant of Light.) If you’d like to join the drawing please send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website. If you already entered any of the drawings to win an advanced reader copy of the new book, no need to enter again. Good luck all!

bk pic

And if you are in the Portland, Oregon area on Thursday, May 16, please come to my signing/reading at Powell’s Book Store in the Cedar Hills shopping center. 7:00 in the evening. Chelsea Pitcher, author of The S Word, will also be reading/signing. Do come if you can!