My Life as a Word: How I Became Part of The "Skin" Short Story Project

Everyone's got a story. Mine just happens to have been written by somebody else.

Nov 10, 2011 at 4:09pm | Leave a comment

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Surprisingly few people ask me why I have “away” tattooed on my ankle. I think it’s probably because it is on my ankle, and it’s not very big, so it’s not in folks’ faces all the time -- most of the people who do ask are people who have been standing behind me on stairs or escalators. But it’s the only tattoo I like talking about, because it’s the only one with an awesome story -- although I don’t know yet exactly what the story is.

It’s an actual story, a 2,095-word short story called “Skin” that’s only being published as tattoos. The author, Shelley Jackson, doles out the words to participants, one at a time, with punctuation attached if necessary. There are a few rules: The tattoo must be in a book font, and if your word is the name of a body part, you can’t get it on that body part (except for the word “skin,” because that would be kind of a challenge). You can reject your word, but you can’t exchange it for another; if you get “poop,” you’re “poop” or you’re out. (I feel fairly confident in saying that nobody has gotten “poop.”)

Once you’ve accepted the word and gotten the ink, you’re considered to be that word. If you get the tattoo removed, if you lose the limb it’s on, doesn’t matter -- you’re that word until you die. And once you die, that word is out of the story. The story itself dies by degrees.

I know where my word is in the story, though I don’t remember offhand; the number is written on the letter I got with my word assignment, somewhere in my files. It doesn’t matter, because I haven’t seen the story yet, although supposedly someday I’ll get a copy in the mail -- only words will see it, and we’re forbidden to share. The project moves at a snail’s pace, though, so by the time the story shows up, I might have moved away. Maybe the story will try to find me, but maybe it’ll be lost.

But honestly, I don’t really care what the original story is. For me, that story is like the DNA of the project -- necessary for generating it, but not sufficient to understand its life. I’d be interested in seeing my own genome, but I wouldn’t say it was essential for understanding me; my identity’s not based on the genes that influence my characteristics, but on how those characteristics interact with the rest of the world. (Melanin production? Not that important. White privilege? Oh, you bet.) The original story is just a code for generating new stories, the stories of how each word lives in the world.

Part of that story is a word’s personal history -- the human equivalent of connotation and etymology. When I got my word, I had just decided to leave graduate school, and the man who’d been colonizing my brain for years was moving to another country. I had all the relief and vertigo that accompanies new freedom. That’s part of what “away,” means to me, and thus what it means in the story. Every word we use has a story of its own, one that authors can make use of but that’s totally outside the realm of authorial control. Our language has history and resonance that we can only tap into. “Skin” makes that explicit.

Another part of the story is syntax, the way a word interacts with other words and the pauses between them. I turned out to know a “the” before I ever learned about the project, but only found out she was a word much later. I ran into “them” and “grows” on the Metro once. I got together with “memorious.” when I was giving a paper on “Skin” at a conference in grad school -- I’m pretty sure I was the only person at that conference who got coffee with part of the work she was writing about. In the original story, our words are nowhere near each other, but in the real story -- the story of what words do, alone and together, when they’re set free -- we appeared in each other’s texts for a while.

Some people, when I've told them about "Skin," have expressed concern that Jackson is being something of a control freak -- doesn't it take a lot of nerve to call yourself the "author" of human beings? Can you really dragoon people, even willing participants, to play roles in your creative work? But I actually think it's exceptionally generous of an author to let her words run around having their own stories. It isn't really that she's turning people into her words; it's that she's turning her words into people.

Impossibly, given that the first call for participants went out in 2003, Jackson is still accepting applications. But even if you don’t apply or never hear back, there’s nothing stopping you from deciding what word you should be -- your syntax and etymology, the role you play in making meaning out of the stories around you. You don’t have to be a word in order to be part of hundreds of overlapping stories, each one of which will be subtly altered if you die. A project like “Skin” doesn’t create that opportunity, it just makes it obvious.