Eunice Scarfe, a Canadian author and professor, led (and presumably still leads) a popular workshop at a women’s writing conference I used to attend regularly. We were given prompts: a few words, a sentence. We were to write whatever spilled from our brains and when time was called, draw a line beneath what we had written. Under that line, she asked us to write what images, emotions, and conclusions that exercise had stirred up.
One prompt she gave was “my mother’s hands.” Start with your own hands, she suggested, and drift back through the generations, to your mother’s, and her mother’s. I looked at my little paws and thought about my mother’s hands, the relief river map of the crisscrossing tendons and blood vessels, the elegant fingers, the carefully-coiffed nails. And then I looked back at my own. I had a hell of a time getting inspired. So I wrote about my mother’s hands, and the strength within them no one would suspect, and what the years and the Florida sun and had wrought upon her skin. But the words came in lumps and had no connection to my ten digits.
Eunice called time. I looked at my paltry prose, my weak words, and felt…uninspired. So that’s what I wrote below the line. Uninspired. Nothing. Feh. And I looked at my hands again. Still nothing. My hands are small, unlined, with squarish palms and utilitarian nails kept short through years of training on piano keys, typewriters, computer keyboards. Then Eunice invited women to line up against the wall if they wanted to read their wanderings to the class.
I chose not to. I listened, still thinking of my below-the-line comments, when I took another look at my squatty little hands. I realized why I had not connected with this exercise. My hands more closely resembled my father’s. And that was my biggest revelation of the week. Even though our faces, our noses, our eyes, our hair, so much the same that nearly everyone gasps and says, “Oh, you are your mother’s daughter,” I am more like my father than I’d ever considered.
What am I writing below the line for these few freewritten paragraphs? That it’s good, every so often, to have your conclusions about yourself challenged. Good as a writer, good as a daughter, good as a human.