The Hands of a Writer

September 25, 2020 § 4 Comments

by Ilana Masad


The arhythmic staccato of fingers typing fast and fluid on a keyboard has been one of the most comforting and consistent soundtracks of my life. I remember the satisfying clacks of my parents’ large mechanical keyboard, so loud the noise carried from the study all the way to my bedroom. Later, when my dad got an office job, I became intimately familiar with my mother’s typing, the short pauses that meant she was taking a drag off her cigarette, longer ones indicating she was focused on finding the right phrasing. Lately, when I visit her, I stay on the foldout bed in her office, and often read or take naps there while she’s working or answering emails, the familiar noise making me feel inexplicably, illogically safe.


Sometime in the late ‘90s, I had a computer game that taught touch-typing. I “played” it—to call such a dull educational program a game is potentially a misnomer—and gave up pretty quickly, only to try again a year or so later, and then again at some point. There was no good reason for me to learn this skill; my school rarely had us using computers, and it’s not as if I knew then that I would end up being a writer. I kept trying mostly out of envy: my best friend at the time, who was good at everything, had taught herself to, and my mother touch-typed, having learned on a typewriter years before.

I do touch-type now, having learned by trial and error and practice, but not the “right” way, the way that computer game wanted me to do it, using all five of my fingers in equal measure on each of my hands. I mostly use my forefingers, middle finger, very occasionally my ring fingers, and usually just my left thumb on the space bar. But I type fast, and—a fun party trick—I can look away from my screen entirely, at the window, say, or at my partner who’s walked into the room to tell me something, or at a friend sitting across from me at the library or coffee shop (back when we could gather to study and work together, that is), and keep typing out this full sentence without making even a single mistake.


Mirrors and I don’t always get along; they trouble me, or I them, and anyway, somewhere between the refraction of light on glass and silver and my brain processing the information given to my eyes, something is distorted. This is a symptom of my body dysmorphia, a condition that has stayed with me since whenever it developed during the long, messy years of an eating disorder I still cannot quite shake.

But my hands—I didn’t fall in love with them all at once, but bit by bit, as with a best friend who has always been there but who begins, one day, to seem appealing in a new way. It was in college that I first took notice of them, maybe because my friends kept complaining about how loudly I typed, and I wanted to see what I was doing to make so much more noise than they did. Or maybe, having a laptop for the first time, the screen and keyboard connected, my eyes were more naturally down to my hands’ movements.

Whatever the reason, I found myself enamored of my hands’ determined strength, noticing how my long, slender fingers moved with a spidery grace along the keys, the tendons on the backs of my hands arching up at unexpected moments. I became mesmerized with how my left thumb rested on its side when I was thinking, its knuckle a little swollen, and how the bony knob at the edge of my wrist seemed to shift ever so slightly when my middle finger tapped at the Backspace key. I even appreciated my translucent skin for once—normally I hate it, so see-through that vast expanses of me aren’t beige or pink but sickeningly reminiscent of hanging meat, squiggles of red, purple, and blue—and took pleasure in the three strong blue veins that disappeared between the knuckles of my right hand while, on my left, I could track one from the edge of my wrist, snaking up near my thumb, and disappearing into my pointer finger.


Three years ago, I started writing a novel, the seventh I completed, the fourth I sent to agents, the first that got picked up, sold, published. The editing process came amidst my fourth semester of graduate school and was so intense that I was left with immense pain in my right arm. I was diagnosed with tendinitis and have been doing physical therapy since—I tried cortisone shots, but once the second had no effect, I stopped—but fifteen months later, the pain hasn’t gone away. Dull or throbbing or lava hot or electrically searing, it lingers, and typing often and a lot makes it worse. I’ve tried braces, ice, heat, CBD cream, but ultimately, I likely need rest, the one thing I cannot get—I write for a living, after all.

I wish that were it, just (“just”) an acute work-related injury turning chronic due to overuse, but the truth is that my hands, the one area of my body I loved without reservation, have become sites of mourning. They’re changing shape, pinkies and pointer fingers crooking inward; pain flowering through the nerves and muscles for several days every month or so, often preceded by mornings when I wake up barely able to make a fist, hands stiff and weak. Whether early-onset osteoarthritis or seronegative rheumatoid arthritis—diagnosis pending due to pandemically postponed appointments—there’s not much to be done.


Which is worse? Depends on the day. I keep typing, hoping against hope that I will never need to stop, pushing through excruciating pain or ever-present discomfort, and try to take comfort in listening, at least, to the sounds of my fingers arrhythmically stacattoing their way through language.


Ilana Masad is a books and culture critic, host of The Other Stories podcast, and author of All My Mother’s Lovers.

This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

Author photo by Joshua A. Redwine

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§ 4 Responses to The Hands of a Writer

  • I appreciated this column as it reflects some of my own experience. Thankfully, mine is not a pain problem — yet.

    Those two sentences above required me to back up five times to correct something. I used to type 96 wpm. I shudder to think what it would be now. I have Parkinson’s. My doctor thinks I might have had it for ten years before being diagnosed correctly.

    Letters appear that I didn’t want to type. Spaces don’t appear where they’re called for. Strange menus pop up where I didn’t lift my hand enough and had hit some foreign combination of keys. Thank heavens for the “Escape” key. I wish I could escape.

    I still have at least six more books in me. Although I have published several nonfiction books, I have yet to publish a novel. I have five novels outlined, three written and am shopping one around now. I am also in the market for a good voice recognition software.

    I’ll get these books out no matter what it takes.

  • Marilyn Kriete says:

    Lovely piece. I hope your hands pull through and give you a lifetime of good service. I have a special relationship with my hands, too; they’re way too large for the rest of my body due to a lot of hard physical work, and I inherited my mother’s disfiguring–and painful–osteoarthritis, developing the witches’ fingers I so dreaded as a child. But they’re still working well on the keyboard. I taught myself to type with Mavis Beacon, back in 2003, subconsciously knowing I’d soon be ready to write my series of memoirs. And I’m finally getting published, too!

  • VirgSpeaks says:

    Great piece. I didn’t realize how much I take for granted. I learned to type in typing class in the 9th grade. I wasn’t the fastest typist and probably still am not today. I type without looking at my fingers and also I constantly correct typos without looking at my fingers. I’ve always loved my hands, how long and slender they seemed…and young – until recently. I love how you described your relationship with your hands so well. I’m not a pianist, but I’ve always tried to protect my hands because mostly I have considered them quite valuable to my highly detailed data entry jobs and current career as a social media admin. All the very best to you as you support yourself with the use of your hands and may your pain be, at least, always bearable.

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