shelley jackson’s skin

Original entry and discussion to be found below the following.

Edit (June 7, 2004): I have my word. I am a word.

Edit (May 24, 2004): Wow. I spent an hour talking with a reporter from the Associated Press about my involvement in Jackson’s project. I gave him contact information for several people to talk to, including Rob Poulos. I also tried to emphasize the ways in which “Skin” engages with cultural anxieties about permanence and impermanence, and that these anxieties are heightened in a digital age, where words seem to vanish from the screen as soon as we shut down our electronic reading devices. I brought up William Gibson’s Agrippa, the disappearing digital poem, as an example of an earlier work engaging with the same kinds of anxieties. I discussed the recent increase in scholarly attention to the material forms that writing takes and has taken, explaining that when I wrote to Jackson I expressed my interest in becoming a word for “Skin” in terms of the experimental forms pioneered by William Blake and Emily Dickinson.

As of this writing, the article has appeared in USA Today, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Kansas City Star, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Sun Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Omaha World Herald, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Miami Herald, The San Jose Mercury News, The San Diego Union Tribune,, The Indianapolis Star, The Daily Times (Pakistan), New York Newsday, The Orlando Sentinel, The Tuscaloosa News, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and several other newspapers.

But when the article came out, my name wasn’t even mentioned. I’ll think twice before I invest that much energy in speaking with a reporter again.

Original entry: Have you already read about this?

Writer Shelley Jackson invites participants in a new work entitled “Skin.” Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body … From this time on, participants will be known as “words”. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

Wow. I have to say that I’m very tempted to participate.

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46 thoughts on “shelley jackson’s skin

  1. I read about this a couple of weeks ago, but I was at school, so I couldn’t blog agout it. It sounds really intriguing and exactly the type of tattoo I *would* get if I ever got one. Hope you had a good weekend.

  2. Kathleen, in your class blog you write, “This is a really provocative project, but one that seems to me to do a double violence to the idea of readership — both physically carving the text itself into its ostensible audience (arguably ‘demoting’ them to the unconsciousness of inscription itself) while simultaneously reserving all of the pleasures of reading to the author.”
    I respectfully disagree with both of these points. First, I’m not sure that the “words” (as participants are to be known) are meant to be the audience. Nor are they imagined as a medium onto which the text is inscribed. Instead, they are the text itself, even if the characters disappear from their bodies for whatever reason.
    Second, I think that something is definitely reserved for Jackson herself (will anyone else know what all of the words are, or how they go together?), but the pleasures of reading are not. If I had such a tattoo, I think I would enjoy reading it all the time. And others would/might enjoy reading it, too. The total work might remain a mystery, but there is some pleasure in this mystery as well, I think.
    I’m curious as to whether or not Jackson has the words that are to become “words” already picked out or if she’s waiting to see how many participants sign up. And I like the idea of the work changing as individuals die, like a manuscript written on acidic paper that decays with time.

  3. Really interesting interpretations, George, that make me think again about my own. I remain pretty convinced that this project is enacting some of the not-so-buried tension between author and audience that my class encountered, from another perspective, in Calvino’s _If on a winter’s night a traveler_. In that text, the act of interpretation was imagined to be a kind of violence done TO the author BY the reader. Jackson’s project seems to me most interesting as a form of distributed inscription, as a theoretical melding of body and text (long her interest), and as a demonstration of the ultimate effability of all text (as you point to the decay of writing).
    However, there are certain aspects of this project that read to me as the author’s attempts to maintain a kind of control over the project that such a distributed/decay project would seem to deny. For instance: if the “work” changes as individuals/”words” die, why does the “work” not change with other effacements by/of the “words” — amputations, laser removals, etc.? Are those not similar forms of decay or disappearance? Also: why not maintain an active, changing record of the current state of the “work,” such that its initial appearance and gradual disappearance are visible to an audience composed of more than Jackson herself? There might be something moving for many in this gradual winking-out of the story, but as it is, only the author will ever know.

  4. I am participating in the project, i have signed the release form, and am awaiting the ‘word’ in the mail.
    If anybody has any questions, feel free to ask.

  5. I told my students about this project, and five (!) of them have signed up to be words.
    By the way, this entry is now the most-visited entry on my blog. I think it’s because if you google “shelley jackson’s skin,” this is the result you get right after jackson’s own website.

  6. Hey, I was intrigued by what you all had to say about the project, “Skin”. I am a creative writer with two books published and several tattoos so when I heard of this project it seemed perfect for me. I got my word tattooed on me yesterday and I couldn’t be happier. I waited a total of five weeks after sending in the release form to get my word and I got “like”. By the time I recieved the word I felt so attached to it and so a part of something. Now that I have the tattoo (on my inner wrist) I keep saying “I’m a word!” and to be a part of a story with 2,000 others…it’s something bigger than just a tattoo, it’s a gathering of the creative writers and body modificated. Feel free to ask any questions, my email is

  7. Well, I received my word in the (snail) mail today.
    More details to come…
    (Wouldn’t *you* like to know?)
    Okay, I’ll tell you that it’s a somewhat ambiguous word, and it comes with a punctuation mark.

  8. Jason, I’ll be getting it here in Kansas City.
    Oh, that’s not what you meant?
    Ah, so you’re going to be a word, too, Vika? Cool.
    Here’s my word:
    Yup, I have a word plus a question mark. Now I just need to figure out where to put it, what typeface to use, and what font size. Any ideas?
    This is a very rich word. There are many meanings for “pen” listed in the OED.

  9. about no one being able to read the story but the author:
    I belive that each participant is given a manuscript of the story (someone correct me if i am wrong).
    I think that it will not be published elsewhere however because it would only cheapen the contribution of the participants. why would you get a word tattooed on your body only to have that story sold in every barnes & nobles? the fact that is only publlished on the skin of participants makes it much more special.

  10. This conference is not about Shelley Jackson’s project, but I’m sure a paper on the subject would be appropriate:
    SKIN: texture/textuality/word/image
    April 13-15 2004
    Closing Date – 31st January 2004
    This interdisciplinary and transhistorical 2-day conference invites a lively interrogation of the significance of SKIN.
    Confirmed speakers: Fred Botting; Jonathan Sawday; Steven Connor
    Proposals are invited for 20 minute papers that engage with any aspect of ëskiní. Possible topics might include but are not limited to:
    – skin as a sensory/libidinal surface
    – skin as a site of cultural, or counter-cultural inscription
    – skin as boundary, seam or interface
    – skin as marker of racial, cultural or anatomical difference
    – skin as metaphor
    – skin as guarantor of interiority
    – skin as point of contact between self and other
    – skinís health and pathology
    – skinís representation in text and image
    It is anticipated that a selection of the conference papers will be published as an edited collection
    Please send 1-page proposals and current CV and bio to:
    Dr Liz Oakley-Brown and Dr Tiffany Atkinson
    The Department of English
    The University of Wales, Aberystwyth
    Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth
    SY23 3DY
    Electronic submissions are encouraged

  11. I just thik it’s fantasikally original idea, and can’t wait to be a part of it! So why is everyone trying to analyze her motives/thoughts/whatever? Can we not just ‘enjoy’. Reminds one of the scripture.
    “Be still and know that I am God.” Not that she in any way, shape or manner lays claim to that. Hope my word is three or more syllables.

  12. One of my students emailed me to tell me he got “they” inked onto his body. Where? I don’t know yet.
    Meanwhile, last night I dreamed I had the forces of good and evil inked onto my shoulders: Porky Pig on the right, and Satan on the left.

  13. Hy guys! I found out about Shelley Shakson’s project in the newspaper and I definitly want to participate, but there’s a problem… I don’t know how to contact Shelley Shakson. Can any of the “Words” tell me how did they do to contact her and ask her if you could be part of the project?? I’ll be very thankfull.
    Thanks anyway.
    Oh! I’ve forgot to tell you, this is my e-mail adress: Bye!
    BelÈn :)

  14. I’m sorry but I don’t understand… I have to follow the link “(i.e. the word “this”)” but that link doesn’t work! Sory but please explain it to me again and put a link that works!
    Thank you a lot

  15. One of my students from last semester came by to show me his word, which he had tattooed on his forearm over the break: they
    He’s in a class taught by one of my colleagues, and she told me that she noticed his word the other day, saying, “You’re one of those people!” I had told her about the project, and she had him tell the whole class about it, including the fact that two professors from the department were also words.
    I haven’t gotten it done, yet, because I’m still waiting for my friend/colleague to get her word. Jackson’s site, however, says it might be awhile before she sends out the next round of words.

  16. Hi George..
    glad to see many in Kansas City are participating in and talking about “Skin.”
    I placed Shelley’s call in Review in the fall and am friends with her although not yet a “word.” I’m wondering if you or others would be interested to bring Shelley to Kansas City as a visiting writer/artist. She would be interested to come and I could help arrange the visit…
    Let me know if you think its worthwhile for your department.
    /hesse mcgraw

  17. one other idea George,
    perhaps this could be a collaboration between the English and fine arts depts. do you know Kati Toivenen, digital media prof in fine art? I think she would be interested as well. take care…

  18. i sent my release about a month and a half ago and i haven’t heard anything about my word. how long does this process usually take?

  19. I send my original request last fall, had my word prior to Christmas and had it tattooed on 2/6. However, I notice that her site has not been updated since 1/6/04 when she reported that some sort of medical problem was keeping her from responding to requests…don’t know more than that, except I have my word, “and” proudly tattooed between my breasts!

  20. Her news section is dated March 2004, although she hasn’t updated the word count since the date you mention. I believe it’s a repetitive stress injury that’s preventing her from writing.
    That’s a great location for that word, by the way!

  21. I’ve never had a problem with any of the links. Perhaps your internet service provider is blocking access?
    Her site explains that she is suffering from an injury that is preventing her from answering queries in a short amount of time.
    Meanwhile, Heidi wrote a story for the UMKC newspaper on Jackson’s project and the participation of “words” from the English Department. Nice job, Heidi!

  22. AH the word is out there. I was wondering when the connections were going to happen. My word?
    Feel free to e-mail me…sorry about the short note, allergies are creeping in.

  23. GHW’s Tattoo Outed?

    I was reading the latest AP story on Shelley Jackson’s “Skin” story [Short Story Printed Only Through Tattoos] when I came across this: Poulos, 22, heard about it in his literature class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His professor…

  24. From article on sidewalk chalk art in WaPo:

    “We as people create art all the time that isn’t meant to last: a gourmet meal, for example, or a flower arrangement,” says Cleveland-based chalk artist Robin VanLear. Sidewalk chalking “has this sort of sense of weather and being there and welcoming people over a period of time.” A work’s impermanence can actually be the source of its artistic value.

    Professor Rex Weil suggests, “it’s a critical posture, a kind of submission to forces that are just undeniable, which are basic entropy. Life and materials are eroding, burning up right as we speak. That’s mortality.”

  25. It is now 8 months sinse I first began my quest for info. on Skin & how to make contact to request to take part in this project.Still no joy?What does one have to do to join this secret (seemingly) affair?!Please, someone furnish me with a viable contact?One that works!!Many thanks.Marilyn.x

  26. Her site features a thought-provoking update this week, which you can read by clicking here:

    It is a year since I launched this project, and I am still amazed at the quantity and quality of response it has had. (Total number of emails I have received related to this project: 10,090.) As those who have been watching this website are aware, the amount of mail I got overwhelmed me, and I’m still swamped. It would have been smarter to have a team working on this; it would have been smarter to automate my mail instead of addressing every envelope and email myself. But I am stubborn, and I have stuck to my plan to handle all the correspondence myself. This project seems to me to be partly about making the relationship between author and reader–which is usually abstract and impersonal–into something specific and individual. For once, the writing and reading goes both ways: I write you, you write me; I send you words, you tell me what they mean. In a sense, you are telling my story back to me, and rewriting it in the process.

  27. Does anybody have any information on the current state of this project? I sent my release off to Shelley just over 12 months ago, I expected to wait since that was immediately before she had problems with her arm, but with no update on the ‘skin news’ page since September I’m starting to wonder whats happening…
    Has anybody heard any more since September?

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