Handiwork, by Sara Baume

Juliano Zaffino

“I worry that the thing I am doing at any given moment may not be the best possible thing for that particular moment,” writes Sara Baume in her nonfiction debut, handiwork. “Should I be reading, writing, carving, painting, I ask myself – and then even after the decision has been made – is this the book I should be reading; the sentence I should be writing; the form I should be carving; the carved object I should be painting?”

It is a kind of dark serendipity that a book about (amongst other things) what it means to live and create at the mercy of time and measured productivity – what Baume calls “the terrible responsibility” – should be launched in the midst of an international pandemic. Many countries – including those in and around which handiwork was written – have enforced lockdowns, and most of us who can are working from home. The expectation for us to maximise our time, as though a global health crisis were an opportunity to read that extra book (or write that extra sentence, carve that extra form…), is insidious and evident in the discourse, in the “work from home” trends on social media, the articles and listicles that have been dredged up to swamp us in feelings of laziness or inadequacy.

Baume’s emerging ideology – if that is not too rigid a term – is an antidote to these viral expectations. Baume has been writing for years, but has taken up her titular handiwork in earnest only recently, in the wake of her father’s passing. She recounts a family history of craftwork, from her grandfather to her father to her, what it means to inherit “a propensity for handiwork”, the hands that have done this work, that know and understand its pleasures, its trials. But this is the same inheritance that brings the aforementioned “terrible responsibility, the killing insistence”. Though it brings her closer to the memory of her father it also weighs on her, a constant reminder of their difference, the distance of him now in death. And the emotional significance of the handiwork sometimes outweighs the natural enjoyment, the gift of its inheritance.

This is clearest as the book moves to its conclusion, in which Baume’s craft project nears its end. Baume captures the inevitability of “finishing”, a clear staple of productivity: “there must always come, at some stage, the finishing point with its pure joy, for though flow is transiently sublime, this is the true sublime – finishing”. Yet she fast becomes disillusioned with it. “I expected to be relieved,” she writes, “once it was all made. The flock that I began after my dad died. The making of the flock, which had for two years been fending off the awareness of his daily absence. Instead I am outstandingly lonely.” It is not the work-as-noun that matters, the finished object, the crossing off of the to-do list, but rather the work-as-verb, the keeping hands busy, the process of creating, of the work in flux.

It is as though Baume is
bestowing her handiworks
with the spirit of their
living counterparts

Throughout, as Baume creates her wooden birds, the narrative encompasses a great depth of ornithological detail, considering hard facts of migration and flight paths as well as more abstract notions of bird behaviour. It is as though Baume is bestowing her handiworks with the spirit of their living counterparts, leaning on both the craft and its subject to bestow meaning upon her father’s passing, and her attempts at passing the time afterwards. As Baume writes about her “flights of thought, [her] flock of connections”, the birds and their movements come to represent the paradoxical order and disorder of the natural world; art and writing and birdwatching are parallel fronts, methods of passing time while simultaneously decoding the world.

What does it mean to create in the face of loss, distance, fear? I think of Baume’s descriptions of her home and workspaces, near the beginning of the book, lovingly rendered in specificity and order, “as if this house has diligently ordered itself around my daily practices, my daily handiwork”. I think that we create because we must, and that we arrange our worlds as best as we can to facilitate this impulse, Baume’s “terrible responsibility”; we face the uncertainty, the impossible drive towards perfection, the dissatisfaction and loneliness of “finishing”. And we create again. To create is to be a migratory flock, moving with a purpose often unknown, but deeply felt and inevitable. We are living and creating in the age of CV-19, lockdowns and social distancing; this is a more crucial time than ever to take stock – of our lives and of Baume’s writing – to live in that temporal “flow” while we can, “the making of the flock”. As we live day-to-day, our “daily practices” might be enough to keep us going. 

Sara Baume’s third book and nonfiction debut, handiwork, was published 26 March 2020 by Tramp Press.

Juliano Zaffino is a writer and reader, and runs the online literary community YourShelf, including The YourShelf Podcast and The YourShelf Press. His debut poetry collection, All Those Bodies And They’re Moving, was published 31 January 2020. Currently, he is studying for his PhD in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’, with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find Jay on both Instagram and Twitter as @jayzaff and @_yourshelf_.

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