by Alison Flood)
After inscribing a story word by word on to the skin of 2,000 volunteers in 2003, the author and illustrator Shelley Jackson has embarked on a fiction project that is already much less solid: writing a story in snow.
"'To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,' said the girl who cried snowflakes," begins Jackson's as-yet-unfinished tale.
Painstakingly drawn into scraps of snow around her Brooklyn home, the story imagines a fantastical taxonomy of snowflakes, evoking snows made of "tiny paintings of shipwrecks … clock faces and circular slide rules, of maps to undiscovered countries, of the shattered breath clouds of those who have cried out for help unheard on a clear winter day".
Jackson, who has published novels, appeared in the Paris Review and won prizes for her children's books, is perhaps best known for her hypertext take on the Frankenstein myth, Patchwork Girl, and for her "mortal work of art" Skin, a project that she called "a revolution in literature" in 2003, suggesting: "There is something wonderfully melancholic about a piece of writing that's living flesh and finally dies and is grieved over."
This is the third time she has attempted to inscribe her 805-word story Snow – now published online with the proviso, "weather permitting" – a work which continues a fascination with the ephemeral initially sparked by the works of the artist Andy Goldsworthy.
"Why did I want to write a story in snow? Because it's white like a page," she says. "Because I have a fascination with the relationship between words and space (a page is a space, but that often escapes our notice), with the idea of publishing a story on or over a landscape (here, on Brooklyn), so that all the complicated activity that goes on in that territory gets unpredictably mixed up with the story. Because I like the tension between the meaning of the word and its physical presence, which shows up all the better when it's both isolated, when you come across it in an unexpected place and don't know what it's trying to tell you. Because snow melts, and I have a fascination with the ephemeral … Because it's already a writing medium: kids write their names in snow, so why not a story? Because it's fun to be outside in the bright sun and the cold wind making something beautiful."
Jackson first tried to "publish" the story in snow in 2010 – she had already written the tale – but it didn't work out. "I hadn't worked out my technique, the snow was too deep that day, and you could barely even make out the words," she says. "So I tried drizzling maple syrup in the shape of letters (my dog liked that) and then soy sauce, but they spattered and looped and sank into the snow, making spindly, uneven, handwritten-looking letters. (Then there was pee, which has a nice long tradition, but I didn't think my technique was up to the job)."
She wanted the words to look "printed" on the snow – modelling her letters on the typeface courier – for the snow "to look like a page, with ink-dark letters firmly impressed into it". But, wanting to avoid anything "too contrived or high-tech", and to avoid leaving a mark on the landscape, she couldn't work out her method. Until, last January, she went "back to basics: fingers, pencils, sticks and snow".
"That day there was less than an inch of snow, so it worked, though it was hard to do well, and my standards rose with my ability," says Jackson. "I had hoped that I would be able to get the whole story done that winter, but it turned out to take much longer than I imagined – hours with freezing toes and fingers to finish half a sentence! I hadn't exactly made it easy on myself when I wrote the story, either, with long words like 'innumerable' and (the next word, not yet published) 'persimmon-coloured'! I ran out of snow that year with less than a quarter of the story done."
So she's back in action this winter, picking spots for her words on the blocks near her Brooklyn house, and in Prospect Park. But, realising that she is unlikely to complete the story before this year's snow disappears, she has decided to post it online, adding more words to her Flickr stream every time it snows. "Let the story precipitate," she says. "Let it pile up softly like a snowdrift."
A book of Snow may follow – but maybe not. "The online archive might be enough for me. Or I might string the images together with some video footage. I have a mental image of a time-lapse film of a word melting into the ground that I would like to see, or of snow falling into a word until it is erased," she says.
For now, readers are left on tenterhooks while Jackson prepares to write and photograph her next word. After imagining "dainty snows made of miniature ladies underpants," the story continues "some with" and is left hanging. Hanging, that is, until snow falls again in Brooklyn.