The Revelatory Power of Being Sensitive
Jenn Shapland on Her New, Boundary-Dissolving Collection, Thin Skin
I’m sitting in my office, a converted garage in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the waning September light, with Lou, the small gray cat, on my lap, while Chelsea is out with a friend. I’ve just come inside from removing three dead baby mice from our shed. Their mother appears to have abandoned them, and though I tried, naïvely, to revive them—with tortilla chips, with carrot shavings, with oat milk in a syringe—they didn’t make it.
My editor, Naomi, has asked me to write an author’s note for my new book, Thin Skin, which I’ve chosen to call a preface, because I like the sound of it better. The preface is meant to tell you what connects the five essays for me, to give the reader a plan, a sense of direction.
I wanted the book to open with something soft, some easy ground to land on. I wanted to begin with a funny anecdote, relevant to our times but not too taxing. I wanted to ease us all into it, the idea of our utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet. I wanted to let the bottom of our bounded individuality fall away beneath us slowly, almost imperceptibly. Instead, this book begins in the free fall of reality: the material fact of our exposure to nuclear and industrial waste, and our political and cultural willingness to wasteland entire human communities and ecosystems. Note that my impulse here is to apologize.
The first essay is “Thin Skin,” a corporeal account of how thin the membrane is between each of us and one another, between each of us and the world outside. I want it to be clear from the outset that there is no “outside,” that the world is a part of our cellular makeup, that we impact it with every tiny choice we make. My thinking for the book began with an essay called “The Toomuchness,” which took five years to write. It was inspired by the clothes moths that had infested our closet, which I saw as a metaphor made literal, the ultimate intersection of capitalism’s excess and human mortality. I couldn’t look away.
I began to see what I now think of as literalized metaphors for my entanglement, my complicity, all over my life: in my dermatological diagnosis of “thin skin,” in my friends’ having babies as the world burned, in the crystals cropping up everywhere to heal us of something, in my own sense of vulnerability and my desire to feel safe. I began to question the idea of myself as a being in need of protection, indeed as something that could be protected. Nothing can protect us: just look at the mice.
It struck me as I wrote that I was utterly vulnerable to every other person, every other creature on Earth, and they were also vulnerable to me. Writing under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic only made this more obvious and inescapable. As I wrote, I began to seek other ways of understanding the self that might be more useful than this shivering, weak thing we must shore up against the world.As I wrote, I began to seek other ways of understanding the self that might be more useful than this shivering, weak thing we must shore up against the world.
At times I thought of these essays as a way to document coping mechanisms for capitalism: all the things that I do, that many of us do already, to cope with a broken and violent system. At other times I longed for a way to burn it all down and start again. What would it mean to imagine alternatives to our limited narratives about family, love, labor, longing, pleasure, safety, and legacy?
As I thought and read about these intersecting ideas, I grounded the essays in the present conditions of my life, yet each one took me farther back in time—to the makeshift lives of queer women in the 1950s; to the construction of our ideas about work and white femininity during the early days of U.S. colonization and slavery; to the witch hunts in Europe, a point of origin for our dysfunctional healthcare system and the ongoing pressure on women to caretake. I love essays because they can go anywhere, can incorporate any body of knowledge, any question. Nothing is too big or too small.
My first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, was, at least formally, one of those light, airy books full of blank space with tiny paragraph-long chapters, whittled away and pared down to the fewest possible words. But these essays were longer. I chose inexhaustible subjects. My editor kept asking me questions in the margins that I had to think about for months before knowing how to proceed. The essays only got longer, more complex, and more layered.
I panicked internally at this: aren’t readers too overwhelmed and distracted to read long-form essays? Isn’t that what the Internet has wrought? What the hell was I doing, taking up so much space, writing 20,000-word essays, longer than any magazine would consider, longer than most people would spend at a single sitting?
But now, as the book begins to circulate in the world, I see my impulse was to dive deep, to immerse myself in research and writing and big questions. I began these essays at a writing residency in 2018. I continued writing them through a global pandemic, through the reversal of Roe, through losing my mom, my grandma, and my aunt. Was the writing a form of escape? Of cordoning myself off from the world?
Yet it all went into the book. If anything, I only got closer to these losses through research and writing. I escaped into the heart of it all. What I want, what I crave, is an immersive reading experience. In an age of clicks and headlines and takes and think pieces that come out mere hours after an event, I want slow, long looks.To be thin-skinned is to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice.
So that’s what I wrote. And I was comforted, in a way, to have a place to go each morning. To return, over and over, to these questions. On the other side of the book, I feel I am emerging from a dark cave, some underworld.
In writing these pieces, I saw myself as source material—not as a character, not as the story, but as one vehicle among many for probing the ideas that most torment or entice me, that keep me up at night. To be thin-skinned is to feel keenly, to perceive things that might go unseen, unnoticed, that others might prefer not to notice. The essays contain many people’s voices other than my own, some of whom express a sensitivity, an ability to feel and sense this profound permeability with others.
Writing can be a mode of perception, a sensitivity to the world. This book is about the joys and perils of our dissolving boundaries: the physical boundary of our skin as it absorbs chemicals, the emotional border where real fear meets cultivated violence, the obscured line from our desires to our material things, the ever-more-fluid overlap between self and work, and the imaginative realm beyond our prescribed expectations for a full life and toward expanded ideas of personhood, meaning, and purpose.
Thin Skin by Jenn Shapland is available via Pantheon.