on writing

Chipping Marble (or How I Learned To Write In Art School)

Michelangelo, “Battle of the Centaurs”

Last week was productive, writing-wise, and I have nothing to show for it.

Open my notebook and you’ll find many words winding their way through its pages like exhausted families waiting for a Disneyland ride, but like those exhausted vacationers they aren’t very interesting. Hopefully they’ll plod their way to a whooping adventure, but right now time is glacial and life is hot, sweaty, and boring. And that describes the best writing week I’ve managed in a very long time.

Writing shares with drawing the intimidating presence of the blank page, that pristine field of unbroken whiteness daring the maker to lay down the first mark. “Get it right or throw me away,” the page taunts, so we sit and stare, terrified of making a mistake. Blank pages are a lot of pressure, mostly because we compare them to finished products. You don’t see a lot of intermediary steps in museums or bookstores, just masterpieces.

My first encounter with a real artist occurred when I was still in junior high school. His name was Walt, and he was my sister’s boyfriend’s college roommate. I never met Walt, but I spent many weekend afternoons on his side of the dorm room, thumbing through his sketchbooks. Each one was filled with finished drawings–clean, precise, the kinds of things I’d only seen in books and magazines. Walt was no Pee-Chee folder doodler, but rather an illustrator already on the level of a Heavy Metal contributor at least. I’d stick my nose as close to his sketchbook pages as I could without risking a smudge, looking for the quivering lines of a hesitant hand or telltale eraser marks, but I never found a single flaw in one of his drawings. Walt approached the blank page with skill and confidence, and the results were professional artwork that belied his undergraduate status.

I went home after these visits and marked up my sketchbooks with the childish hands of a young teenager, frustrated by my inability to work the magic trick the way that Walt did. Occasionally I’d luck into a fairly decent doodle, but most of my sketchbook pages then and now stand as testaments to my ineptitude.

Years passed and I went off to art school, where I learned the dark secrets of the blank page: construction lines, blue pencils that don’t reproduce when photographed, erasers that don’t damage paper like the little pink nubs affixed to cheap pencils do, Wite-Out, various ways to transfer a visual idea from one piece of paper to another, on and on. Walt may have been naturally gifted, but the rest of us could rely on tools and craft to transform blank pages into art. Fear of the blank page was just a manifestation of ignorance of the process.

Even as an illustration major I had to take a sculpture class. We took a field trip to a local wood carver’s studio, an old carriage house located in Savannah’s historic district. Hundreds of chisels, mallets, and files hung from the walls. Large blocks of rich wood were stacked everywhere. He welcomed us to use them as stools while he talked about the piece he was working on, a realistic piglet about the size of–well, about the size of a piglet. Somebody asked him if he started by sketching a design. “Not really, because I can’t draw,” he said. “Here’s the sketch I did for the pig,” and he held up a Post-It note bearing a childish stick figure of a pig surrounded by a few numbers. “Once I figure out what block of wood to use, I just start carving.”

A blank block of wood. The notion struck me that the fundamental difference between what this sculptor did and what us lowly illustration majors did was the difference between addition and subtraction. When drawing or painting, one is adding media to the foundation, i.e., the paper, but when one is sculpting he or she is removing media from the foundation, chipping away until the figure is revealed. “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free,” said Michelangelo, who on another day slathered paint on the Sistine Chapel ceiling until the angel appeared.

All of the arts traffic either in addition or subtraction. Music, for example, is an additive art. The air is still, and then one adds waves like ripples in an invisible pond. If we think of music as subtractive, it’s only in the context of this additive truth: John Cage erasing notes to compose 4’33”, or Debussy’s famous quote that “music is the space between the notes.” In fact, all performing arts are additive. The performer adds movement to space (dance), ripples to air (music), life to inanimate words (theater).

Writing is often considered an additive art, if one considers these things at all. We start with a blank page, and we snake along the roller coaster line, adding words left to right left to right left to right until the page is filled. That’s true as far as it goes, but it sets an unreasonable expectation for many aspiring writers. They see that blank page and they want to be Walt–they want to lay down those lines straight and true, without error or hesitation. When they can’t, they feel like failures and conclude that they aren’t writers after all, ambitions to the contrary.

Perhaps we should think of writing as a subtractive art, like sculpture. Writing is the process of finding the angel in the marble and setting him free. The fundamental difference is that a writer must first create his own slab of marble from which to liberate his or her characters. This is the purpose of freewriting: to sit down with pen and paper and mark up a page with material, much (if not most) of which will be chipped away as we find the stories and characters hidden within. Maybe the greats can lay down clean lines from the get-go, but the rest of us can rely on process and craft to get there: write, edit, write, edit, write, edit.

Freewrites often read like a slab of marble looks: There’s a guy, maybe it’s a woman. It’s night, he’s driving, the radio is on. He’s crying. Why is he crying? I don’t know. Why did I even write that? Anyway…. Keep at this for a half hour and you’re not staring at a blank page anymore, afraid of making a mistake. No, you are looking at 2-3 messy pages that might reveal the faint outline of an angel. The next time you sit down to write, perhaps you’ll darken some of those lines a bit, add a few more, and delete others. Yesterday you created a slab of marble, and today you chipped at it.

Walt’s sketchbooks were lies, even if they told the truth about Walt’s abilities. Making art is messy, unglamorous business. Don’t be discouraged if your slab of marble resembles a misshapen humonculous right now. Just keep chipping, and if you don’t find an angel inside of that block freewrite yourself another one.

So that’s why I had a very productive week with nothing to show for it. I quarried a bunch of marble that is nothing to look at right now, but some of it may contain angels. And if not I can always doodle a piglet, which is more than I can say for that wood carver.

Categories: on writing

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