In a famous but probably apocryphal story about the David, Michelangelo said that he took his block of marble and carved away everything that wasn’t the sculpture. Simplicity itself: if you’re Michelangelo.
I think about my story-writing in sculptural terms. I have a shape of a story in mind, with textures, perhaps also a bit of colour (though usually in terms of overall tone or quality of light: this is a story of just before sunrise, this one of afternoon, this one a quiet evening, and so on). I try to take away everything that isn’t that shape, doesn’t belong to the story, bumps out somehow or is the wrong texture.
But of course, the great difference between writing and sculpture is that in writing one doesn’t start with a block of marble: one makes it.
In that sense, it’s not so much Michelangelo’s sculptural practices I imitate but Henry Moore’s. In the Art Gallery of Ontario is a large collection of his plasters, the shapes he built before casting the sculpture in bronze. (He gave them to the city of Toronto because he liked it; he was commissioned to make a sculpture to go in the ‘eye’ of City Hall.) In an interview that’s in the exhibit somehow, either a film or a printed statement (I can’t recall; it’s been some years since I went), Moore said that for him the plaster casts were more personal, more his art, because it was what his hands had touched, shaped, made.
Because he is using plaster, he both carves down and builds up, taking away everything that isn’t the shape, adding if he’s taken away too much, creating volumes, tracing lines around spaces that didn’t exist except in his mind’s eye. This is like writing, for me: first you make your medium, and then you carve it away, and sometimes you need to add more, and all the time there’s thi shape that is somehow crying out to be made.
(So I assume; I’m not much of a sculptor, though I think I’d like to learn more of it.)
This is where I am with my current story, making marble. I’m nearly done the first full draft of it, and then starts the work of editing, as it’s called. For me it’s not editing until the whole shape is set, until I’m at the stage of carving small details, even polishing. I’m still at the big-picture stage, the framework stage, and have only made a rough outline of the eventual story. Most of the main pieces are in place, but few of the details.
I love editing. I love holding the shape in my mind and working towards it, patiently, carefully, sometimes with dramatic cuts (whole chapters, whole sections, entire back histories of some character or place), sometimes with tiny changes (a word, a punctuation mark). Making the marble is less fun. But it’s a necessary part of the labour, useful work, not useless toil, joyous in its own kind.