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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Writing: Creation or Discovery?

Writing doesn't seem much like sculpting.  They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it doesn't have much in common with the chisel.  And yet, when I was in the Galleria Accademia in Florence, Italy a few weeks ago, I learned some things about Michelangelo's sculpting process, things I can't stop thinking about in relation to my own writing.

When Michelangelo worked on a sculpture, he never felt like he was creating anything of his own.  His pieces were never things he built up or made.  Instead, he simply freed the figures from the marble.  The figure had always been buried inside the stone; his job was to uncover it, to discover what already existed inside.

As you stroll down the main hall of the Galleria Accademia, the first thing that commands your attention is David, standing like a monument.  He's what you paid to see, after all, and every line and curve in the gallery is designed to lead your eye back to him.  But he's all the way down at the far end of the hall.  First, you have to walk between rows of odd, blocky semi-figures known as the 'Prisoners' or 'Slaves.'  They look something like this:
Michelangelo's 'The Atlas'
It doesn't look finished.  None of them do.  All you see is a body trying to fight his way out of the rock, like Michelangelo never got around to chiseling out the rest of him.  These sculptures, however, are in their finished state.  Michelangelo was satisfied with them (much to the chagrin of his sponsors).  He wanted to show a process, not a completed product.  He wanted a figure in motion, still emerging from the marble, rather than standing free.

I had already seen more art that day than my brain knew how to comprehend, but these figures stuck with me.  I've always felt much the same way about my writing.  For my bigger projects, I don't have the feeling that I have created a final, tangible product out of nothing.  I don't feel like it is entirely my final product, or that it has come from me alone.

For me, fiction writing is more about discovering what is already there.  It's as if the story has always existed, somewhere deep, buried.  My characters--Mason Ardale, Everett Flinch, Davi, Ayin, even the random guards that populate everything I write--were just waiting there, ready to be written.  I feel less like I created the story and more like I simply uncovered it.  For whatever reason, I was the writer who brought it to the surface.  The story needed to be told, and I told it.

It sounds easier than it is.  I still have to plan.  I still run into roadblocks, and I certainly can't uncover the entire story all at once.  But I can't shake the feeling that I haven't created anything; I've merely chiseled it out of the marble.  

Is this really how writing works, though?  I can't provide any scientific or metaphysical explanation for it.  Maybe it comes from the sheer wonder of writing whole people into existence with nothing but a writing utensil.  Maybe it's my brain's way of coping with the fact that I have absolutely no idea where my story ideas come from.

But maybe there's some truth to it.  What if writers aren't creators at all?  What if we're Michelangelo, freeing complete figures from the block of potential stories?

If nothing else, it's almost unbearably poetic.  There's always that.  

What do you think, fellow writers?  Do you share in this feeling? 
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