The Art of Sculpture: Writing Lessons from Sculpting

Life After ADD

The problem with proverbs is that they become trite through sheer repetition.  I probably heard the phrase “God is in the details” a dozen times before I really thought about what it means. “The Devil is in the details” is more cautionary and probably does a better job of getting to the point, ie: the details can fuck you up. Lack of attention to detail can condemn your work – your entire oeuvre – to the Devil’s eternal slushpile.

I was born before Attention Deficit Disorder was coined, but over the years, I have figured out why the word ‘disorder’ is contained in the description. I used to feel proud that I couldn’t read any given book or see a movie more than once. I convinced myself that my low boredom threshold was a good thing. It kept me looking for the new and unique. My “Imagination above all things” philosophy is almost certainly what drove me to read and write science fiction. The prevalence of ghosts and vampires and werewolves in horror is almost certainly what made that genre an uncomfortable fit – no matter my love of the darkness.  I came up with all sorts of rationales for my preferences, congratulating myself on my creativity, intelligence, empathy, cleverness and amazing memory for irrelevant things, and intolerance for repetition. I developed a great vocabulary – because it allows me to pluck a precise word from the ether and get to the end of the sentence, then get the next sentence down before I forget the point I’m trying to make. Which is why my storytelling used to be more like a story summary or outline. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Whew! And it’s why I use to many big words to this day.

As David Byrne said so crisply and creepily in the song “Psycho Killer,” “Say something once, why say it again?”

Creatively, I have always been undermined by that little devil in my ear telling me, “That’s good enough. Now go do that. Look over there!  Squirrel” If I’m sculpting, it will urge me to go eat, drink, paint, write, go to the bathroom, make a phone call, pay the bills. Likewise, if I’m writing, the demon urges me to do everything but write. Self-driven learning is hard because you don’t know what you don’t know. Dave’s not here. Wow. Squirrel!

The Way You Do Things Isn’t Carved in Stone – Or Is It?

I didn’t start sculpting until a bit later in life, and I credit it for teaching me patience.  If you try to sculpt too fast, things break, irreparably. Finishing progresses at a certain speed and any shortcuts you try to take are visible and usually detrimental to the finished sculpture.

You can carve the most astonishing stone sculpture in the world – but unless you finish it beautifully, it almost doesn’t matter how good a carver you are, how visionary, or how perceptive.  Unless you polish your work and do it as brilliantly as you envisioned and sculpted it – no one will truly appreciate it. People may see and be impressed by your raw talent. They may even be impressed enough to give you money for your work. They’ll pay you a fraction of what you’d get for a properly finished piece. There is probably some level of genius that can transcend that maxim, but I haven’t personally encountered it.

Back in my pre-sculpting days, this was a hard concept for me to appreciate, and an even harder thing – given my compulsion to jump to the next project – to execute. Some of my stories took three or even four drafts, before I resigned myself to never finishing them. I rewrote and edited sentences a lot, but did almost no substantive editing. I did find back then that my fourth, fifth and sixth drafts tended to lose all appeal to me as I lost hope. They seldom improved because I didn’t know what to look for in order to improve them. And I  hardly ever had the patience to completely rewrite stories when they needed it. When I tried, I would get lost in them and often go cold on a project with my inability to make progress. 

Any novels I started meandered along with me revising at a rate of a chapter a year (at which point I might well go back to the beginning and start over. Again, shuffling deck chairs rather than making real revisions.

The Importance of Details

The very reason I started sculpting was because of missing details in someone else’s work. My first sculpture, “Man Emerging from the Earth” was a garden stone I found in my then father-in-laws’ garden. That in-law was well known Canadian sculptor, EB Cox. The garden stone was something I noticed when I went out to visit E.B. in his workshop. While grinding away on a promising piece of alabaster, he had seen me out of the corner of his eye, coming along the driveway to the back end of the garden, then turning onto the grassy verge that led to his workshop in the remotest corner of the yard. He glanced up, curious as to why I had never arrived and caught me kneeling at the corner of a garden plot.

Noticing that he’d stopped working and was looking my direction, I stood and walked over.

“Whatcha looking at?” he asked, peering at me with one eye.

“That garden stone looks like a sculpture.”

“Of what?”

“Somebody trying to climb out of the ground.”

E.B. grunted and turned back to his work. “Maybe it is.”

He went back to work and I went back and looked at the rock again, using a stick to scrape off some dirt. He was right.  It was an abandoned sculpture.

I played the archaeologist, excavating for much of the afternoon. “Why did you abandon it?” I asked as he was quitting work for the day.

He shrugged. “Wasn’t mine.”

“Whose is it?”

“An ex-student maybe? Came once or twice and never came back.” Then he made an offer than would unknowingly change my life. “Take it if you want it.”

I washed it off and displayed it on a corner of my patio, like a garden gargoyle. It delighted me, but over the course of about four years, hardly anyone noticed it. My current partner, Laura Belford, saw and liked the man in the stone. She knew I was annoyed that pretty much no one else could see him. Early in our relationship, she gifted me a cheap set of chisels. With them, a claw hammer, and a chunk of steel wool, I helped the little man emerge from the stone. 

In the course of that, I encountered what had no doubt contributed to its original abandonment – patches of super soft stone shot through with iron. This alternated with layers of pure talc. This unusual composition is the very thing that makes it so interesting (makes it – since I made the mistake of keeping it outside and the rain damaged some of the talc areas – so I am refinishing it yet again).

Because it was my first sculpture, I did not realize that steel wool is not the recommended abrasive for use on stone, especially stone that’s composed of different hardnesses. My attempt to finish the piece resulted in some very strange textures; pink stone with huge lumpy blackheads. Now that I have almost refinished it after the rain damage, I am seriously considering buying some more steel wool to recreate the fascinating texture that has gone missing.

Because something else I discovered on this journey to the land of detail is that “finished” doesn’t necessarily mean highly polished. Many of the best modern sculptures work because of the way highly polished areas juxtapose with textured areas, unpolished sections, even different materials like glued-on fabrics.

The blackheads on this stone are somehow integral – a part of what makes the sculpture fascinating and they deserve to be there. Recognition of that sort of thing is what makes a good sculpture great.

Applying Those Lessons to Other Disciplines

The patience demanded by stone carving has very much informed my writing, particularly over the last five years. It has given me the patience to play indefinitely with the tone and structure of a scene until everything is working to its best advantage.  I used to consider three drafts to be a lot and have learned that it’s just the beginning – the point where the prose piece becomes anything more than functional, like a baby learning to walk. These days, my writing is characterized by not just sentences and paragraphs, but scenes and chapters that have been rewritten and shuffled around 20 or 30 times. I read aloud, turning lines and phrases over in my mouth and savouring the way the words feel, the rhythm, the cadence, the clarity; and how well they work with one another to create effects that send chills down my spine. Those are the details that make a work transcendent. 

If every word in the book required that same attention to detail, it would not only drain the life out; it would take a lifetime to finish properly.

As with the sculpture, it’s the juxtaposition that really makes it sing. For every chapter that has been rewritten and reconfigured, there are chapters I have gone to great effort to leave unadorned. Plot and action play out better for me when they feel crisp and spontaneous. So part of my revision process is determining what to work on, what to leave pretty much alone and what to edit down to the bare bones. Spend too much time leaning into the internal Faulkner or Ondaatje, sometimes it’s good to allow the Raymond Carver or Stephen King influences to dominate. And vice versa.

This patience has also changed my approach to reading; enabling me to immerse myself in the books I read – to re-read and to savour all or parts of them, and figure out what, if anything, makes them special. Or what stops them from working for me.

Will it lead to me writing great works of literature? Maybe. Although public tastes change constantly. A novel that would have been brilliant in 1972 feels old by 1990. What may have torn up the best-seller lists in 1960 may not make a ripple in 2021. Which is why the only standards that matter are your own and the only audience that really matters is you. Does this mean I can only write books that will appeal to other senior white non-alpha males?  God, I hope not! 

The Next Big Challenge

I may not share the experiences and perceptions of the 20 and 30 somethings – but living in the same world, we all share the same contextual framework. Even cultures have achieved a startling homogeneity that provides a global frame of reference. So if there has ever been a time for literature than can speak to everyone, this is it. All I can do is try to write it and hope that it is relevant and entertaining to anyone who picks up the book.

Oh yeah…that’s the last and greatest challenge – getting people to pick up the book. In a world where millions of writers create millions of new books every year – and where the average quality of those books is probably leaps and bounds better than the writing of earlier generations…reaching your audience is probably the biggest challenge there is.

This post in no way endorses that everyone learn to sculpt (although I will teach for a price lol), what is does do is challenge readers with any kind of perceived learning difficulty to identify something you’d like to do that requires skills you need to develop – and be willing to dive in and develop them. You may never be an award winning sculptor, machinist, jeweler, figure skater or knitter – but it may give you transferable skills that will enhance your life. Be willing to learn the lessons that life offers.