Writing Lesson from Michelangelo

When asked how he went about carving such magnificent statues, Michelangelo is said to have explained that he simply looked at the block of marble, saw the statue within, and chipped away everything that wasn't part of it. 

That parable has a lesson for life writers. Most of us have been accustomed to thinking of the task of writing a story as one of creating something from nothing, or transforming intangible memories into a tangible record. We struggle to find the pieces, to find a way of connecting them … writing is hard work, often intimidating and easy to put off. 

There is another way to look at it: Life itself is a story, and Story is the operating system our brains use. When you sit down to write a story, that story is already complete, whole and perfect. Your task as the writer is to look at the vast chunk of story encasing the one you propose to tell and chip away everything that isn't part of your perfect story. 

The first step in this process is to write an initial draft. This isn't the time to agonize over individual words or thoughts — just dump all those memories onto the page. Spare no detail. Your aim is to overwrite. This draft amounts to making the first cuts that knock large chunks off the block of marble. Your next step is to edit that draft, removing the extra pieces that slow the story down. Chip away all the extra words and material that doesn't fully support the story theme and flow. 

Once you have the form of the story right, turn to your imagination and thesaurus to polish the words and descriptions. Give the story sparkle by swapping finely honed synonyms for duplicate words appearing in the same paragraph or close proximity. Add zest to descriptions and zing to dialogue. On the latter, I do caution you not to add so much zing that your grandmother comes across as Joan Rivers. You must remain true to your characters, and retain an air of veracity.

These polishing steps definitely reflect your artistry, but  realizing that the story was always there, waiting to be revealed in all its glory may well defuse most of the stress of writing so it can become the joyful, liberating experience you always dreamed it would be. 

Write now: think of a story you've been meaning to write and chip it out of the mass of Story surrounding it.

Photo by Stanislav Traykov, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Sarah Allen said...

Wonderful analogy :) Its hard to get to the nitty gritty, but remembering Michael Angelo's idea is an inspiring way to keep the important, inner story at the forefront. Thanks!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Susan said...

Many thanks for this, as I learnt a lot from it and liked the link to creating a sculpture. Susan

Sharon Lippincott said...

It is hard to get to the nitty gritty. It takes faith! And maybe tiny chips as the final figure draws near. Thanks for the comment.

Sharon Lippincott said...

I tend to prefer the clay on an armature model myself, because I tend to add as much as I subtract. But I do love that Michelangelo story!

Amber Lea Starfire said...

It is a good analogy — and much more difficult to do that it sounds. It requires some stillness to allow the mind and intuition time to "feel out" the form within the rough stone. It requires trusting oneself. And it requires honing one's skills (we don't want to slip and crack the marble in the wrong place). For me personally, getting at the form of the story is the hardest part, and often I have to write two or three first drafts to get at the core of the real story that needs to be told.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Amen, Amber. This parable could be the foundation for a lengthy book!