The First Cut

Here is a beautiful notion:  a sculptor doesn’t so much create a work of art, as discover it.  Think of Michelangelo receiving a huge slab of marble into his studio.  Does he create David, or discover him?  The idea is that David, the finished work of art, already exists within the marble.  All Michelangelo needs to do is chip away all the extraneous irrelevancies until the statue of David is exposed.  That seems like a whimsical notion, yet it is, literally, true.  It is a daunting task, because if he makes a mistake, he needs to start again.

This idea, that the work of art already exists before it is created, begs a question.  Did Michelangelo know exactly what he was looking for?

And a second question.  Can this idea of discovering something that already has an existence be translated into the world of letters?

Massive caesura here.  Let us move away from the world of high art to the mundanity of… well, whatever it is I do.

In Click, Double-Click, I break off briefly to tell an outlandish story about a man who is driven insane by a bunch of musical “worms” he can’t get out of his head.  It’s an absurd tale and I didn’t think my publishers were going to let me get away with it but, bless them, they did.  Now I find that life is imitating art.  I can’t get Click, Double-Click out of my head.  It is a worm.  I would be surprised if other writers have not experienced this same dilemma of involuntary fixation.  I had edited and reedited the tome so often that I think, had all paper and electronic drafts been mysteriously erased, I would still have been able to sit down and reconstruct it, word for word, verbatim.  Fine.  But now I need to stop thinking about it.  It’s past, gone.  Let it go.  What happens next?

The good news is I know – roughly – what happens next.  I know this to be the case because I’ve got rid of my worm.  I’ve dropped the past and turned my attention to the future. The difference is that, while the past is fixed and irrevocable, the future is wide open to possibilities.

How do you construct a novel?  How do you start from a blank page and end with a finished, complex, multifaceted, and organic whole?  Perhaps, on the one hand, you should plot and plot again, endlessly building up a superstructure whose beginning, middle and end, you can clearly see even before you have put pen to paper.  Michelangelo stares at his marble menhir, goes into a trance, and waits until he perceives David within it.

Or maybe you start with an idea.  It might not be very much.  Something you could delineate in a single sentence.  Yet it is enough to get you going.  You start, without the foggiest idea where it is going to take you.  Or yet again, maybe you think you know, but you are prepared to abandon it all if the Muse beckons you in another direction.

I suppose I exist somewhere in the middle of that dichotomy.  I have an idea, and I have a rough notion of where it is going to take me.  Yet I’m prepared to be surprised.  The thing is, I can’t think of a convincing reason that would stop me from gritting my teeth and writing that first, agonising sentence.  Here I am in my studio.  I look at my unblemished marble slab.  And I pick up my hammer and chisel and, with only the vaguest notion of where it’s going to take me, position the chisel, raise the hammer, and make the first cut.

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