Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Driving Sideways

Awhile back, I blogged about blogging, or more specifically, not blogging -- about the temptation to pick at my posts endlessly, or, when that's time prohibitive, simply not to post at all.  In her amazing memoir Writing Past Dark (which should be required reading for everybody seriously pursuing fiction in or out of the MFA system), Bonnie Friedman writes about what she calls "anorexia of language" -- a far more accurate term for writer's block, in my opinion.  Not-writing is a kind of perfectionism, a way of seeking control over the messy, primal process of creation.  We love our work so much that we're afraid to touch it.  We want so much for it to be flawless we're afraid to let it grow.  And so it starves in the dark.


Yesterday, I saw this blog post about the artist Dalton Ghetti, who carves tiny sculptures from the lead tips of pencils.  As a writer, they appeal to me for obvious reasons: a writing utensil re-shaped into a tiny world of its own probably has metaphorical import for anyone who's ever scratched out a story longhand.  Specifically, it reminded me of a possibly apocryphal anecdote I heard about Victor Hugo and the creation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: he considered titling the novel What Is In a Bottle of Ink, since he wrote the entire thing by dipping his pen again and again into a single well.  The way that art, specifically language, can open up a tiny space -- turning a pencil into a monument, a page into a window, a keyboard into a galaxy of swirling possibility -- is magic, pure and simple.

But the part of this story that struck me most was the pencil graveyard, the place for sculptures that Ghetti's accidentally broken while working on them.  "People might think it’s weird I keep them but they’re still interesting, " he says.  "I worked on them for months so they might be dead now but at one point I gave them life."  It occurred to me that maybe the pencil graveyard itself, rather than the perfected sculptures, is the best metaphor for writing, or at least writing of a certain kind.  On a blog, for example, where the emphasis is on process over product -- where the past's ill-considered relics greet you every time you scroll down the page.  It can be dismal, at times, to look at all the ways I've fallen short as a writer, intellectually and at the level of language.  But Ghetti explains that, in order to keep doing his nerve-wracking work on his miniatures, he had to change his attitude, to say, "This will break eventually but let’s see how far I get."  From now on, I'm going to try to start thinking about my own prose more that way.  Instead of focusing on reaching my destination, I'm just going to aim to get into the most interesting wrecks I can along the way.  Fasten your seat belts.

3 comments:

Sherlock said...

The very act of collecting the small pencils metaphorically, is a great boon to productivity. If you keep your collection handy, you can swirl through the pencils when you are thinking about where to take your prose next. Your selection, whether deliberate or by chance, could lead to an interesting piece of writing.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Sherlock! Yes, having cool writing utensils around (especially carved ones like these) can be very inspiring...

Sherlock said...

I was thinking of the pencils as ideas you collect and hone. From your collection of "pencil stubs" often good and surprising turns will occur in your thinking and writing as one jumps up at the right time.