Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Creative Process Step One: Marble, Wood, or Manure

I have had the distinct pleasure of attending two workshops with Editor Stephen Roxburgh of Namelos. The first was the 2010 Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua, where I was fortunate to have Stephen as my mentor for the week. The following summer I attended his Editing for Writers workshop in Honesdale, PA.  At both workshops, Stephen taught me a great deal about the writing process.

Of his many lessons, one that I think about every time I sit down to write is Stephen’s description of a rough draft as a pile of words. He explained that when you are beginning a story, start by building your piles. Don't waste time scrutinizing each word. There will be plenty of time to sift the words and polish the ones that tell your story during the revision process. 

Stephen equated a writer beginning with a pile of words to Michelangelo beginning with a slab of marble...
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and in action.  I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” - Michelangelo
or Stradivari starting with a piece of wood.

 “To make a violin, take the wood and carve away all that is not the violin." - Stradivari
They are beautiful sentiments, and thinking of my writing process in those terms, makes me feel as though I am following the path of masters. But in all honesty, my writing process does not begin with a gorgeous block of marble or beautiful piece of wood, it begins with a pile. A big, steaming pile of words.  As a writer, I am less like the sculptor or carver, and more like the optimistic twin in my favorite joke.

The joke goes like this:
Parents of twin 5-year old boys, were worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities -- one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist -- their parents took them to a psychiatrist.
First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears.
"What's the matter?" the psychiatrist asked, baffled. "Don't you want to play with any of the toys?"
"Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands.
"What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist.
"With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming,
"there must be a pony in here somewhere!"

It is hard to follow up that joke, so I will close with this:
Whatever your creative process may be, embrace it! 
And may your piles be great and your ponies plentiful!


  1. Love this! Great post:) I will try to remember it as I revise and revise and revise!!

  2. Thanks, Jacqueline! I am up to my eyeballs in piles of words with my current WIP. Hoping once the rough draft is complete to dig in and discover many ponies. Best of luck with your pony search, as well. Remember, it's all about the attitude. :)