Walking down a filthy sidewalk on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I avoided stepping on a neon pink flyer. It said, “Learn to Weld.” As an aspiring artist and fan of the movie Flashdance, welding seemed sexy. I pursued it. The school admin said the class was no longer offered, but would I like to try “figure sculpting with clay?” As a regular at The Artist’s League nude drawing sessions, I thought, “also sexy” and said, “I’ll do it.”
I’m not a patient person. Ask my friends. Ask my husband who’s single flaw, in my eyes, is his infuriating inability to be punctual. Ok, two flaws if you include the painfully methodical way he chops vegetables. I plow through things to get to the good part. I do it when reading books, eating food, having sex, even in conversations with friends. I’m always charging ahead and missing out on that lauded “joy of getting there.” Process is just work. The necessary path to a finished product.
The figure sculpting class was a singular exception to my impatience. The instructor, Paul Luccesi, managed to teach a process so gratifying, I lost all sense of time. I improved so quickly that one of the gray-haired, long-time, disciples of Paul said, “I want to kick you in the face.”
I would love to get that kind of compliment on my writing. A few years ago, I decided to tackle my Novel (with a capital N) and joined NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words of personal narrative. It left me with a feeling of exhilaration and a mishmash of sentimental nostalgia that progressively got less focused page by page. I went back to my day job.
I believed, until recently, that story building is linear. That’s what we’re taught in school, right? Think of an idea. Write your story. Edit it a few times. Have another person read it and incorporate their feedback. Then turn it in. Done. Turns out, this results (99% of the time) in average to sub-par work.
Just last year, I decided to translate that personal narrative into a screenplay. The end result was still frustrating. but this time I wanted to keep writing. My second screenplay was pretty good, but it still had problems. To fix them require tearing it apart and dumping scenes and jokes that I loved way too much. I set it aside and started on something new.
This week, something clicked. I attacked a second draft of a new story – tore that motherfucker apart. I pulled out the eight key scenes essential to the story, leaving the rest on the floor. I cut out chunks and built entirely new chunks. After three days of this, I realized I was in love, not with what I had written, but with my process. It felt familiar. I was sculpting.
Sculpting goes something like this. Hire a model and choose a pose – this is premise, vision. Build an armature. Pipe and wood act as bones, like outline, structure, and story beats. Then comes the heady act of slapping on clay – big fat fists of clay – a slab for the pillow, a chunk for the chest, a blob for the head, and a hunk for the ass. This is a passionate and forceful act of violence– like writing for three days straight.
Now pause and breathe. Step back from your draft. It’s tempting to start refining at the head and work down the body, but that would be as foolish as editing and refining a draft from page one. Sculpture is a three dimensional medium, and so is film.
Before adding a single cheekbone, move around and see the model from 360 degrees. What looked from one side like a good angle for the hips, is all wrong when seen from the back. Resist the urge to deliberate on whether a character stormed or sauntered out of the room, when maybe they shouldn’t be in the room in the first place.
Revisions take longer, and require more tools than a first draft. And it’s still easy to get lost, diving into a scene too deeply, falling in love with the ass crack. Step away again. See the story from far away. See the whole body. See the holes.
Soon, the brain stops seeing “woman with large breasts and braided hair,” and starts seeing shadows and curves as abstract pieces or scenes that can shift and evolve when they’re better understood. Carve into those forms. Slice angles and add mass and big sweeping curves. Spin circles around it and once everything feels right, you can go around again, and again, and again to develop nuance, style, and then at last, the juicy little details – like a nipple.
I loved this process 20 years ago and I am loving it again in a new form. My lack of patience may continue to trap me, causing me to fall in love with a perfect face on a head that’s too small. Hopefully, I can remember to step back, breathe and joyfully rip that head right off, because I know that once a story is baked it’s impossible to change without truly smashing it to pieces.