Some of you may or may not be aware that I’m a bit of a hobbyist sculptor, although even saying that probably gives my abilities more credit than they deserve. Making stuff out of clay is something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid, and I’ve recently decided to commit to more frequent attempts, as, frankly, I need a low stakes creative hobby, something to focus attention on that isn’t writing.
It’s funny though, how similar the two things are in some respects. When you start making something out of clay you begin with a smooth sphere of the stuff, then slowly work it until it begins to take the shape of what you can see in your head. Clay doesn’t react well to you being too tough with it. If you work too long on one piece then it can dry out and start to crack. And the worst possible thing you can do it tear some off and stick in back on to fashion an arm or extra appendage or whatever. The moment the clay hardens, anything that’s been stuck on will fall away.
You have to roll with the (very) metaphorical punches. Sometimes trying to get the shape of the nose or mouth right will ruin another part. As much as individual aspects of the work require attention, you have to try and keep the whole of what you’re working towards in your head at all times. Overthinking can ruin it, but carelessness is just as detrimental. It’s also important to know when to stop. It’s hard to be a perfectionist with something that dries out after too long. Sometimes the rough parts are what adds character.
A novel or a script is pretty similar, but over a much longer stretch of time. The big difference is that the sculpting doesn’t end when you hit the conclusion of the story. The first draft is really just one step removed from the plain ball of clay that you started out with. The beginnings of the shape are there, but you’re a long way from the finished product, even if you think you are.
I used to finish something, decide I was largely happy with it, then move on. This is another reason working with clay is probably good for me; it provides a creative outlet in which I can do that. But in writing, I’ve found myself developing a new commitment to take my time. Instead of jumping erratically between projects, I’ve taken to spending a lot more time focussed on the ongoing development of a couple (in this case Sunburnt Country and Nelson and the Gallagher). I’ve taken my time; getting feedback on the drafts, letting those new ideas percolate, and then coming back to keep working at the thing.
A major adjustment in my thinking is patience. A few years ago I was desperate to be a famous writer. I didn’t care what theatre produced my plays or what publisher or agent I ended up with. I think I craved validation so much that it didn’t really phase me where I found it.
A few years later, that desperation is long gone. I’d much rather a story took a few years to be perfect, and the first step is to be flexible enough to never view anything as finished. Back in 2013 I chose to ignore extremely valuable feedback on Below Babylon because I didn’t want to do the work to get it up to scratch. I kind of shrugged and was like “oh well, too bad, it’s basically finished so there isn’t much I can do”. It’s the same way of thinking that led me to self-publish Windmills despite knowing on some level that it was yet to reach its full potential.
I’m not a patient person, but writing is a patient craft. Like sculpting, it takes time and a gentle touch to eventually find the right shape for a story. The difference with writing is that there’s rarely a time limit for finishing the work.
Take advantage of the fact.
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