Monday, September 13, 2004


Sculpting Words

Real Live Preacher has one of the most interesting Weblogs I've run into. He has a new essay about his writing, whose central idea is the balance of beauty and readability. He talks about spending hours agonizing over word choice, sentence structure and all the other elements of craft.

I too am interested in beauty, but I'm also willing to leave more of the hair on my writing. This comes from my sand sculpture background.

The starting gun sounds when there's enough daylight to see the sand. You're done when you can't see your tools. That's it. One day, one man, one beach.

The process of making sand sculpture has a few recognizable milestones marking the path from flat beach to finished sculpture. You build a base for the sculpture, then set up and fill the form. Then you peel the form off leaving the packed sand. Carving is next, wherein the sculpture finally begins to move from the realm of imagination to the physical reality. After the carving is finished, there's the clean-up process, when rough edges are polished out and loose sand brushed away. And finally, landscaping. Presentation is important, and I like the area around the sculpture to look nice.

Every step takes time. Especially in winter I have to make hard choices. Time spent in clean-up is time taken from carving. Clean-up and polishing are important, but are they more important than the basic idea? This is a hard choice, because the photographs of the sculpture will forever show its finished state and excessive roughness interferes with the sculpture's form.

A simple sculpture can be polished to within a gnat's eyelash of perfection. Complex ones, forget it. I'm lucky if I'm still standing after making one of these, much less have the Watts to clean it up. Yes, it'll be in the photographs, but I've made a critical adjustment in my perception.

Instead of looking for flaws, I sort of blur my vision and look at the sculpture. Many passersby look only at the flaws. I've had to educate them.

Writing is similar. You can concentrate on flaws, or you can look beyond them to what the story says.

There's another similar aspect. Good tools, and lots of experience in using them, help a lot in sculpting anything. If I make each tool stroke right where it needs to be, then I won't need so much clean-up. Make the decision, choose the tool, and cut. In sand sculpture each cut is final; if it's wrong, you have to work it into the design.

Writing can be polished to death. Stories can hang around on my hard disk forever, being rearranged, edited, amended and reworked until all the life is gone from them. I had a ceramics class one time where the instructor demonstrated this. I have a strong fussiness tendency, which is why I appreciate sand sculpture so much. There is no time to be fussy! When the sun goes down you've shipped the product.

Eventually writing has to be shipped. Get it out there. Get the idea cleared so I can go on to something else. Life does not stand still. I'd rather ship a slightly rough product than an overpolished one, and my readers (all 13 of them) seem to agree. Or else they're being kind.

As for the balance of beauty and utility, well, this varies. If your readers are experienced you can get away with more. New readers have a harder time. Good, I say. Make 'em work. They remember better that way. Eventually they will join the ranks of the experienced. Or quit. Their choice, but I have to make a story interesting to write in order to stay with it. I refuse to write for the unmotivated.

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