Today on WFW author Sharon Maas is back (YAY!) to share with us a lesson she learned while traveling in India. Her words, photos, and video have transporting and transformative powers. (Don’t say I never took you anywhere, k?)
Not Carved in Stone: Excavating for a Story
By Sharon Maas
Last February I spent three wonderful weeks in South India. The best part of my morning routine was a walk up a nearby mountain to visit a little ashram where I could sit and meditate in silence. On the way up, dotted here and there along the cobblestone path, sat a few of the local sculptors, selling their work and creating their next piece. Always I stopped to watch, fascinated.
These were simple men. They sat on the bare earth, their basic tools laid out before them. In one hand they held the stone they were working on, either soapstone or marble; in the other hand was the chisel. With all the patience in the world they carved away, scraping and sculpting to mould from the stone their works of art: effigies of gods, or elephants with babies in their innards, or ornate lampshades, candlesticks, incense holders, jewelery boxes, and, in one case, a snarling tiger. Each piece was perfectly formed.
They had no blueprint or model to work from. Each sculptor knew innately, with an uncanny surety and minute precision, how much to remove and at what angle, and did so as naturally and confidently as you and I would tap a keyboard. Sometimes he held the stone with his toes, and hammered (hammered!) away to get it right (see photo). A millimeter to the left or right would have ruined the finished product; but it never did. Symmetry and balance flowed from those sculptor hands, perfection in stone. It was as if the final product was already in the stone, waiting for the sculptor’s thought, the chisel’s touch. Some of these artworks may have lacked the sophistication of their expensive lookalikes in the boutiques of Chennai Airport, but each one was a miracle in stone. I was spellbound, hooked. I was probably their best customer in those three weeks; I bought several pieces to bring home as gifts.
I also brought back new inspiration, new insight into my own work as a writer.
“It’s not carved in stone!” is one of the maxims that comfort me as I write my first draft. It’s all right to make mistakes, as mistakes can be corrected in second, third and fourth drafts. Words are not stone; a clumsy word can be improved on, typos put right, ham-fisted scenes rewritten, dialogue made snappier, characters made more evil. I can chisel away at a story as much as I want; I can add new scenes if necessary, or remove ones that don’t work. I can polish, mould, move story elements around; and one day, hopefully, the story will be as perfect as my ability allows. There is no absolute perfection in storytelling; a different choice of words would produce a different story, or a different slant to the story, or a new nuance to the story. That is the beauty of writing; it is fluid, flexible, not carved in stone.
And yet I brought with me the insight that indeed, each story has its own innate truth, a form it has to be, a form it wants to be and needs to be – and that as surely as the Indian sculptor digs from a formless stone a beautiful Buddha’s head, so it is my task to dig within myself to find the inherent truth of each story I create. That takes time, and experience — and method.
In February I wrote a guest post here on “writing from the seat of my pants”. Very often, this kind of writing is dismissed as shallow, random or chaotic, and perhaps in some cases it is. But it doesn’t have to be. Done properly there is, or should be, skill involved, the skill of digging deep inside to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the story is: its truth, which is the truth of its creator, the writer.
I was 49 when I started my writing career. I had no confidence in my writing abilities, no trust in the stories within me, or I would have started at a much younger age. I didn’t even know that stories were there in me to be written. But then I discovered Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and still in print.
Brande opened my eyes. Brande believed that hidden within the unconscious mind is an intelligence that must be tapped by the conscious, allowing it, the unconscious, to freely flow, “bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths. The role of the conscious mind is to control, combine and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow.”
In the “born writer” Brande believed, this process takes place smoothly and rapidly; by some fortunate accident of temperament or education the naturally gifted writer can put that unconscious flow completely to the service of reasonable intention, whether or not he or she is aware of doing so. There is a magic to writing, says Brande; and it can be learned.
For me the book was a turning point. She put into my hands the basic tools for excavating my own depths, for finding that hidden lump of story buried within me, and carving out its truth into a readable form, a process that indeed sometimes feels like magic.
I am basically a shy, elusive and clumsy person, and so imagine my joy when I read the following words:
The unconscious is shy, elusive and unwieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it. The conscious mind is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant, but it can be made subservient to the inborn talent through training.
Brande taught me to trust the unconscious mind, to know that it is the repository of all the ingredients that make good stories. She gave me clues, hints to the many ways and means of tapping into that source. This turned out to be the method that worked for me, and worked well. In the 14 years since reading that book I have written seven novels; three were published by HarperCollins, and two became French bestsellers. The others are waiting in line for publication, and two more are waiting to be written. To any writer who struggles to find their story, who feel that his or her problem is not with the actual craft of writing, but antecedent to that, with the finding of a story to tell; anyone who finds the actual storytelling the hardest part of writing, that inspiration has dried up, that writer’s block has set in, that his or her story is hidden away behind a locked door I would say: read Brande’s book. It just might provide a key.
At present I am revising a novel I wrote in 2004, a novel which didn’t find an agent or a publisher back then. I thought it needed just a spit and a polish, but now, ten years later, I realised that the flaw ran much deeper. Something was missing in that first draft, a vital dimension to the story without which it fell flat.
Fresh from India and inspired by the work of those Indian sculptors, I finally found that missing dimension. I found it because I’m now a better, more mature writer, and can dig deeper. I’m a miner and a sculptor. And I am more thankful than ever that stories are not carved in stone.
Sharon Maas was born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951, and spent many childhood hours either curled up behind a novel or writing her own adventure stories. After a few years as a reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown she spent some time travelling in South America and overland to India. She ended up in Germany, married with two children, and now has a day job as a social worker in a hospital. She writes novels in her free time.
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