Sunday, November 22, 2015

Reading the Rocks

Whether polishing novels or agates, what we call “art” reveals what’s deep inside, awaiting someone to make it visible. As Michelangelo put it, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” In this way, rocks and stories share something in common.

Like lapidary, novel writing involves carving and polishing in order to reveal. The initial premise resembles a geode, like the ones in the picture below.

Not much to appreciate there, not until you expose the contents of its heart. To do that, you need to imagine the secret shapes, lines, and textures you want to bring to the surface.

I was lucky enough to discuss the art of polishing with the patient—and exceedingly talented—lapidarist Alan Vonderohe. A lot of that conversation applies equally well to novelists.

~ Choose raw material with potential.

Not every geode or scenario is worth the effort. Why invest time and energy in something dull or commonplace? But don’t dismiss before you’ve considered the possibilities, either.

~ Study your options.

Vonderohe may spend a few days examining a rock to discern its secrets. The truth is that, with stones and scenarios, once you discover the right approach, it’s difficult to imagine another alternative. In fiction, we call that causality. Outlining helps you bring the best to the surface, the way handling a rock opens you to its potential before you start to polish. Ultimately, thinking before cutting or composing saves time and energy; it’s a shortcut to emphasizing what matters.

~ Nourish flexibility.

A good lapidarist keeps changing the view to disclose the best angle, perhaps an almost invisible vein of blue. Why view your novel from only one direction, missing all those possibilities that never crossed your mind? The rut is the artist’s enemy.

~ Uncover the heart.

Lapidary begins with taking away, while writing fiction begins with building up. In the end, though, every art involves polishing. How else will it seem finished?

~ Respect nature.

At mineral and gem shows you’ll find rocks dyed garish colors or carved into triangles, skulls, hearts, and butterflies. Yet doesn’t art originate in the tension between naked raw material—whether anecdote or uncut stone—and the artist’s interpretation of that? A story or stone can become so contrived that its integrity disappears. If it no longer seems true, if interpretation descends into commercialization, is that still art?

Tip: Polishing lets others see what one imagination detected hidden beneath the surface.

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