For many years I earned a living sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters: Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Nuetron, Betty Boop, Darth Vadar, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson — hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio. I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, I didn’t study literature or attend a creative writing program. In addition to that, I’m dyslexic — hardly the resume of a promising writer.
To this day when I pick up my copy of The Southern Review and see myself in the contributors’ notes among professors of English and Ph.D.’s (sculptor of superheroes, reads my bio) I think for sure they must have made a mistake. But what I have come to realize is that the years I spent sculpting — adding and subtracting and carving away bits of clay — proved to be exceptional training for the work of a writer. Because, in many ways, the process of finding a character in a hunk of clay is the same as finding a story on a blank page.
Each new sculpture would begin with a block of clay. I’d work the shape from all angles, leaving tool marks everywhere. Hours would pass. I’d step back and look at it, often using an old art school trick — looking at it upside down or in the mirror, all the while reworking it as I went along.
If there is one thing I learned by sculpting superheroes it’s that getting the overall gesture of a character just right is crucial and the process cannot be rushed. It’s a big mistake to fill in details before the underlying structure is accurately formed.
Imagine spending hours sculpting the fine lines of Big Bird’s feathers only to realize that what the sculpture really needs is a tilting of the head. You’d have to go back and change every last quill. The position of the head will change the feathers at the shoulders and this will change them at the knees. The ripple effect will extend until you reach his birdlike fingers and toes.
Painters build their canvases much the same way: layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing in the composition before tightening it up.
I write exactly as I sculpt and paint. I work the piece from all directions, leaving broad impressions everywhere. I jump back and forth from section to section in no particular order. I don’t write in complete sentences. I don’t bother with spelling until the shape of my story and the authenticity of my characters have completely emerged.
Readers will know if the language has been honed before the story line was complete. They will know if the dialogue has been crafted but the characters not fully formed. They will sense when the inner value system of my protagonist does not mesh with her actions even if they’re only slightly off. They will see these things as easily as they will register a defiance of gravity if the feathers on Big Bird’s head are standing up but his head is tilting downward.
Building a piece from the inside out will enable you to know how it works.
I once did a sculpture of Elvis Presley, which was flown down to Memphis and scrutinized by the notoriously difficult licensing department at Graceland. The marketing person took one look at it and barked this criticism: “The mouth is all wrong!”
The curl of Elvis’s lip is iconographic, if it’s off just a hair, the whole world will know it.
So I took the sculpture back to my studio and looked at it.
People often know when something is wrong, but few know how to fix it. If I didn’t understand the structure of a face, how the bones and muscles underneath it work, I might have spent hours reworking Elvis’s lips to no avail. The mouth, it turned out, was perfect. What the expression needed was a millimeter or two of clay on the cheek. If the lip is only slightly raised, the cheek must be too. It was all I had to do and the whole sculpture fell into place.
Whether it’s a bust of Elvis, a Jackson Pollock painting, or an Emily Dickinson poem, every piece of artwork or writing has anatomy to it. Every word or drizzle of paint should work in relationship to all the others. If you add or subtract a single line, it changes all of them. If the ending of a short story doesn’t work, chances are there is something missing in the beginning.
And you cannot change the beginning without changing the middle, too.
The rush to put in detail, to polish sentences or finish scenes can be hard to resist.
Beautiful language dazzles us. Details exist on the surface so they are what we see. But it’s the internal engineering — the bolts and gears — that keep a train moving forward. You may not see the engine, but if a single part is missing or if it’s flimsily held together, the train will fall apart.
Everything has structure — every scene within a story, every action within a scene.
Structure is what holds all the pieces together and gives them broader meaning. You can only tell certain things about people by what they’re wearing, but the important stuff — what kind of life they’ve had, how they feel about themselves — is stored inside their bones. When they stand, do they stoop? Or do they lift a chin and face the world? Any sculptor will tell you: it’s the structure that matters. Details are meaningless without it. The quality of work is only as good as the framework underneath it.