Cross Training For Writers: Think Like A Sculptor

Sculpture tells a story, the same way a book does. The difference lies in the medium, but the essence of any art form rests in connection and communication. As children, we learned to associate shapes with their function, even before we identified them with words. We didn’t know how to write VROOM VROOM, but we could say it, and we did as we drove our tiny Ferraris over the carpet in the living room. We played with stuffed toys, dolls and rocking horses, and when we were ready to start reading, we began with picture books.

It was a thrill to discover that the four-legged furry thing that went WOOF and licked my face when I waved my grubby little fists and gurgled was a D-O-G, and the small plastic animal I pushed around my miniature farmyard, well, that was also a D-O-G. Maybe not as much fun as the real Cujo, but I could always pretend. Before I read my ABCs, I created stories for my toys.

Somewhere along the line, we grew up and learned to compartmentalize, and in the process, to focus on the medium that made the most sense to us. We became painters, sculptors, writers, photographers. Much was gained in this process: most importantly awareness, understanding and depth–the essential components of knowledge and skill. But I can’t help thinking that we gave something up too. We lost the capacity to venture beyond our margins: to paint our stories, mold them with clay, build them with blocks, stick them together with glue. Now that we’re older and serious and focused and writers, what better time to revert to childhood and play outside our boxes?

I love the texture, color and smell of oil paints, the canvas, the turpentine and brushes, and when I had a studio, I used to spend hours shopping for a particular shade of blue or a very specific brush. As a sculptor, I had an affinity for clay, wire and steel, and at one stage collected garbage so I could reinvent it. Not the stinky kind, just bits and pieces that had outlived their use, yet when combined with something else, suddenly told a whole new story. I made a dancer out of barbed wire, string, netting and wood and fashioned a tiara out of toothpicks.

Writers often struggle to come up with fresh, high concept material. Somehow, we do, because we’re able to create new stories out of carefully rearranging frequently used words in innovative ways.

NITA by Jennifer Skutelsky
NITA by Jennifer Skutelsky

When I started writing this post, I meant to explore the sculptor’s process: how structure and foundation are fundamental to any work no matter its size; the consideration of how chosen materials will relate to one another; how the work will engage with space and its surroundings; but what can I say…I got sidetracked and decided to skip along a different path.

The protagonist in one of my novels is a ghost. Her name is Nita, and for some time I struggled with her physicality–obviously, because she isn’t physical. But although she’s intangible, I wanted to find a way to make her corporeal, at least in my mind, so I bought some modeling clay and sculpted her. I wasn’t going for a perfect finished product, and I worked instinctively, trusting that the process and the clay itself would help me find my way. She emerged with an especially long, delicate neck, prominent facial bones, and a gaunt, slightly distorted face that seemed to suit who I imagined her to be. In the process, she became real to me, and somehow assumed a deeper sense of character. It’s hard to define or pin down, but I believe that exploring her features with my hands in a tactile way, helped bring her to life.

Try it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself an artist, or whether you end up with something you’d want to show in a gallery. The process may be frustrating, but even the struggle is cathartic. Just remember that a head is heavier than a neck–we have bones to support it, so you’ll want to create something that does the same work for your sculpture as the skeleton does for the body. Aluminum foil is useful, light and strong when crumpled into a tight ball or tube. Toothpicks, twigs, plastic straws can also be useful, as long as you don’t intend to fire your work in a kiln. Once you’ve made your sturdy skeleton, you’ll be able to add the clay without fear that the neck will collapse. Alternatively, you might choose to do two dimensional relief work, working off a flat base and carving.

As you work on the shape of a character’s head, the mouth and slant of jaw, you’ll get caught up in the visual and tactile aspects of what you’re creating, and even if it doesn’t work in clay, you can make it work in words simply because you’ve been so focused on the possibilities and the details.

Once we get past our fear of the unknown and the prospect of being incompetent, when we’re prepared to dabble in being ridiculous or frivolous, we lose the inhibitions that hold us back, and we tap into parts of ourselves we never knew were there.

Next up from Jenn…. something inspirational.


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