I’ve been working on a story, and Michelangelo pops into my head.
He has nothing to do with the story. And I’m not writing about art or sculpture on Italy or the Renaissance or anything related to those subjects.
But something happens in the process of writing that story, and it has to do with something Michelangelo said about sculpture.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it,” he says, “and it’s the task the sculptor to discover it.”
He follows it up with a slight variation: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved it until I set him free.”
I think the quotes were a bit presumptuous, but it is Michelangelo who says them, so who am I to judge?
And then I have something like a Michelangelo moment.
I don’t see a statue in the rock, or an angel, and I’m writing, not sculpting. But I learn exactly what he means.
It seems like I’ve been working on this story for years, and I suppose I have. Parts of it go back a decade or more. Most of it is new, but it has a history, a past.
I’m well into the story, working it over and over, editing and adding and deleting, and suddenly something almost jumps out from the page. I’ve typed something that happens in the conflict between a father and a son, and I can’t for the life of me figure out where it comes from, because it isn’t in the outline, in my notes, my mental plan, or in any version previous written.
I stare at what I’d typed. Why did I write that?
Then it hits me. What I’d written was the whole point of the story. It was what the story was actually about, what it has really been about from the beginning. And it has simply, or finally, emerged from the words.
Completely thrown, I reread the story from the beginning, some 90,000 words worth.
It was almost too obvious, except it isn’t. But it’s there from the very beginning, slightly submerged below the surface, the whole idea that the story has been turning toward, never breaking the surface until it almost couldn’t help itself.
I did not plan this, I admit to myself. Or did I?
I read through section after section, figuratively smacking myself upside the head. How did I miss this? How am I writing a story with the main point that close to being obvious, yet I still miss it until it starts screaming at me?
That angel in the marble had suddenly broken cover. He was out in the open, shaking his head. What took you so long? I’ve been trapped inside this piece of stone until you finally wised up. A little slow on the uptake, are we?
I go back through the story again, closely reading it, seeing the places where it almost emerges but doesn’t. I start editing, to make a suggestion here, hint a possibility there, make a clear-cut indication in another place.
The story has fundamentally changed, but this is what it has really been about from the beginning.
Michelangelo was right.
Photograph by Akash Patel via Unsplash. Used with permission.