Whittle While You Work; or, Considering Wood Carving and Writing

I’ve been reading about the art of wood carving in David Esterly’s fascinating The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. The author said several things of interest to me as a writer.

Here’s one that echoes Rilke’s idea of “being only eye,” that is, looking at something so intimately that “self” consciousness falls away but something of the deeper self rises up. Esterly writes:

“Once I gave lessons in foliage carving. I proposed to the students that we reject the idea that carving should be a means for self-expression…The assignment would be to carve a laurel leaf, a leaf of extreme simplicity. I asked the students to throw themselves entirely into the leaf, seek its essence and express only that, putting aside their personalities and carving only with hands and eyes…At the end of the day? There were eight individual leaves, some more compelling than others, but each distinct from all the rest…Trying to express the leaf, the carvers inadvertently had expressed themselves. But it was…a self-expression…from a union with their subject.”

I talk about this a bit when I lead writing workshops at an area art museum. I ask people to give themselves over to looking, and then, by challenging them to write constantly in a timed session, invite the inadvertent utterance onto the page. In this way we give ourselves the chance to surprise ourselves.

In some ways carving is somewhat similar to — not writing exactly, but more like editing. We carve away all the words that distract from the core of the work. Here’s how he describes his process:

“Maybe I hadn’t thought hard enough about what really happens when you make a thing…You start out at the top of the chiasmus, all right. But soon enough the moil of the making fills your consciousness and informs your decisions. You plunge down that X, like a fallen angel, toward the crossing point with the thing you are making, the point of equal power…a sustained congruence of maker and made…It’s not clear who’s boss.”

I know other people, especially fiction writers, talk about their characters taking over. I wouldn’t characterize my experience of writing a poem in this way. I have in the course of writing been surprised sometimes about what has come out, but have not had a sense in the act of editing that I was or was not in charge, but rather either things are coming together or not, the poem is either what I’d hoped or not, it either is a thing or it ain’t. I don’t get this sense of battle.

I do understand the feeling that the thing I made is, to some degree, an “other,” with its own being-ness. But I can’t say that the poem “tells me” what it wants to do. It seems less like a struggle about who’s boss than a question of whether I’ve even chosen the right piece of wood in the first place, the exact piece of wood to be shaped into what I am learning along the way is my intention.

It’s not that the made thing itself has ideas but rather that the gap between my idea as it presents itself and evolves in its own making and my execution of that morphing idea is sometimes unbridgeable.

It’s sort of like when I try to read small print with my contact lenses in. Neither bringing it closer nor holding it farther away works. It’s just unreadable….In contrast to this highly readable, very interesting work, an intimate glimpse into art making of a different sort.