The Michelangelo method: a new way to look at writing

Here’s a tip for NaNoWriMo participants — or anyone who wants to try their hand at fiction. A simple mind trick that might unlock a project reluctant to reveal itself. It also happens to question the nature of the thing we tend to believe is at the very heart of writing: ‘creativity’. This is good. Fiction is about posing questions. If you want answers hunt for them in journalism (and good luck).

You start by doing something I recommend highly: seeking an analogy between writing and another creative art. You’d be amazed how less intractable problems with words seem when you reimagine those same difficulties from the point of view of someone else.

How would a musician deal with a troubled story rhythm? Up the tempo? Riff off into a middle eight?

What would a painter think about narrative tone and voice? Would he or she reach for darker or lighter paint? Bolder or finer brushes?

How about an architect. Would they diagnose the need for more underpinning or a less complex façade?

Or, in this case, a sculptor.

Well not just a sculptor. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Or just plain Michelangelo if you like. Here’s the anecdote that prompted this idea — I don’t remember where I first read it so the details may be a hazy but the message remains the same.

Michelangelo is in his studio in Florence gazing at a big lump of white Carrara marble while being interviewed by a fan. The fan wants an answer to the sculpture equivalent of the ‘where do ideas come from?’ question. How, he asks, does Michelangelo see a lump of rock and begin to imagine that he can turn it into a beautiful, complex statue of the male form?

Michelangelo tugs on his beard and tries not to treat the chap as if he’s an idiot. Then he says…

Ogni blocco di pietra ha una statua dentro di sé ed è compito dello scultore scoprirla.

Every block of stone has a statue inside and it’s the job of the sculptor to discover it.

In other words the heart of the process isn’t creativity at all. It’s revelation, archaeology, panning for gold. Scraping at the dross that hides the precious thing beneath.

Wow. One sentence and it changed the way I thought about writing forever. Because if you follow that line of thinking it’s telling you something quite extraordinary: that blank screen you’re staring at isn’t blank at all. It’s just fog obscuring the world, the characters, the narrative beneath. Your job isn’t to invent that story universe. It’s to uncover it.

Let’s consider some of the implications.

What does this mean for the story?

It means it was happening before the point you pick it up. The ‘beginning’ of your book is just that: the start of your narrative. You’re stumbling into something that was in motion before you came along. There’s an old adage: try to start scenes part way through. This is the same idea but writ large. Most conventional narrative stories require motion: the feeling they’re going somewhere. Walking into the middle of a live, active world that appears to exist already is a great way to get it.

It means characters aren’t characters… they’re people

You often read about back story — the history behind characters which tell you who they are but doesn’t necessarily feature in the narrative itself. Again this is that concept but much bigger and bolder. Approaching a book this way means they’re alive inside and outside your story. Characters are pieces on a chess board, authorial inventions there for the benefit of a puppet master storyteller. Using the Michelangelo method they’re people you need to discover, listen to, converse with, get to know.

Example: I’m writing this in Amsterdam where I’m working on the fourth Pieter Vos book. It’s a story about people with secrets, ones they admit to, ones they sometimes hide from themselves. I know some of those secrets but not all of them. In order to find out what they are I have to peel away layer after layer of obfuscation and downright lies.

How? I get closer to the characters involved. I make notes about them in Google Keep on my phone. When I’m in a cafe I try to imagine what they’d say in ordinary everyday conversations going on around me. Very little if any of this will translate into words in the book. But it will help me begin to see beyond the façade these people show to the world and, eventually, penetrate their secrets.

If any of this sounds weird it shouldn’t. Writing fiction is not a normal activity. In many ways it resembles a slow and loosely-controlled nervous breakdown. Or an act of possession, the exorcising of which is the production of a manuscript. You need to talk to your characters. Sometimes you need to speak out loud as your characters too. This may mean someone marches up to you in the kitchen while you’re cooking and announces, ‘Hey, dude. You’re talking to yourself.’

If this happens there’s a straightforward answer: Quiet please. Can’t you see I’m writing?

It means there’s always something to do

I don’t do writer’s block. No one ever refuses to serve you at a supermarket till with the words, ‘Sorry, can’t do it. I’ve got checkout person’s block.’

But people do dry up and it’s usually for one of three reasons.

  • They’re out of time.
  • They’ve taken a wrong turning fifty pages or so back and think they can correct that by constantly rewriting the page they’re on now (and you can’t — you need to go fifty pages back).
  • They don’t have any waypoints, any direction for the story. It doesn’t matter necessarily that a narrative has no fixed destination when you’re working on it. But it does matter that it’s headed somewhere. If it isn’t you’ll run out of steam.

The first I can do nothing about since I’m not a Time Lord. The second two are issues often made worse because we think we can write our way of them. Just barge on hoping illumination will occur somewhere round the corner. That rarely happens. All too often we just end up with more of the wrong words.

But if you see your task as one of revealing a world underneath the job becomes different. You can start to look for answers in the depths of the story and its possible direction, not in the waning powers of your own imagination. Is there a character who’s got more to say? A secret to share? Is there something going on in the subtext you haven’t quite noticed?

We all get stuck sometimes, we all need hooks to draw us back into the story. Following the Michelangelo method we know they’re there. The puzzle is to find them.

Oh… and it’s all a ruse

I now approach every book I write in this way. I set up some characters, an inciting event to kick off the narrative and put the whole thing in a specific world. Then I see it as my task to cajole and bludgeon the truth about what’s happened out of the people I encounter during the daily act of writing.

If you set things up correctly you can almost convince yourself the characters are writing the book themselves.

They’re not, of course. These are my creations. I’m just using a mental ruse to make it easier for me to tease a book out of them.

But then I doubt Michelangelo really believed there was a statue of David lurking inside that lump of white Carrara marble when it turned up in his studio. It was his genius that made it. What he was doing was adopting a useful mental approach to the difficult task ahead of him, a mindset that helped him focus on getting the job done.

That’s all that matters. Whatever works for you.