Building Up vs. Building Down

Is there a difference between artists who build up or build down in their creative processes? Michelangelo used to tell people that he’d look at a block of marble, visualize the statue within it, and then chip away everything that wasn’t the statue. A painter, however, staring at a blank canvass, does not have this luxury (let alone a writer). There appears to be a dichotomy between inductive and deductive creative processes.

Michelangelo, of course, was both painter and sculptor, and so likely had a fully-developed inner writer and editor. But many artists — Thomas Wolfe (the contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald one) — possess only one of these faculties. Wolfe was known to compose thousands and thousands of pages of handwritten chapters, loosely linked, which his faithful editor Max Perkins had to edit and reshuffle into something resembling a novel. Wolfe, apparently, had zero ability to see the statue in the marble.

So what, ultimately, distinguishes the writer from the editor? If we acknowledge that both sides of the artistic process are equally necessary, can we say that one is more valuable than the other? And if the interplay of both instincts, finely honed, is what produces great art, then are our greatest artists, such as Michelangelo, those that play both roles with equal proficiency?

Ernest Hemingway used to say, “Write drunk, edit sober,” and implicit in his teaching is that the true artist has to distinguish the two roles while committing to both equally. It is not enough to merely chip away marble. It is not enough to merely build up clay. The artist must chip away, build up, chip away, in an iterative process until what stands, ideally, is something resembling a statue.