Saturday, September 20, 2014

Michelangelo's Block

A young G+ friend, Anya, recently posted a blog about how she deals with writer's block. It got me thinking about my own struggles.

Over the course of my writing life, I've had several run-ins with this pseudo-building material. It can wreck a good story. Yes, I know there are people who say it doesn't exist, that it's all in our heads. They told me the same thing about PMS. It is now a recognized health problem that affect 50% of the population. The fact that the other 50% doesn't experience it, doesn't lessen the effects or negate its existence and some of those will tell you it is real.

Until August I worked a full-time government job for 16 years. Before that, I was a full-time student, a full-time military wife and mom. Before that I was a full-time mom and military wife. Before that... well you get the idea. Let me just tell you that when you wear a lot of hats, life can interrupt you at unexpected times and for me, everything was secondary to my family. There were times when I couldn't write because I was running my legs off, the kids were sick, or the dog just bit the postman.

In the top of a closet I have a box full of stuff written long before computers. I did a church newspaper for about 4 years, writing for each issue. I wrote for my journalism classes, my english classes, my history classes, for both university papers and anything else I could find to write.

In the last 10 years, I've been hit with depression, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, severe fatigue, the death of my husband in 2009, devastating grief, and the marriages of both sons breaking up. Still, during all that I kept writing. Not a huge projects but anything that came to mind, often to keep my sanity. I started doing National Novel Writing Month 9 years ago. That's where you write a 50K word novel in 30 days. I've lost three times. It is the wins that keep me going back. And now, I am the local municipal liaison, wrangling other writers in November while I write my own 50k word novel.

Now I write blogs, long letters, and notes over stories in various stages of development. Before you ask, no, I haven't published. I write because I love stories and I love writing them but recently, I'm thinking more about publishing. It isn't the Holy Grail to me but it sounds like a new adventure. Along the way, I'm sure there are those writer's blocks lurking to interfere with my quest.

So, how does a writer deal with writer's block? I suppose I could write a list of special techniques to deal with those times when you're just mentally constipated but that's been done, several times. Generally, they give you a numbered list of what you should do to get around the block. Maybe they work. I wouldn't know. I get depressed reading them because I've usually tried most of them with little results. My own experience led me to the conclusion that there is only one thing that works. You use the same technique Michelangelo used when he created his masterpiece, David.

In 1501, at the age of 26, Michelangelo was commissioned to finish a statue that had been commissioned years earlier, circa 1466. The previous sculptor has been given a great block of marble to create the statue and had only sketched out the form on the stone before abandoning the project. The stone sat in the same spot for over 40 years, exposed to the elements. When Michelangelo took over I suspect that 19 ft tall block of marble wasn't pretty. For the next two years he chipped away at it. It became one of his best known and most beautiful works.

CC Roger Wollstadt
What do you think would have happened if Michelangelo had tossed his chisels on the ground and fanned his chin at that hunk of marble after he'd worked on it a few days? Weeks? A year? Were there days he couldn't pick up a hammer? Were there days when dawn came too early, or his body couldn't go another step? Were there emotional crises? Did his dog die? I'm sure a lot of things crossed his path. I'm sure there were days he worked a few hours and went home disgusted. I suspect there were days he was ill. At 26 I'm sure a pretty smile distracted him. But on the days he worked, he kept chipping away at that ugly block of stone until one day he stepped back and looked up to find it had disappeared, replaced by a beautiful piece of art.

You overcome writer's block the same way Michelangelo created his masterpiece, you write through the block until there's just a work of art. It doesn't matter how long it sat in the drawer or how long it has taken you to write it. You pick up your tools and keep hammering away. Eventually, you get past the block to the art.


  1. Is the name of the artist that walked away known? I don't recall his story at all. What I do recall may be apocryphal - that there was a flaw in the marble. Michelangelo worked past the flaw. I like that, whether provable or not.

  2. OK, I don't like unanswered questions - Agostino di Duccio was the original artist, and I don't find a mention of a flaw in the marble. Just FYI.

  3. He was Agostino di Duccio. I found no indication of a problem with the marble. Details vary between sources but consensus says Duccio had started the project, sketching out the form on the stone.
    The Bio site has a slightly different explanation:

    The following article indicates the stone may have been intended for a different project that Duccio abandoned.


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