Everyone develops their own creative process over time.
Some sculptors, Bernini for instance, build sculptures with clay. Others, like Michelangelo, carve from marble. Though I’m no Michelangelo, my creative process tends to mimic the latter, building way too much and then removing massive amounts of excess until I uncover the beauty beneath the banality.
I call this process Subtractive Creation. Unlike most carving sculptors, though, I also have to quarry the marble from which I pitch, chisel, and polish.
The essays on our website are published with around 400 words, even though they often start with 2,000 or more. My novel was 950 pages before it entered the world with only 252.
When I edit this way, the final result is far more meaningful to me, and to the reader. The care and handcraftedness shows in the final work. I teach my writing students how to edit this way, too; that is, how to spend one-third of their time writing effectively, and two-thirds of their time editing—shaping their work into something more concise, more powerful, more beautiful.
Subtractive Creation seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the rest of life as well: there will always be life’s excess, always more, always too many inputs bombarding us from every direction—but instead of abhorrent multitasking, instead of trying to get things done, we can make life more beautiful via subtraction.
We can filter out the noise. We can remove unnecessary material possessions. We can let go of sentimental items. We can get rid of negative relationships. We can avoid the American Dream. And when everyone is looking for more, we can focus on less.
Sure, there’s an infinite amount of materials with which to build our lives—but sometimes the best way to build is to subtract. The best lives are often well-edited, carefully curated lives.
(P.S. Yes, I know Bernini also sculpted with marble.)
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