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 this site 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 283. The current book I’m editing is 550 pages, though I hope to whittle it down to fewer than 200.
When I edit this way, the final result is far more meaningful—to me, 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 1/3 of their time writing effectively and 2/3 of their time editing, shaping their work into something more concise, more powerful, more beautiful.
Subtractive Creation seems to be an appropriate synecdoche 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 superfluous material possessions. We can let go of sentimental items. We can get rid of shitty relationships. We can avoid the UnAmerican 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.
(N.B. Yes, I know that Bernini also sculpted with marble.)