In 1932, when she was at the peak of her fame, the French writer Colette opened a cosmetology shop in Paris. She blended lotions and potions and applied them to her clients\’ faces with, as it turned out, awful results. Her friends and the reading public thought that the shop was a terrible idea, and everyone was glad when it closed. But I know what Colette was after when she went into cosmetics: she was avoiding writing.
Over the years I too have tried many strategies to avoid writing: milking goats, training dogs, embroidering pillows. But now that the goats are gone and Bisou is well-behaved and the cottage is dotted with pillows, I have found a new method: whittling birds.
In October I attended a whittling workshop, whittled bird #1, and gave it away. What you see here is bird #2, and I’m about to start on #3.
As simple as this bird looks—it’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand–it took me approximately ten hours to make. How many pages of text could I have produced in ten hours?
In fact, whittling is a lot like writing–or rather, like the second stage of writing.
When I whittle, I start with a block of wood from the craft store. But when I sit down to write I have to make my own “block”: the first draft, where I type whatever comes to mind as fast as I can, not stopping to reread or revise, until a have a block of text to work on.
What I like about whittling—and used to love about stone carving, before my shoulder and arm rebelled—is the subtractive process, getting rid of what gets in the way of the real shape. For me, the best part of writing is making the second, third, and umpteenth drafts, in which, wielding the Delete key like a whittling knife, I eliminate unnecessary stuff until the piece reveals its true form, which is often different from what I thought it was going to be.
But both whittling and writing require an act of faith, that beneath the extra wood and the extra words what I want to find lies waiting.
When I’ve spent too long squeezing words out of my brain and flinging them up into the cloud, something in me clamors for the feel of wood in my hand, the ache of tired muscles, and the final reward of an object endowed with length and height and width, a thing that I can hold and touch. And I know exactly how Colette felt, slathering make-up on the cheeks of her chic clients, playing around with lipstick, rouge, and eye-shadow, not writing.