Friday, March 5, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Michelangelo's David

This week (March 6) marks the 535th birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I was privileged to see Michelangelo's David on a trip to Florence with my husband a few years ago. There have only been a few times in my life that I have felt transfixed by what I was seeing. Holding my newborn sons, for example. This was like that. I could only stand and stare stupidly, awed by the beauty I saw.

Of course I wasn't alone. The tour group looked like a bunch of sheep, all gawping in the same direction. The tour guide asked us two simple--and I thought very wise-- questions. "Do you like David?" she asked. And, "What do you like about David?"

She got the expected: the beauty, the perfection of male form. For me, though, it was David's face. There was story in that face, more story than I thought was possible to get out of eyes and brow and mouth. And certainly more story than I ever would have thought possible to get from stone. I knew I would have to write about that face and that story some day.

When Michelangelo first saw the giant block of stone that would become his David, he knew that David was already there within it. All he had to do was to remove what didn't belong. I've always thought that writing nonfiction is like that. I start with a great amount of research and I know that my story is somewhere in those stacks of books and notes. All I have to do is leave out whatever does not reveal the story I want to tell. But I can never add; I can only take away.

When a lesser sculptor made a mistake and took away more than intended, he used a bit of wax mixed with stone dust to fix the void. A sculptor who had made no such mistakes could advertise his sculpture as "without wax"--or SINE CERE. From that we get the word "sincere." So a sincere work of art is one to which nothing that does not belong has been added.

My writing may never approach the beauty of the story I saw in David's face. But I hope at least that my nonfiction will always be sincere.

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