Snow’s Progress

‘I am a master marble sculptor. I create a vast, furious block of text; a woolly mammoth of mighty words; a large and heavy mountain of narrative. Then I rest awhile, bewildered by this huge hulk of ideas; this thick wall of thoughts. First I am a gnat on a pumpkin, a tadpole swimming in a lake. Then I am a wasp on a pear, a frog squatting on a lily-pad. I ease, slowly, into a position of control. Lo, now I am Michelangelo, stone-carving tools thrust into my firm hands, the spirit of genius burning within my breast. My ego thumps like the tail of an over-excited dog. I can bend anything to any shape. I can breathe life into this dull and daunting form. I am the very dragon of creativity. I will chip and charge into beauty’s warm hole. I will break, like the consummate burglar, into the core of my text. Into the thick of the literary battle I go, pick-axe wielding, flint flying around my ears, the stony edifice crumbling before my sure and able touch. The words fall around me, but I am resolute. Watch me closely: I do not lose my nerve. I am a master miner. I will not stop before I find myself, standing proud, at the heart of this here mound; until the very essence of the object has been caressed by all two of my tough thumbs. I am a man of action; rocket, rock and ram. But my final touch, my final touch is smooth. When the main hunk of the marble has collapsed, and the soft beating soul is seen, I am again a tender craftsman. Roughness slips from me like the model’s gown. I am a cake-maker, an ivory-carver and a golf-green keeper. My fingers are alert, agile, lithe and lissom. They do not miss a single move. No petal is too delicate. No curl or curve, no wisp or line. I am there; I am on every ball there ever was, is, and will ever be. I am a master: a master marble sculptor’ (Walter Snow)

Good old Walter Snow: one of the best writers I know when it comes to describing the creative process. As a novelist, of course, he was nothing less than rotten – by no means the ‘master marble sculptor’ he claimed to be. Every one of his fourteen novels, the critics will agree, was a trite, insubstantial, chaotic piece of nonsense. But when he turned his attention to the process of writer, well: then his style took on a whole new force. Progress, his 1976 guidebook for writers (known in the business as ‘Snow’s Progress’) is, for instance, a strangely wonderful work. Somehow, when it came to writing about writing, Snow’s creativity knew no bounds. He flowed like a river in a storm. Returning to the writing itself, the power diminished: he went back to where he started – to a sad, trickling stream. As Jave de Lasse once put it, ‘the man who thought he was a master marble sculptor was, in fact, a master minor artist’. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, made him a rather good critic: a pity he was never really aware of it.

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