I don’t know why I picked up this memoir, The Lost Carving, at my local bookstore (Christopher’s Books).
Maybe I was attracted by the blonde wood shavings juxtaposed against the dark chocolate cover, or maybe it was the subtitle, A Journey to the Heart of Making, that seemed so promising.
I do know that when I ran a finger across the cover, the subtle suede-like texture titillated my fingertips. So I pulled it off the shelf.
I flipped through the first few pages and read:
“Before me, a chaos of half-finished flowers and leaves and stem, clunkily rising out of a sea of pale wood chips. Incomprehensible and unpromising. As appetizing as cold porridge. I know better than to do the things that would improve appearances immediately, at the price of reducing my options in the future.”
I started to wonder if this book had something specific to offer me, a record of another artist’s struggles and insights that would inform my own writing process.
Before I go further, I must tell you that David Esterly, the author of this sexy tome, was educated at Harvard and Cambridge (Fulbright Scholar) before hopping off the academic wagon in the 1970s. Why ditch those hallowed halls? A religious experience—of the nonreligious variety—in the form of a Grinling Gibbons wood carving in a London church. He went on to become an acolyte, but NOT an imitator.
I flipped a few more pages and read:
“The image of a man(sometimes a pygmy) standing on a giant’s shoulders has caught the imagination of writers from Lucan to Robert Burton to Hazlitt and Coleridge. The gist of the lesson they draw is that, in the words of Burton, “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than the giant himself…It’s easy to think about ratcheting forward from the past in that way, in happier moments. I could save time and pointless duplication by starting where Gibbons had left off. I could steal what he had so arduously invented, and turn my labors to new tasks in a world beyond his.
I wouldn’t have to be a follower of Gibbons. He would turn into a predecessor of me! I could influence Gibbons even. His work would alter because it would be seen in the light of mine. Poor man, stuck in history. He would be resurrected and we could move down the path together.
Alas, it wasn’t working that way. Late at night, with the inky blackness outside and the moths thumping at the window, Gibbons would glide into my workroom and stand at my back. I could feel his breath on my shoulder. As I carved a flower the voice would say, I’ve done that already, I’ve made just that curl in the petal, and better than yours. Look at me. Here’s how it’s done. I wasn’t standing on his shoulders, he’d jumped onto mine. He was a monkey on my back. A gibbon! Gibbons on my back.
Only I was the ape, unable to break the spell of imitation even though I never copied the man’s work. His shadow moved with me. I tried to strike out in a new directions but couldn’t escape him. Wherever I went, I met him coming. Am I exaggerating? There’s a daunting exceptionalism about Gibbons. Like Shakespeare…he invented a new form almost single-handedly and then brought it to unmatchable perfection.
Not even a Christopher Marlowe to prepare the way. Only a tired tradition of inert flowers—‘carver’s flowers,’ they’re called, because they resemble no species on earth—in dully conventional swags and drops. Gibbons turned them into blossoms that seem to have the juice of real life in them…”
Imagine Harold Bloom (Anxiety of Influence) looking over my shoulder and smiling at these references.
I flipped through more pages and read: “I was apprenticed to a phantom, you could say, and lived among mysteries.”
Enchanted by this line and increasingly intrigued, I turned more pages:
“It’s as if some growth force runs along the stem and then spreads its coiled energy out through the leaf. Leaf and stem need to be a part of this same current of energy. I need to mimic its motion with my chisel. Sometimes I think of Dylan Thomas. The force that through the green fuse drives the leaf, should drive my chisel.
Moving deeper into the carving, switching from the BBC to streaming ambient music. No words or thoughts to distract, no melody or rhythm even. Instead a trancelike hum that bleeds away distracting little energies. Later, if I need to concentrate still more, even this will be turned off, so that I can move into the silence, the Empty Quarter, the timeless part…Outside, the contented sounds of ducks telling their stories to one another. Drifting farther off. The workroom begins to fade away. On go the hands. The mind slips its mooring and lets the river take it where it will.”
What comes after enchantment? Ecstasy?
But the following anecdote placed me forever in the palm of his hand:
“And I was beginning to have bad dreams. One in particular makes the hair on my neck stand up even now, decades later. Out of the clouds one restless night there swam into view old pale carvings high up on a wall in a great room. I walked about, looking at them with indescribable emotion. Suddenly the scene altered and there were flames, flames enveloping the carvings. I looked on, mired in guilt and dread. Whose carvings they were I knew, and who’d set the fire I also knew.”
I must paraphrase the rest. Waking partially from his dream, Esterly walks to the bathroom and stares out the window, only to see a coyote trotting by in the misty morning. It stops and turns to gaze at the anxious wood carver for a minute before heading toward a pond on his property.
Esterly then professes NOT to believe in the “phophetic power of dreams” before recounting the rest of the story that occurs a few days later. Suffice to say that it involves a tragic fire at a British royal palace, a fire that leads to a year of carving in England and the memoir that is this book.
I will not spoil the story for you, but I will tempt you with chapter titles: “A Metaphor for Everything,” “The Use of Time is Fate,” “If the Fool Would Persist in His Folly He Would Become Wise,” “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” “The Art That Arrives Even to Deception,” “Begin as a God, End as a Slave,” “The Thinking of the Body,” and “Meaning Isn’t the Meaning.”
Esterly is not “just” a wood carver. He is a well-read philosopher and a formidable writer. Pick up this delicious treat, apply his insights to your own process, and then sleep perchance to dream (without shuffling off this mortal coil, of course).
Wood carvers and writers unite!