50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!

13 thoughts on “50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

    1. It’s not for everyone. And I don’t believe it’s possible to write a masterpiece in thirty days, at least not for any of the writers I know. But thirty days is a pretty good window of time for making yourself get to the end of a an arc and create a sloppy draft from which to work. And it’s pretty fun to do it with thousands of other people. A couple years ago, I saw on Twitter that Stephen King was participating. Naturally I told everyone my buddy Stephen and I were writing a book together.

  1. Best of luck to you and your NaNo endeavors! I have been researching for a new book and I didn’t quite finish in time to do NaNo this year – but I will be starting the draft early next year, and I definitely know the pain and anguish and self doubt of a writer creating something new. Michelangelo was a PERFECT comparison 🙂 Here’s the artists!

    1. Thank you! I didn’t get as much research finished as I wanted to before starting the draft, but I decided the project would benefit from a draft just so I could get through the basic plot and get to know my characters better. With historical fiction I think it can be tough to decide when to just start writing. There’s always more to discover. Good luck with your project!

      1. Oh yes that’s a valid point 🙂 Just when I think I’ve got the history right, I read one book and learn twenty new things that I didn’t include haha. Sounds like you can relate!

  2. I love the idea of a bunch of sniping Renaissance guys suggesting Michelangelo for the job just to watch him fail. Were they the original frenemies?

    I’m still cynical about NaNoWriMo for a variety of reasons (if they’d just changed it to National First Draft Writing Month – NaFirDraWriMo? – I’d be a little more okay with it), but best of luck to everyone doing it.

    1. Well now that would just sound ridiculous. 😉 I definitely agree. What you end up with at the end of 30 days is provably not even a good rough draft. It’s just a place to start. I think the NaNo organization tries to be pretty clear about that with participants. What I like about it, though, is that it forces a writer out of the tendency to self-edit to the point of quitting in frustration before she ever discovers the true potential of the idea. It’s the way I do rough drafts anyway, so for me it’s just good fun to do it in November when I have so many cheerleaders writing along with me.

      1. Dagnabbit, i Was really hoping NaFirDraWriMo would catch on. I think I’ve been lucky that I never acquired the habit of self editing during a first draft. Just squish it out of my head as fast as possible and deal with what comes out later, right?! Have fun NaNo-ing!!!

    1. This is my third year to do it. It’s definitely gotten easier, but it also mimics the way I draft anyway, so it just kind of works for me. Though I admit, none of the books I have drafted during NaNo is published yet. Maybe this will be the one.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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