A Process for Composition

English woodcarver and educator Chris Pye has written several books and online guides to woodcarving, including his Woodcarving Fundamentals.   (If you’re not interested in woodcarving specifically, stay with me here.) There and elsewhere he describes the woodcarving concept of “bosting in”, the stage in which the carver establishes the relationship among the various elements of the carving, before carving any details. 

To ‘bost’ means to create the main forms, three-dimensional masses, and planes of a carving; and placing them, with their inherent motions and directions, all in correct relationship to each other. 

Chris provides the example of a student attempting to carve a human face.  According to his process:

Before the iris goes in, the bony shape of the skull, the muscles, the egg-like lump of the eyeball and so on, these must be formed, bosted in. The shape, dynamics of the head must ‘read true’ – that is what the bosting is all about.

I like this example.  It’s both familiar and immediately illustrative of the concept.  What he describes here is not working from a blueprint.  It is an approach to creating that engages the senses and skills of the creator throughout the process.

“Bosting in” falls within the larger process he describes in his book, Elements of Woodcarving.  This process begins with roughing out the waste, followed by bosting in, followed by modelling individual elements, and resulting in detailing. 

Chris has stated that he would like to retain the term “bosting” as a specialized term within woodcarving.  I think he’s on to something more broadly applicable in the creative process, so I’ll use the more generic term “sketching”, which he says is the original meaning of the word.

This strategy of “sketching in” – establishing the masses, planes, and movement of a piece – works in many different applications. 

I see it at work in Jim Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, in which he describes composing a cabinet from the starting point of a coopered door.  “Since I have gotten into such work, the prospect of returning to it each time I find a ‘beginning’ in a plank or planks is ever more exciting.”

As a writer I’ve used a similar process, leaving myself sketches of an idea that needs elaboration, while establishing the overall flow and movement from one idea from another.  During later passes through the piece of writing, I’ll come back and elaborate on each of these sketches, gradually giving definition to the whole.

I’ve even used this process as a software engineer, roughing out the various components, sketching the basic movement of the application, and gradually working it down to finer and finer detail. 

Creativity and the practice of gathering, Part I

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” – Carl Sagan

I first came across this quote in John Daido Loori‘s The Zen of Creativity.  It’s an important statement to understand from the creative’s point of view, because it is rare that we create something completely new. 

Rather, creativity is about seeing the everyday with new eyes.

One of the common threads on the topic of creativity is the practice of collecting or gathering material for later use.  Whether you’re writing fiction or creating fine furniture, there is this same essential process of collecting images and phrases, little bits of this and that, all of which we let steep until some time later, we rearrange and reassemble those bits, or the infusion that results, in a way that gives life and energy to our work.  Writer Anne Lamott shares her take on gathering in Bird by Bird:

[W]hen you’re out in the world–that is, not at your desk–and you hear people talking, you’ll find yourself editing their dialogue, playing with it, seeing in your mind’s eye what it would look like on the page.  You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.  If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days–listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. 

Much like Pablo Neruda’s “world of objects at rest,” the material we find to work with is out there in the world.

In this article from Fine Woodworking, Designer Craftsman Michael Fortune suggests that “[i]f you are receptive, ideas can come from almost anywhere.”  He goes on to explain how visiting a museum, or simply noticing lines and patterns in his daily environment – such as tire tracks in the snow or the leaves of day lilies – can provide fodder for the receptive imagination.

If you are receptive, he writes. 

In Part II, I’ll dig deeper into the ways in which we can increase our receptivity to the world around us.