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Novel Writing with M. Allen Cunningham

M. Allen Cunningham is teaching several classes at Literary Arts this month, specializing in beginning and plotting the novel. All of his classes are currently sold out, but stay tuned as we’ll likely add more in the future! 

This piece, “To Know the Stone,” was originally published on Soul Shelter. 

To Know the Stone

Andy Goldsworthy talks to rocks. He stacks driftwood. He bites at finger-like chunks of ice and welds them together into swirling lines. With strands of stem he sews broad green leaves into ribbons and sends them afloat on rivers, where they glide as sinuous as snakes.

Goldsworthy is a sculptor –- but not of marble or of metal. Often his works endure for a matter of moments, no longer. Their home is under the sun, in the rain or snow or dappled autumnal light. His sculptures stand on beaches, in fields. They sway in trees or drift atop natural water. Ultimately, they fall apart.

In Rivers and Tides, the mesmerizing 2001 documentary by director Thomas Riedelsheimer, we see Goldsworthy in his element, at work in the elements, borrowing all his materials from nature and letting nature bring his sculpture to life, then undo it. And we watch Goldsworthy patiently submitting when nature resists collaboration, stymies his work, or destroys it too soon.

Goldsworthy’s delicate, painstaking process teaches much about the creative or artistic endeavor, which is almost always a matter of surrender. And Rivers and Tides contemplates beautifully, through breathtaking imagery and Goldsworthy’s own soft-spoken voice-overs, the nature of meaningful creative work.

On a solitary beach Goldsworthy arranges gathered stones, stacking them one at a time, studying his placement of each. The stones are large and heavy, but seem to oblige his design for them. He feels he understands the stone, and that his work will emerge from this understanding, to exist, if only momentarily, as a complement to its natural setting.

The stones accumulate, a gesture toward the instructive sculptings of nature herself. A form arises. But something is off, and the stones begin to resist one another. They lean and pull apart. The form collapses. Sighing, Goldsworthy reconsiders. He dismantles the rubble and starts anew.

He intends to construct an enormous cone, taller than a man, wider than a tractor tire, before the tide draws in to cover his working area. He wants the cone to be ready, finished and standing, when the water arrives, because the flooding is part of the sculpture. The cone will drown away, the tide dismantling it. The vision for the work includes the work’s impermanence.

Goldsworthy does not have cash on his mind, nor career trajectory. His work is a way of life, wonderfully impractical, rich with mysterious rewards.

The stones tumble again, and for an agonizing moment Goldsworthy is crushed. But he collects himself.

“That’s the fourth,” he says. “The fourth collapse. And the tide is coming in. I think it would be better to wait. Oh, the moment when something collapses, it is intensely disappointing. And this is the fourth time it’s fallen, and each time I got to know the stone a little bit more, and it got higher each time, so it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone. And that is really one of the things my art is trying to do –- is trying to understand the stone. I obviously don’t understand it well enough … yet.”

Process is paramount. Many a creative aspirant is constantly reminded of this inspiriting truth. A true artist works wholeheartedly and faces failure willingly, devoted to an end that is often of no practical significance, striving simply to better understand the materials at hand. If the material resists, the artist seeks to glean the lessons in its resistance. The artist does this all in the faith that something beautiful, if gleamingly ephemeral, will come forth.

For those undertaking it, and for those witnessing it, there’s a message in work of this kind.


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