Writing Lessons From Ice Sculpting

This article is posted in Page2Print.


Imagine a block of ice. You take your chisel and hammer and you go to work, making small nicks and grooves. You know what it looks like, you just have to get there. The first thing you do is knock out the basic shape of the sculpture. We’ll say it’s a banana. You like bananas, right? It’s a damn banana.

That basic shape? That’s your outline. You just outlined how you’re going to carve a banana out of a block of ice.

The next step is to start making minute etches into the outline. This is where you refine the vision in your head with the jagged block of ice that looks vaguely like a phallus. If this was Chatroulette, the moment your sculpture resembles a penis, your viewer logs off. But this isn’t Chatroulette, it’s ice sculpting. The kids watching you sculpt giggle, the parents avert their children’s eyes. This isn’t safe for public consumption.

Because you aren’t done yet. Once you knock out the unnecessary bits, it starts to resemble the banana you had in your mind, but an ice banana needs details.

Congratulations, your ice banana looks something like a banana, but this is only your first draft. It’s time to go back and start refining the basic shape and structure of the banana.

Now it’s time to go back over it a zillion times making small changes and correcting errors you thought weren’t errors. You make tiny incisions, you craft details, you etch out the sides of the banana, lovingly construct the stem.You add bruises to the banana by shading the ice.

Oh, you cut too deep and now the entire thing is ruined?

Well, that’s where the metaphor falls apart, isn’t it.

Ice Sculpting has a more permanent punishment for being a bit too handy with that chisel, or chainsaw if you prefer. Or Scissorhands. You know, whatever floats your ice boat. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a fun parallel in the processes of writing/editing and sculpting ice.

What I take away from ice sculpting is its very visual sense of completeness, or lack thereof. When writing I sometimes feel this pressure to make the best possible sentences, the best possible story I can make on a first pass. Surely if I spend the time and make my first draft something special it’ll be that much better in the end, right?

Likely it’ll just never get done. Outlines and first drafts are for broad strokes. They’re for getting down the concept, and the structure, and the ideas. Just like an ice sculptor will spend her time planning the basic shape her sculpture will take before she begins cutting, a writer doesn’t need to focus on the minute details of her story, on the vasty descriptions, on the elegance of the prose, on any of that nonsense, until the sculpture has been roughed out to its end.


Anyone who has read more than a couple of my blog posts at this point probably recognizes that I’m fond of grand metaphors and hyperbolic similes in relating my personal writing craft and processes. This isn’t because I can’t come up with compelling arguments for my craft without resorting to literary tactics (I can’t); it’s because as a writer your job is to take lessons from everything you see, taste, touch, hear, smell, or any of those vague sixth senses that humans experience. Everything relates to everything else. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. Understanding how your writing relates to the much more visual arts will go such a very long way in helping you achieve your goals as a writer.

So get out there and start sculpting!

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