Writing Lessons Learned from Pottery Class

I have never been a craftsy person. Art has never been my strong suit. I am the only one in my family without childhood artwork on display in my parent's house, and in comparison to my sister, who can draw/paint/sculpt/knit/etc, my artistic ability is seriously elementary. As in, it's about as good as it was in elementary school.

Knowing (and accepting) this about myself, I nevertheless decided to take a pottery class a few months ago. I thought it might be fun to try something new, and especially to do something with my hands, since writing is so cerebral. I figured if I kept expectations low I would impress myself, and as it turns out, I did. Most of my pots and bowls turned out pretty lopsided, or of varying thicknesses, or in silly colors, but my best one (pictured above) isn't half bad. And not only did I come away with a cool-looking pot, as I progressed through the course, I learned a few lessons I'm trying to apply to my writing practices.

Lesson 1: Sometimes you just need to start over.

In order to retain a shape and have some structural stability, clay needs to strike a balance between being wet and dry. Too wet and it falls apart, while too dry and it's difficult to work with. The more you work the clay, the more moisture you need to introduce, and if you keep at it too long, it's going to collapse on you. There comes a point when your efforts become counterproductive, and you just need to grab some fresh clay and start over.

Lesson 2: But don't throw anything out.

That soggy mess of clay you dreamed would be a flower pot? It still can be. Given time and space to dry out, plus some diligent kneading, it will return to a state where it can be used again. The potential is still there -- you just need to be patient and come back to it when it's ready.

Lesson 3: Things out of your control will go wrong.

I made my first half-decent bowl in my third week of the class, and to say I was excited would be an understatement. It had turned out almost exactly the way I envisioned, and I was fantasizing about how perfect it would be for some mac 'n cheese. I even spent a good part of class adding fun texture to the outside. But when it came out of the kiln it was cracked right through, rendering it unusable. It was a bummer for sure, but sometimes shit happens, and there was nothing to do about it except try again.

Lesson 4: But there's always something to be learned.

My cracked bowl was my first real unusable piece, but I had plenty of other disappointments (to put it bluntly). Little bowls that wouldn't hold more than a handful of peanuts. Stout cups/pots/vessels that didn't seem useful at all. But while they may not have been much to look at, they allowed me to experiment with finishing touches, like textures, glaze, and underglaze. Better to mess around with that kind of stuff on a bowl I don't really care about, rather than the one I've pinned my hopes on.

Lesson 5: There's a process.

From start to finish, each piece took about four weeks. In week 1, I made the thing, by throwing it on the wheel. In week 2, I trimmed and slipped it. By week 3 it had been bisqued, and was ready for underglaze and glaze, and in week 4 it was fired and ready to come home. Each piece had to go through each stage, and there's no rushing things. Have patience, and keep moving the project forward.

Lesson 6: Practice, practice, practice.

In my first class I did everything wrong. I couldn't wedge, I couldn't center, I used too much water, I used the tools wrong, I put my hands in the wrong spot, etc. By the end of that class I had two little lopsided bowls and a huge pile of overworked clay. I even wrapped my bowls wrong that week, so that when they should have been ready for trimming in week 2, they were bone dry and unable to be trimmed. I quite literally did every single thing wrong in week 1.

But you know what? In week 2 I got a little better. My wedging improved because I kept having to start over. Same deal with my centering. By week 3 I'd learned how to use tools to better shape my bowls, and around week 4 or 5 I finally learned how to throw the walls of a piece upward to make it taller. I improved. Funny how practicing something makes you better at it.

I heard a story once about a pottery teacher who offered two prizes to his students: one prize for whoever made the best pot, and one prize for whoever made the most pots. Both prizes went to the same student.

While that story (perhaps better called a fable) may be a bit on the nose, it's nevertheless stuck with me. Your first work is never your best work, because your best work comes with practice. This is true of all things, including writing. Each week of my pottery class I made my best work yet, and each time I sit down to write a new story, it's my best work yet. That's not to say things go smoothly every time; one story may need more trimming than another, or require different tools, or may collapse in on itself and need to dry out before being reworked. Sometimes you might even lose a story altogether. But each story is a chance to improve my techniques, try a new shape, experiment with textures, or play around with colors, and that practice is what makes me better as a writer, so that time after time I produce better and better work. That's the most exciting part, I think. That this story is good but the next one will be great. That this one is great but the next one will be amazing.

That the best is always yet to come.