On Writing and Pottery

I’ve wanted to learn pottery since I got my first toy wheel when I was five, but I never learned to work an actual potter’s wheel until much, much later. Little did I know how valuable the lessons learned in pottery class would be to me as a professional writer, and as a person.

When you see someone throwing on the wheel , it just looks so easy, but it’s not. It takes time to get there. Before they let you work at the wheel, most pottery teachers make you learn hand building, so you get familiar with the clay. For the purpose of my writing analogy, think of it like learning to read and write, getting familiar with medium of words. Before I actually got to the potter’s wheel, I took a couple of courses of hand building, and my work was lumpy enough to make me want to give up altogether. But I persevered.

Then when I finally got to work on the wheel, I thought, “Wow. It’s going to be fun now.” Little did I know that, at first, you spend hours just learning how to center the clay on that metal wheel. And that’s just so it doesn’t fly across the room when you press the pedal that makes it go. Never mind making the clay into an actual shape. Rest assured, there’s at least a dozen nuances there that I’m not getting into.

Once I got the clay onto the wheel, it took me two classes just to get the clay to make a symmetrical shape. For a writer, this is akin to knowing how to write. In fiction, it’s like getting to know your characters and centering them in their world. The character is the clay, and the character’s world is the potter’s wheel. Everything relies on how well centered that piece of clay is on that wheel, just like everything about the characters and their world has to be solid and well-balanced.

In pottery, it can be easy at first, while your muscles are still getting used to the clay, to throw that little lump off balance. But you persevere, straining, as your hands grow stronger, your fingers more adept, until that little lump becomes cylindrical. With writing, the actions and words of your main character, your character’s voice, can so easily throw that character off balance too.

I could go on for hours about the ways I have learned that pottery and writing are similar, but I wanted to express what I think is the most important similarity: knowing when to scrap something. This is where writing is like pottery.

Let’s say you learn to throw a bowl on the wheel. First, you must prepare the clay. To do this, you wedge it on a table or hard surface to get out as many air bubbles as you can. This is akin to knowing what you want your story to be about, your research.

Next, you center the clay, which takes a long time to learn. Then, when it’s centered, you open it and form the bowl. Then you remove it from the wheel. The first time I got this far, I was amazed. It was hours and hours of work. Little air bubbles can so easily get in the way and prevent the bowl from even finishing.

Then you wait for the clay to become hard enough to trim (“leather hard”). Once it’s trimmed, you bisque fire it. Then you glaze it and fire it again. And ta-da, you have a bowl.

The part most people don’t know is how many things can go wrong. Even after throwing that bowl, you can wreck it when you try to take it off the wheel. If someone bumps it while it’s waiting to dry, it can get ruined. You can over-trim it and ruin it there. If there was an air pocket, it can explode in the bisque firing stage. Or, a bad glazing job can ruin all your work so far.

So, the lesson I learned from pottery is detachment. Nothing like having to throw out a bowl because the glazing went wrong. You can either learn to let go of your work, or give up. I chose to learn to let go.

The same, could be said for writing. Scenes, pages of description, hours of work could all be scrapped. In fact, some of it must be scrapped in order to make a better piece of work. Leaving in those extra bits can be like leaving an air bubble in the clay that could destroy the whole piece.

Fortunately, words are a much more flexible medium than clay. It’s never too late to get help or rework you words, story ideas, character development, voice, and so on. The key is to keep learning, let things go, and never give up.

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