Modern Work

How Being Bad At Ceramics Made Me A Better Writer

I’m primarily a writer, but in 2015, on a whim, I take a ceramics class. I haven’t messed with clay since grade school, but all my friends are doing it; ceramics have become the hot new art craze and a welcome respite from all that is high tech and polished. The idea of a creative practice that doesn’t involve looking at a screen sounds vastly appealing.

My first bowl

For our first project, we’re making a simple vessel. Bowl or cup—thrower’s choice. I pick a bowl. In my head, I’m picturing your standard soup or cereal-bowl size bowl, gently curving up and entirely symmetrical. Pretty basic right? 

Well, no surprise, but throwing a pot on a wheel is a lot harder than it looks. 

For one, it’s physically demanding. Do it enough, and you’ll feel it in your arms, core, neck and even your legs. It also requires complete mental focus if you don’t want the clay to fly off the wheel or collapse mid-turn. You must also recognize that clay is its own thing. You can’t force it to do something it doesn’t want to do. 

a slightly misshapen tea pot

I spend the next two hours working on this single bowl. It’s not easy. And at the end of that two hours, I end up with a bowl…in theory. But in reality, it’s more like a circular doorstop with an indentation just big enough for a kitten to eat out of. Because the class, it turns out, isn’t so much a lesson in making pottery as it is in letting go of expectations. That bowl I envisioned? It did not materialize under my hands.

Nonetheless, when I went back to pick up the glazed and fired piece three weeks later, I felt oddly proud. I’d made this: a tangible, visible object. It had weight. I liked running my fingertips across the glassy smoothness that barely muted the satisfying, rough grain underneath. I wanted more. So I signed up for another class. A few weeks later, I make a bowl big enough and deep enough to fit a small peach! 

a group of bowls, one of them is holding a peach

The nice thing about ceramics is that it’s a finite process. Once you’re finished making it, once it’s glazed and fired, that’s it. You can’t fuss with it anymore. It’s done. 

In contrast, writing projects can stretch out with no end in sight. I’m sure if deadlines didn’t exist a writer could keep working on that same paragraph over and over again. Which is exactly the case with a novel I’d been writing. I was fifty pages in, but I couldn’t stop revisiting those first few paragraphs. 

A few more classes and I sign on for a studio membership so I can go whenever I want 24 hours a day. And I go a lot. Over the next two years, I spend a solid 20 hours a week—pretty much all my free time outside of work—in the studio. I work my way up to mugs and handles. I experiment with different techniques like coil building and slab rolling. I explore other shapes. And toward the end of those two years, it finally feels like my pieces reflect a unique aesthetic sensibility that’s my own. I can more closely translate what’s in my head to come out of my hands. Pottery has become more than a side hobby: it’s become a separate creative practice.

Lessons from my creative practice

Of course, the good and bad thing about ceramics is if you want to keep making new work, you have to get rid of the old work. There’s only so much space in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. As such, I’ve kept only a few pieces for myself. Most are given away as gifts or sold off at ceramic sales. Which seems to only reinforce the idea of letting go. To make room for what’s next.

a vase that looks like a torso

Meanwhile, because writing is what I do for a living, it felt natural to fall into this idea that all writing should come easily. So I was super harsh and judge-y about my book. Why was it taking so long to finish? Why did it sound clunky? Cue the frustration and another fridge check. What’s easy to do also becomes easy to not do. 

Think like a beginner

The idea of “beginner’s mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. Ceramics taught me how to get back into it. The beginner’s mind is about being curious and open instead of worried and prejudiced. This mindset is about being comfortable in the state of process, working in the present instead of tunnel-visioned on the outcome. It felt liberating to approach writing in this frame of mind. I set judgment aside and let the words fall where they may. In the words of Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” 

Give yourself permission to play

Ceramics also reminded me that it was okay to play. I gave myself permission to try out different styles and stay open to wherever the process might take me without fear that it wasn’t the “right” way.

a group of vases that looks like torsos

In an era where it seems every human action must be monetized, it can be tough to justify a creative endeavor that doesn’t generate a paycheck. I couldn’t totally rationalize the time and expense I put into ceramics, but it nourished my soul in a way that writing had not.

Put in the time

And I did put in the hours. I committed to ceramics and made it a priority in my life. When I get to a point in my writing where I’m feeling frustrated, I can remind myself that it’s not about perfection, it’s about putting in the time. 

And ultimately, ceramics nourished my writing. I found the tactile, physical nature of working with clay both humbling and restorative. It rooted me back to the earth. It was exactly the opposite of the way a screen allows you  to escape from it. No wonder it’s one of humanity’s oldest art forms. I feel grateful for the lessons it taught me. 

Do you have a creative practice that informs your main practice? 

July 15, 2020