Going to Pot

Gina Bacon is a journalist by training, a novelist in her dreams and a humorist at heart. She makes her home in Camas, Wash. with her husband and two sons.


After listening to me lament about the difficulty of improving my fiction writing skills, a writing instructor suggested that writers need to learn to let go of their work more often. She likened the craft of writing to making pottery. "This is like any other craft - the more pots a potter makes and throws away with flaws, the more likely she is to eventually create a really great pot," she said.

She's right, of course. Those of us who call ourselves writers all know we need more practice. And we most certainly are "asking for it" when we torture ourselves with writing exercises and critique sessions. Like potters, we should think less and get our hands dirty more.

All this talk of writers needing to be more like potters got me thinking about what would happen to the poor potters if they went about their art as crazily as we writers, driven to drink and the brink of madness by a penchant for suffering and drama. After all, who's ever heard of "potter's block?" It's not a pretty picture.

The Potter's Critique Group

Instructor: Before we critique the first piece, let's get warmed up with a pottery exercise. I'm going to say a word, and then I want you to create the first thing that comes to mind until I say stop. Don't worry. It doesn't have to look like anything. We're only making shards here. The idea is that you're simply creating. O.K. is everyone ready? Get your hands on the clay. Brazil. Go!

The scene: Wheels are turning. The potters are grimacing at the wet lumps of clay before them. The instructor is admiring the glaze on a pot of her own sitting in front of her that was once displayed at the Guggenheim in New York. One potter looks frustrated and is poking little holes into the surface of his smashed clay with his pinkie.

Instructor: One more minute.

O.K. Stop. How did that feel? Would anyone like to share their shard? Alex, show us what you did with Braaazeeel!

Potter Alex: Well, uh, that was a really fun exercise, but I didn't get very far. Brazil makes me think of folk chickens and uh this shard (holds up a small pointed triangle of clay) represents the beak of a Brazilian clay folk chicken.

Instructor: Wonderful! Lisa, how about your shard?

Potter Lisa: When you said the word Brazil, it brought back the memory of this time, right after I ended a bad relationship, I mean he just literally walked away from an eight-year commitment, that I had dinner at a Mexican restaurant - not Brazil, but close enough - with this guy I met on the Internet and I was trying to put my life back together, find love again, you know, but that night I saw my date's picture on America's Most Wanted and now he's in jail and it was really scary, I mean, I feared for my life and I thought how could this be happening to me? So this (she carefully picks up a heart-shaped piece of clay with a chunk out of one corner sitting atop a small round base) is like, everything I was feeling. Wow (getting emotional) this is really intense.

Instructor: Look at Lisa's shard everyone. That is nearly a finished piece. It is actually more than a shard. She went with her gut and this is what can happen. Look at the emotion in that piece, the chipped out corner of the heart's edge. Lisa, you are really close with this. I think you really have the start to something here. With just a little bit of glaze, you could have a complete ashtray!

Nice work everyone. Now we're ready to critique the first piece. Who brought something this week? Joe - did you bring yours?

Potter Joe: I couldn't decide what to bring. It was hard, you know. I'm new at this and nervous about exposing myself this way. Anyway, I brought this piece I made for my mom. It's supposed to be a vase.

Instructor: Great, Joe. Don't worry. We're all in this together, right? I mean, I never thought I'd ever have anything in the Guggenheim and one day I did and I realized, I've found my hands! I'm a potter! But it wasn't easy. And it didn't happen overnight. O.K. pass Joe's piece around. Take a close look everyone and make a few notes, then we'll discuss it.

Scene: Joe sends his "pot," a small, thick unglazed vase-shaped piece with a large bottom and a thin neck. Joe sits nervously, rolling the "shard" he made in the exercise between his hands.

Instructor: Who wants to comment first? Kim?

Potter Kim: I love this piece, Joe. It's just beautiful - very elegant. The lines are very feminine and beautiful. I really like it a lot. Maybe you could help me make one for my mom!

Potter Jill Marie: Well I'll just jump right in. I agree, it is elegant. But I do see a problem in that there isn't an opening. Can we really call it a vase?

Instructor: That's a really good point Jill Marie. It could be a bookend or maybe even just a decoration, but we really shouldn't call it a vase because a vase is defined as an "open container." Since there isn't an opening, we can't really call this a vase, Joe. But you're very, very close. Don't give up!

Who's next? Lisa, did you bring something?

Potter Lisa: Yes, I brought a finished piece. It's modeled after a traditional African soup bowl. I'd like to know how it makes you feel when you first look at it. I'm not sure about the interior glaze. I think the color I chose might lead one to believe it was meant for salad and not soup.

Instructor: I'd like everyone to think about Lisa's questions while looking at her piece.
Scene: Lisa's piece is passed around the room. She smiles confidently, but is bouncing one leg up and down while the class examines her bowl.

Instructor: Comments?

Potter Joe: The shape is very nice. I've always wanted to be able to make a bowl. The glaze makes me think "salad" because it's green, but if it had soup in it, I don't think I would question it at all.

Instructor: Thanks Joe. You're exactly right about the green glaze. I think salad, too. But this is art after all. Your job is to discover the right color for your bowl, not choose the best color for salad. Remember, the pottery knows what glaze it wants!

Potter Kim: This is a gorgeous bowl, but I really think it needs a matching plate.

Potter Lisa: O.K., I could add a plate, but how do you know when it's time to stop? I mean, I could make a plate, then a cup, which would need a saucer. It could just go on and on forever.

Instructor: We're just about out of time. I want you all to do one exercise at home between now and the next class. Find a quiet place. Set aside one hour. Light a candle, some incense. Put your hand to the clay and create a piece that details a day in your life as you are right now. Who are you? If you were a pottery exhibition, who would have created you? Turn the clay for 45 minutes without stopping. I want you to bring the piece with you to class and we'll talk about what you learned about the pot you are and the pot you really want to be.

Have a great week! We all seek to find our potter's hands. Remember: your hands will find you - usually when and where you least expect them!

The End


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