Three Writing Lessons From a Potter’s Wheel

I went to Portland last weekend, with a commitment to enjoy exploring the city, and to enjoy the amenities of my Airbnb.

One of the reasons that I chose the city is because of its convenient access to certified gluten-free bars and restaurants (something that we Coeliacs are hard pressed to find in Los Angeles). Another reason that I settled on it was the Airbnb I found.

The listing: Potter’s Cottage with Hot Tub.

For years I’ve been meaning to get to a pottery lesson, to throw clay on the wheel, make a vase. Here was my chance.

Throw a hot tub in there, and I’m sold.

But one thing that I learned is that pottery is a lot like writing.

1 – The Clay Must Be Centered

After kneading the air bubbles out of the clay, in order to work with it on the wheel, the first thing you must do is center the clay. This means using your hands to keep the clay in place while the wheel is spinning, in order to make it a perfect or near-perfect circle.

Once centered, you can lift the clay, to either make a cylindrical shape, like a vase or cup, or a flat open shape, like a bowl.

The owner of the property who gave us the lessons made it look so easy, and centered his clay within the first thirty seconds.

I spent about an hour trying to get this done, and the best I got was “that’s really close!”

If you try to lift the clay before its centered, its asymmetry becomes magnified, and the bowl or pot ends up a really funky shape and just doesn’t work.

This is how crafting a story goes. Sometimes the story is centered immediately, you have that idea in your head, in your heart, and you can lift it up and make it into that perfect story. Other times you need to work hard, and take time to center it, to get all of the wobbles out of it. And if you don’t, it just won’t work. (See: On Writing the Same Book Four Times)

2 – Keep Your Hands Locked

The force of the wheel wants to throw the clay off of it. If you just slap clay down on the wheel and start it spinning, eventually that will happen.

To prevent this, your hands must be locked and steady, holding the clay in place while you work it. Sometimes this means a tremendous application of force. Sometimes this means a very light and guiding touch. It depends on where the clay is.

With writing, stories and ideas (mine at least) have a tendency to spiral out of control, or to quickly become unwieldy. Sometimes the correct answer is applying great force, or making a rigid outline and sticking to it. Sometimes the answer is using a very light and guiding touch, simply answering the next question and moving on.

Either way, as I work the story, I must stay diligent and persevere. If I don’t, the inertia of the story will make it spin out of control.

3 – Keep Your Hands Clean

Pottery is messy. Bits of wet clay fly everywhere while working the wheel. An apron can only do so much to defend against it. (My stained jeans are a testament to this.)

And as you center and lift the clay it constantly scrapes off onto your hands, covering them in slimy streaks. This can cause the centering to get out of wack and ruin the integrity of the entire piece.

The answer is to slowly–but swiftly–remove your hands from the clay, slow down the wheel, wipe your hands with water and maybe a sponge, then slowly–but swiftly–get them back on the clay and speed up the wheel once more.

(It’s not too dissimilar from trying to tiptoe through a minefield while patting your head and rubbing your belly.)

When writing, and especially rewriting, the original ideas you have will begin to fly off everywhere. If you try to hold onto to these ideas, or let them collect in your hands as you try to write, you will eventually threaten the integrity of the entire piece. You must keep your hands clean, and work on the story that is centered.

As Sir Arthur Quiller-Coach wrote over a century ago, sometimes you must ‘murder your darlings.‘ Wipe away what isn’t working. Maybe you can keep them off to the side and work on them later. Maybe they can become the mug handle later, or perhaps a really cool bit of backstory.

But for now, let them go.

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