by Amy Weldon
Tucked away on a side street in our little Iowa town—between the cemetery-monuments shop and the local supermarket with fir trees, pumpkins, or tomato seedlings lined up outside according to the season—is a room with rough brick walls and a sagging board floor. A paint-splattered iPod plays Valerie June, a worn DeWalt drill with a mixing bit whirls the sludge of glazes up from the bottom of their buckets, and three electric pottery wheels hunker in front of kitchen chairs. My name’s in a book here, scribbled with pencil next to the phone and the drawers of trimming tools. I pay for studio time, even when I don’t get to use it, because here I am not a teacher drawing a shy student into words or a writer agonizing over what’s next or someone who has to set agendas and run meetings. I’m just here to make something, like the children whose mud animals wait to be carried home and set on dressers to watch over their beds in the dark. I’m a woman in a t-shirt and clay-smeared jeans of whom nothing is expected, not even by herself.
Two years ago, I walked into a pottery studio for the first time. On sabbatical for a semester, I was eager to explore a nagging question: when was the last time I did something for the first time? I was 38 then, just having submitted my first novel to a publisher and recently been awarded tenure. But as a creative writing teacher, you can never get complacent, and you can never stop practicing writing yourself. I work with nervous students, helping them to gain confidence, to see themselves as artists, and to get comfortable with the discomfort this process can bring. I can teach revision and deeper imagining of character and detail because I do it myself. I can talk students through uncertainty and fear because I know them too. Therefore, a teacher (like any artist, or person) who she thinks she knows everything has shut herself down in big ways. I needed to keep myself reminded of what it feels like to be learning something you are excited about but not sure you can master, in a medium that feels both inviting (earth, clay, which can turn velvety or rough depending on the water or warmth of your hands) and unfamiliar (it has its own needs and physics—it’s either centered or not.) What would it be like to try another form of art, unsure of what I’d get or whether I’d get anything at all? It was time to learn what I didn’t know.
Technically, I had worked with clay before. In our Alabama childhood, my sister and I were crafty girls. Hunkered next to a little creek that filled up only when it rained, we’d pry slick, jagged chunks of clay out of the side of the bank and work them into pots: pat them round and drop the centers with our thumbs, or roll long coils and wind them up. Sometimes we pressed pebbles into them, jeweling them like goblets for queens; sometimes the drying clay gripped the jewel and sometimes it loosened to drop the stone like a tooth. As with drawings, as with paper dolls, as with pokeberries crushed and painted on our fingernails, we could never be sure what our materials would do. And learning both to manipulate and trust your materials—to discover something in and because of them—is the point. “At last I can paint like a child!” Picasso is said to have rejoiced when he experienced, in his 70s, the freedom so many Bloom-ers know—the freedom to move and speak and be oneself as one ages. There is a type of innocence that is also deliberate in craft, the cheerful refusal to let what Anne Lamott calls the “mouse voices” of doubt stop you from expressing what is in you. And this is what we work to discover and maintain—even as successful professionals, even as professors whose subject area is supposedly creative. We get to a point of recycling our own shtick. We need to jump that track and let ourselves be surprised.
So 30 years later, there I sat, in our on-campus pottery studio, in rolled-up jeans and t-shirt, among the students: I’m here to learn, I told them, just like you. As a writer, writing teacher, and Iyengar yoga student, I thought I’d learned the truths of doing and making: don’t expect perfection, don’t overthink, concentrate and let the material take shape in front of you. Use your body to listen and adjust. Take another run at it. Change takes place over time, sometimes a lot of time. Any amount of forward motion, in the place where you are now, counts as progress, and that’s okay. That’s reality.
And that’s easier said than done. At first, shucking off my professor identity felt easy. But then preening self-awareness crept in. I congratulated myself on accepting the fingermarks along the bottom of my handbuilt bowl, smoothed the breast of my little bird figure, hoped for our teacher to pause at my workspace and praise me—this is the best! I stayed late on the first day to throw what turned out to be a nice, chunky little vessel somewhere between a pitcher and a bowl, with a plump bottom and poked-out lip. Next stop—I congratulated myself—would be mastery!
Yet by the end of the second day I was stuck. Over and over I centered the clay on the wheel and pressed my thumbs down and watched dumbly as the clay wobbled and the sides unfurled. I cussed. I took another run at it. But the more I thought about how to drop the notch of my thumb and finger along the rim, how to pull up the spinning clay, how to fetch more water on my fingers without tugging the nascent shape out of line, the less I could do anything. I clenched my toes against the pedal: like a car, a potter’s wheel accelerates when you lower your foot. “Maybe ease up on the gas a little,” my teacher offered. But by then the pot was too far gone, thrown out of line by my own anxious speed. (Centrifugally, you can sling an unbalanced pot further out of balance; sometimes it peels itself off the wheel and splats against the wall.) The frustration lingered. I have a $%^*g PhD and I can’t do this?
And then another disappointment came to roost. On the morning of my 38th birthday, at the beginning of my sabbatical, a package dropped onto my porch: my novel manuscript had been returned, with the kindest and most encouraging letter any writer could hope for from the editor I’d been working with over two drafts. I have to comment again on your marvelous writing, she wrote, your amazing sense of rhythm in your sentences, the palpable feel of this place. But still—she said no. Four years of work, come to what felt in that moment like nothing.
That afternoon, trying to put the novel out of my mind, I drove to a 19th-century Lutheran church at the edge of a cornfield to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 in the wedding of two of my dearest former students. Wind tossed the wildflowers in the ditches. Their friends played guitar and handed out programs. Standing at the altar I looked down into their eyes, trying not to cry. Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments . . .
All the loud hurt in my blood receded. I thought about the times I’ve come near that altar myself, the strength of the love of parents and sisters and brothers and friends, the way the world twisted around me as I moved through my 20s and 30s, the way my plans have and haven’t worked out, the way my writing has broken my heart and brought me back to it, the gratefulness I feel for every single year. Grateful? I am. As hard as disappointment felt when I was pressed against it, as keenly as emotion bit into me, wry and deep and wrenching, I am grateful. And I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.
The next day, I centered and threw my first successful bowls: thick-walled, crude-bottomed, wobbly, but recognizable. When I set them in the window to dry, I noticed they were accidentally right—three sizes all in a line, all slanting up and to the right. Ascending bowls. Hollow vessels, equally exposed, inside and out. But always leaning up.
I kept working and got better. The vessel walls got thinner, the shapes more centered and even. But increasingly, there was no self-congratulation, only equanimity: only the desire for hands in clay. I just wanted to sit at that wheel and let my hands see if they could feel a shape before my mind knew what it was. And they did. They only wanted to touch this material and see what was there. Pretty soon I could sit down and make something that never existed before. And the less I plotted in advance, the better the finished piece would be.
And the better my failures were, too. Lifting one of the drying bowls to paint it with red oxide powder, I snapped a chunk out of the rim. But it was all right. I dropped the bowl in the scrap-clay bin, to be recycled at the end of the semester. There will always be more to come along behind the broken, the rejected, the disappointing ones. There will always be more, so it’s OK not to clutch at what is necessarily impermanent. And everything in your life changes when you recognize this fact.
Pottery becomes metaphor almost too easily. Geologically, clay stores light, holding energy deep in the particulate scales that are broken and released into new shapes by your own working hands. It softens as it’s worked, taking on a life of its own when worked by a living body. And it shows you what is actually going on in bodies—yours and its—as opposed to what you think is going on. If you aren’t wedging your clay right—working up and softening it to the right degree before you smack it onto the wheel and dip your hands in the water and cup them around the lump and lower your foot to start to spin and center—you are leaving air bubbles or hardened bumps that will keep your clay from centering and misshape your pot from birth. If you aren’t both centering and drawing up the walls of your bowl at the right rate, you create an uneven rim that will pull the whole thing out of line. If you start with too big a chunk of clay, you’ll struggle to wedge and center it, leaning into aching hands, wetting and wetting until handfuls of your $25-a-bag clay are sludge in the bottom of your water bowl and the stubborn shrinking lump stuck to the wheel still won’t center.
You can fake-fix your uneven rims by pretending you meant to make a pitcher or a wide-rimmed bowl all along and tilting the weak thin spot sideways into a little vessel-lip. You can attach a handle to a mug by stretching a wet tube of clay down off the side (exactly like stripping a cow’s teat–hilarious for Iowa potters) and discover only afterwards that you have made a mug with a crooked handle that will fling hot coffee down its user’s neck like the Bellows Feeding Machine dashing soup at Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” At such times you develop a sneaking sympathy for students’ struggles with words, the frustration, the attempts to shoehorn information where it won’t quite go (expository dialogue, anyone?). You can try so hard and it still just won’t work. And for your teacher and the other students, it all looks so easy. What are you—only you—doing wrong?
But when pottery-making does work, it’s magic. Suddenly the walls of a vessel stretch straight up as you draw your thumb and fingers up with the clay, spinning at just the right speed, excited, hardly daring to breathe. You learn tricks, like scraping a curved tool against the inside of a bowl or vase to stretch it further and fill it with air. You learn the alchemy of glazes, the chemicals and silica that under high heat turn glossy, shiny, and surprisingly tough. And you learn so much that is just plain cool. Bowls, for instance, are shaved into those perfect curved shapes with the little feet when the clay is still damp; you turn the bowl upside down, set a curved knife against the clay, and press gently, the piles of gray shavings growing just like wood, until you get the shape you want (and you learn eventually to tell by touching the bowl how thick it is). You can hold your needle-tool like a pen—to scratch your initials into the bottom or to run up and down along the outside of a damp bowl turning slowly on your wheel (to make a pattern of curved lines.) And you learn (the hard way) when to leave it alone. Using something you’ve made is awesome. So is seeing yourself get better with time.
I’m no writer and no writing teacher if not immersed in craft, trying and failing and being humbled, rewired into a combination of beginner’s- and experienced-traveler’s-mind, all the time: reminded that I’m really just another writer on the path, with these people alongside me. The practice of hands working material rewires the body, and the body and the brain learn to listen to something besides themselves. They learn to be responsive to reality. It will or will not crack, gel, bend, or break. It is or isn’t there. You can or can’t make it what you wish it was.
Paying attention, in body and mind, means letting reality nudge your internal clamorings and agendas aside so that you can hear it, feel it, and see it speak—literally letting the physical world, in the words of French poet Francis Ponge, “disarrange” you. “Ponge advocated a manner of regarding the world’s constituents,” says writer Trebbe Johnson, “not as inferiors that we must somehow corral for our use and understanding, but as equals capable of startling us with the marvel of their particular selfhood.”
This is the simple truth on which you can build a life of spirit and art that feed one another. So much of the suffering we cause ourselves and others—anxiety, jealousy, anger, which harden into rigid internal molds we try to press experience into—can be eased by accepting the truth that the world is not built to serve us, that we are here to learn, again and again, it’s not about me. The world is conversation that happens through doing and seeing and understanding and thinking as well as through speech, always remaking us and disarranging us. “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake,” says the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, “is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Disarranged, nudged aside to make room for what else there is, which we are continually invited to see and to see again. How rich our lives can be if we really consider this, and how simple our relationships to our selves, constantly formed and reformed like clay on its spinning wheel. And how different the art we make, and our treatment of everything else in creation, can become.
A native Alabamian, Amy Weldon is currently associate professor of English at Luther College. Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, Keats-Shelley Journal,The Carolina Quarterly, and many others. She blogs on sustainability, spirit, and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.
Amy Weldon’s writing on Bloom: Private Lives, Artful Truths: Joan Chase’s Midwestern Eden, Collateral Gifts: The Poetry and Journey of Spencer Reece, Diana Athill: The Sufficient Self, Growing Into Compassion: On Anna Sewell and Black Beauty, Abigail Thomas: Accidentally Deliberate