Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sent to the Pottery Wheel for a Writing Lesson

I took one pottery class 23 years ago. This was about the same time "Ghost" came out in theaters, and Demi Moore's character made pot-throwing look so easy I expected to sit down and turn an ugly lump of clay into a stunning creation on my first try. We spent weeks making kindergarten-esque coil pots and slab boxes before we were allowed to even touch the wheels.
A more experienced fellow student formed what I thought was a beautiful creation. To my horror, our instructor sliced it in half with his clay-cutting wire (it's basically a garotte, but for clay), and proceeded to point out all the internal errors and imperfections—the base was too thick, the walls were too thin, there were air pockets in the clay, and so forth.

When my turn came, I wanted to hover over my little misshapen pot like a broody hen, guarding it from the teacher's scrutiny. No such luck. Slice. I cried on my way home. But my next attempt was better. And by the end of the semester, I'd managed to create this:

OK, I'll be honest. It didn't start out as a toothpick holder. For a few brief seconds on the wheel, it was a lovely vase with an hourglass shape. Then the top half detached under excessive pressure from my unskilled hands. I didn't care. I just wanted to finish SOMETHING. The end of that class was the end of my pottery play, well, except for Play-Doh creations with my kids.

The last year or so has been a creative battle for me. Major life changes and the stress they bring seemed to blow the breaker on my creativity. I haven't been able to finish any of my writing projects to my satisfaction. I've started multiple manuscripts, then abandoned them in various stages. I've gone weeks at a time without adding, editing, or revising a single story. As most creative types know, this type of blockage is not conducive to mental, emotional, relational, or spiritual health, and when you feel like God has called you write, it causes major guilt and shame issues. 

Frustrated, I found myself crying out to God almost daily, "Lord, please help me write something today." A month or so ago, he sent me to the greenhouse (my version of the woodshed?) and said, "order clay." Huh?

Let me explain. One of the changes my parents made to this house while we were away planting and pastoring a church was the addition of a greenhouse on the back of the garage, and this... 

Purchased or adopted, I'm not sure which. Or why. Neither of my parents are into pottery. And so this relic (from the very college I attended) has sat silent and still for the last decade or so, covered in a tarp and home to a number of creepy-looking spiders.
I hate this part.
I ordered clay, and my very own little garotte; looked up some YouTube instructions to refresh my memory; plugged in the behemoth and sat down at the wheel. The process, I realized immediately, is remarkably similar to the work of writing. 

1. Lump of clay = story idea.

No, I don't know what I'm doing.
2. Idea/lump must be massaged and kneaded and "wedged" until it's smooth and pliable and free of empty air pockets and holes. This process seems to take FOREVER, but it's essential for the future success of the project. 

But it seemed so smooth and even!
3. Throw the ball of clay onto the center of the wheel. The clay/idea must be centered if it's going to have the right shape and attain any height. Again, this part seems to take an eternity, and this is where things get messy. Water reduces the friction between your hands and clay, smoothing out the lumps and forming an image. Water, in my mind, is like the addition of characters and settings to the idea, fleshing out the story idea so it can take shape. Add too much water and you have the equivalent of "purple prose" — everything within a six-foot radius will be splattered with the excess.  

4. Once the lump/idea is successfully centered (which takes me several attempts) you can start pulling and drawing the clay up and out into the desired shape and size. This, I think, may be where plotters and pantsers differ, I think. Plotters know what they're making when they start. Pantsers just turn on the wheel and go from there. Both are valid, both have their problems and weaknesses.

5. If you get off on a tangent and don't pay attention to the foundation (e.g. plot), bad things happen. The story/idea falls apart, occasionally flinging itself right off the wheel and into the dirt, or flattening back out into a lumpy, useless disk. Think "sagging middles" and "flat stories."

6. Everything looks really good when the wheel is turning. But when it stops all the imperfections become painfully obvious. This, I think, is where the editing/critiquing/revising process kicks in. Be aware, it's still possible for the entire thing to fall completely apart at this point, so be careful. 

7. Once it's as close as it can be to where you want it, you're supposed to let your creation sit and dry for a few days before it is ready for the kiln and glazing, which are, perhaps, akin to the process of publication and the fires of public scrutiny? I haven't gotten that far yet, but I'll let you know how that part of the analogy holds up when I do. (Note that little statement of faith, there!)

I'm spending a little time with the clay every day now. I have no ambition to create a set of dishes or anything, it's just a kind of therapy, time for me to mull over the creative process. It's helping me to realize that those beginning steps and phases are just as — if not more important — than throwing an idea on the wheel with no preparation, no planning, and no purpose. Interestingly, the parts of the pot-throwing process I dislike the most correlate directly to the parts of the writing process I dislike the most. Hmm. Food for thought.

It's also a reminder for us all in our walks with God, wherever we may be in the process of "working out our salvation," of this:  
"The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord:
Arise and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.
Then I went down to the potter's house, and behold, he was working at the wheel.
And the vessel that he was making from clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he made it over, reworking it into another vessel as it seemed good to the potter to make it.
Then the word of the Lord came to me:
O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? says the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel."
Jeremiah 18:1-6 Amplified
You might feel spoiled, ruined, or wiped out, but take heart! God can make you over, rework you into a new vessel for His purpose, His place, His desire. He won't give up on you, don't give up on yourself. Just as the potter with the clay, or the writer with the story idea, there is power in every step of the process. Don't get discouraged, just keep at it. 

By the way, I've made more writing progress in the last month than I have in the last year, so if you've been struggling creatively and have a notion to go buy clay, or yarn, or a box of watercolor paints, tune in your spiritual ears and see what the Creator wants to show you about YOUR creative process! 

 Niki Turner is a writer, former pastor's wife, mother of four, and grandmother of two. She has thus far been unsuccessful at coming up with catchy taglines for her writing, her purpose in life, or what she hopes to achieve in the future. Suggestions are welcome.


  1. I'm thrilled to hear about your writing. I absolutely agree we are born in our father's image. Creative beings and if we learned to express it and didn't squash it then it is a part of us tied into all aspects of our well being.

  2. That's really cool, Niki. In my workshop that I'm teaching this week, I refer to the initial inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and even that messy first draft, as a lump of clay that has to be shaped and molded. I actually had a picture of a potter on my conference teaching one sheet for a while, before it got crowded out my words :)

  3. Cool, Dina! I love how God shows us things, and then confirms them through someone else!

  4. Deb, my cousin-in-law and I were talking about this subject at Thanksgiving. She'd been out of the studio for a few months because of family issues. We were both irritable, frustrated, touchy, and marginally depressed. Creativity demands an outlet!

  5. Yeah, I have to make something all the time whether it's a story or a quilt or a cross stitch picture. I just hate it when poopy real life gets in the way. ;)

  6. Cool post, Niki! I'm going to take this lesson to heart and try something else creative...

    I am so impressed by your pottery skills and by how much you've accomplished with your writing. Very nice!

  7. Neat analogy Niki. And I am so happy to hear that your creative mojo is reasserting itself. I hope that the words soon flow effortlessly, and that you are energized rather than debilitated or deflated by the prospect.

  8. Potting takes a lot of strength in the arms, hands and back. It's not for sissies. I'm a bit jealous of your wheel!

  9. DeAnna, that's funny! My daughter is a crocheter, and she gets so frustrated when she has to stop to do something, like chase children!

    Thanks Susie, let me know what you try out! Haha... I didn't post the picture of the big lump of clay in the dirt on the floor. :)

    Thank you, Lisa! That's what I'm hoping, too.

    Deb, it's SOOOO old and slightly rusty, and it's electrical parts are a big scary, but I'm liking it. When you come visit someday for a break on one of your multinational book tours your can play with it all you like!

  10. Wow, Niki. I'm impressed. I can't believe the way you related this to the writing process. Oh. Wait. This is Niki. Yes, I can I always learn something from her! This is great. Thanks, Niki!I need to get iout those knitting needles.

  11. Suzie! You knit??? I am in awe of anyone who can create stuff from yarn. Get those needles out and get busy, girl!

  12. I don't know if I'm good at it, but it's very relaxing. I have to lock myself away, because Naughty Kitty tries to mess everything up.

  13. multinational works because, hey, I live pretty close to the border. ha ha.

    The whole thing fascinates me, I admit. Even where the clay comes from.

    So, you'll have to show us your pottery once in awhile!


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