The Tao of Pots

There’s a story that goes like this:

There’s this college art professor. I don’t know what college and I don’t know what kind of art, except the assignment is to make pots, so…ceramics? Pottery? Ghost appreciation? I don’t know, I didn’t take any art classes in college. Unless you count writing, which most people don’t, I guess it’s a craft, which… whatever, you know? What’s the actual difference between an art and a craft? It’s all creativity. Anyway, I don’t know what kind of college art class would involve making pots, so if you do, go ahead and comment and tell me. Or don’t. I’m not your supervisor.

So, college-level Making Pots class. And on the first day, the professor splits the class down the middle.

I mean, the first day of class in most 101-level classes is syllabus and ice breaker exercises. We all hated those ice breaker things, right? Like, “Tell us two truths and a lie and we’ll pick out the lie!” But then you spent so much time obsessing over what your two truths and a lie were going to be that you didn’t even pay attention to anyone else, and then after you went you obsessed so hard about how well you did that you still didn’t listen to anyone. These ice breakers were only exercises in social anxiety and I hated every one of them. If I could have, I would have gotten up and walked out. I did that for a lot of ‘okay, lets break up into groups!’ scenarios in college. When everyone else was moving around, I was moving out the front door. I’m paying you to teach me, not Bud from Gator Farts, Florida, so if you don’t want to do that I’m going to leave and go down to the Student Union and get a footlong from Subway and eat the whole thing and never have to worry about it because I literally have the metabolism of a twenty year old.

So, on the second day of class, the professor splits everyone into two groups.

(If you’re expecting me to go on a side rant describing the professor using classic art professor stereotypes, you are shit out of luck. As I said, I didn’t take any art classes in college, so I didn’t run into them enough to make any sort of judgment. Fill in your own takes as you see fit.)

Half the class is going to be graded on the amount of pots they make. They just need to be churning out pots, day and night, as fast as they can, and the more pounds of pots they make the better their grade. Big pots? Little pots? Fancy pots? Plain pots? Polka dot pots? Piss pots? Small pots? Chicken pots? A big honking YES to all of that, and more. Whatever kind of pots these kids want to make is fucking go. Just makes pots, that’s the entire assignment.

The other half’s assignment is a little different. For them, they’re only making one pot. But it has to be perfect. If you went to college, you know what that means!

Professor Potsaplenty has worked on this rubric all summer. It is a piece of art unto itself. He has it framed. He has his daughter paint the damn thing with a bowl of fruit and then gets mad when the bottom third of the rubric is blocked by the fruit, and Thanksgiving dinner is ruined when Professor Potsaplenty flips the gravy bowl while screaming, “I didn’t want a painting of fucking bananas, Jessica.” And, I mean, this relationship is strained enough already, they only talk at the big holidays and haven’t even called each other for birthdays in years. This was Jessica’s way to try and mend things with Papa Potsaplenty but if this is the way he’s going to be then he can just forget about her showing up for Christmas.

Back in class, he shows this half of the kids the rubric. It’s very detailed, but all boils down to a single thing: they have to make the perfect pot. One perfect pot. And they can take all semester to make it.

A bunch of students flake off before the Add/Drop date, but the rest of them set about doing whatever it was they were assigned. One half of the classroom is filling up with a multitude of pots, while the other half is planning and charting and drawing and imagining the perfect pot. These assholes are stressing about what they’ll do when they finally shape the clay or whatever into the perfect pot, while the other half of the assholes are just churning out pots willy, and even nilly. Time, as it’s wont to do, marches on, and when the bell tolls it’s a class bell and the semester is over. Yes, I know colleges don’t have class bells. No, I don’t care.

As I’m sure many of you know, the moral of this particular story (a parable from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland) is that at the end of the semester, the best pots weren’t on the side trying to make the best pot, but came from the side that were making as many pots as possible. In making pots over and over, these kids were learning from their mistakes and perfecting technique, while the other side was doing a lot more imagining and, like, picturing the perfect pot.

Too much plotty, not enough potty.

Why am I rehashing this story that probably every writer in the past twenty years has heard at least once? Because next week will be the one year anniversary of starting this blog, and this story is what has guided me in my writing. With this website I wasn’t trying to achieve perfection. I was trying to achieve three things:

  1. Write. A lot. Like, a lot a lot.
  2. Get used to finishing something. Even if I think it could be better. Even if I think of edits I could make. Make a deadline. Achieve the deadline. Publish it. Live with it.
  3. Get used to people reading my stuff. I’ve been writing for, like, three hundred years or something and I’m generally deathly afraid of people reading it and then hating it and then skewering me in the eye with a kabob. Hey, I didn’t say it was a rational fear.

And there was a bonus!

  1. In John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, one of the earliest things he instructs writers to do is to write down a “wish list:”

…[A] list of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater. It’s what you are passionately interested in, and it’s what entertains you. You might jot down characters you have imagined, cool plots twists, or great lines of dialogue that have popped into your head.

I once sat down and wrote out the wish list in one twenty-minute period, but I think writing like this has been way more illuminating. Everything I’ve written in the past year is essentially my wish list. When you’re trying to get two to three short stories done every week, you start to see patterns. Characters, premises, and lines that get used repeatedly, and you realize those are the things you wish you could read all the time. And if you want to read something, and someone hasn’t written it, then obviously the only solution is to write it yourself. Basically, this website has given me a better sense of my writing self.

For now, I’m going to keep the same schedule for the website. But starting now I’ll be thinking of which direction I want to go. Pot Making with Professor Potsaplenty is a great place to start, but you can’t stay in a 101 class forever, because eventually your two truths and a lie begin to get bitter and disturbing.

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