In praise of beginnings: as told by lumps of clay and terrible first drafts

In praise of beginnings: as told by lumps of clay and terrible first drafts

If there is anything I know for certain, it’s that the comparison trap is real.

As much as I love reading, sometimes I get disheartened by really fantastic writing.

I then start spiraling down that slippery slope of comparison, brooding over every writing mistake I’ve ever made, every grammatical taboo I’ve overlooked, or every story that went off topic from what was initially intended. Who do I even think I am, calling myself a writer?

Then I started this pottery class and it shifted my perspective of perfectionism.

We meet once a week for three hours in a studio that is brimming with talented artists. My teacher is a potter by trade and this is abundantly clear by her skill.

I’ve taken an introduction to pottery, so I know the basics like pinch pots, coiling, and slab work but I’ve never thrown on the potter’s wheel until this particular course.

For the first three weeks of this class, I couldn’t throw anything that even remotely resembled a cylinder. This time basically translated into nine hours of me making a soupy, muddy mess at my wheel.

The teacher, feeling that we all might benefit from a demo, got behind the wheel.

There are few things more amazing and inspiring than watching someone who truly excels in their craft. My teacher’s handwork is smooth and graceful as if the tough clay is melting beneath her hands. She is in complete command, and the way she talks about pottery sounds like poetry. She spoke about how the clay should feel beneath our hands, how our minds need to be free of distractions, and how we really need to lean into our work. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was talking about clay or a metaphor for life.

Instead of being inspired, many in the class are disheartened by her skill and their lack thereof, making comments like “it’s not fair.”

Knowing that this woman has probably been throwing clay longer than I have been alive, I’m a little upset on her behalf. I couldn’t begin to fathom how many hours and late nights she has put into honing her craft. We shouldn’t be anywhere near as skilled as her. It is, as a matter of fact, quite fair that she can throw clay like she does.

We didn’t see the years of her losing control of the clay, walls caving in, handles breaking off. We never saw any of the muddy messes, like the one that coats my wheel now. All we see now is the finished product.

Which, in turn, makes me realize that I have no idea how any revisions a writer works through until a piece is complete. I have no idea how many hours they stressed over a single paragraph, nor how many times their editor sent their work back covered in red marks.  

This little moment in my pottery class made me realize I should be inspired, not discouraged, by the works of Anthony Doerr, Stephen King, Anne Lamott, or JK Rowling, and any other writer that I hold to high esteem.

I haven’t put in anywhere near the same amount of hours as them, but I’m working more and more towards it.

This is a gentle reminder that we only see other’s finished pieces. Their absolute best work. Not the lumps of formless clay or terrible first drafts.

Almost all first attempts begin with terrible first efforts.

No matter if it’s pottery, writing, recording an album, running a marathon or the like, allowing ourselves to be beginners is one of the bravest things we can be. We just have to start somewhere and lean into it.

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