What Clay Taught Me About Writing

In the spring of 2010 I made the decision to go back to school and work toward my degree in Elementary Education. On my schedule that semester I had English 102, Cultural Diversity in Education, Geology, and the Geology Lab. Early into the semester, I realized the Geology and Geology Lab classes (same teacher/class hours) were going to be too much for my haven’t-been-in-school-full-time-with-hard-classes-for-fifteen-years brain to handle.

I needed to drop them, but since I was on financial aid, I needed to replace them with other classes (6 credits worth) so I’d still be full time.

That’s when I looked through the schedule and decided ceramics might be fun. Make no mistake, I had no idea what I was in for. I thought “ceramics” would be painting ceramic figures. I was very wrong. Ceramics was working with clay to make your own art, firing it in a kiln, glazing it, and firing it again.

Was I a bit intimidated? Heck yeah! I’d never in my life worked with clay or kilns or glazes, but I set to work and made my first piece using a bowl as a mold.

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The close-up is to show you there’s a design in the bowl. I didn’t carve it deep enough so it didn’t show up well through the glaze. This piece of misshapen work taught me I needed to carve deeper into the clay and that clay shrinks as it dries and is fired (also, it taught me that I don’t care for Robin’s Egg Blue glaze).

Sometimes, I need to cut deeper into my writing to make sure my plots/characters are developed enough.

Next I tried to make something without a mold (free building).

PC311476 I did manage to carve the design deeper into the clay so it showed up, but the form was sloppy and kind of disturbing.

Sometimes my writing is sloppy and disturbing too . . . though the disturbing part isn’t always bad. *grin*

The rest of the semester, I continued to learn about clay and glazing and improved my skills.

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I learned the more I write, the more I improve.

Then I learned you could attach clay to other clay by slipping and scoring (slip is a mix of clay and water to make a paste consistency that you put on the clay before attaching it; scoring is scratching up or cutting lines into the part of the clay that will be touching the other clay). This opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

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This taught me I shouldn’t be afraid to add elements to my writing to enhance it. Description can be my friend as long as I don’t overdo it.

PC311478I even tried the pottery wheel (this bowl is really small).

In the fall semester, I decided to take ceramics again (the only classes I took). I spent most of the semester learning the pottery wheel.PC311480 This bowl taught me I could put glass marbles in the bottom and they melt in the kiln. FUN! Most of the bowls I made on the wheel I gave to my sisters and didn’t get pictures of them (cause I’m brainless like that), but they were all large bowls!

Using the wheel taught me that sometimes work needs to be scrapped. One of my sisters asked me to make her a bowl set (large and small bowl) similar to one she received for her wedding. I tried over and over and over to make the bowls for my sister. I believe I ended up making seven large bowls and four small ones before I got two I was happy with. Those numbers don’t include the bowls I started on the wheel that didn’t even make it to the kiln (they fell apart right on the wheel). But there came a point when I stopped trying to make her bowls and moved on to making other things.PC031460PC311479PC311482

This taught me that sometimes I need a break. It’s okay to stop working on a novel and move on to something new. Did I go back to making bowls for my sister? Yes! And it’s okay to go back to working on the novel I set aside too. But when I got frustrated, I went on to make something else.

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The mermaid/fish vase is by far my favorite piece of the semester even though I had to glaze and fire it three times to get the effect I wanted. The first time I glazed it, I painted on the glaze. It wasn’t thick enough and the clay showed through more than I wanted it too. The second time I glazed it I painted it again, thinking the second coating would surely do the trick. It didn’t. I needed to go back and do it right. I re-glazed the mermaid, the fish, and the bubbles, then I painted them with wax. After they were waxed, I dipped the whole vase into the blue glaze. This makes for a thicker coating than you can get painting on the glaze, and waxing the pieces prevents the glaze (the one you dip the entire piece in) from sticking.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t wax and glaze the piece the first time. For one thing, I wanted a wavy look (to make it seem like water), and for another thing, painting wax on each individual item and keeping it off everything else is time consuming and HARD! If I had waxed and dipped the piece, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the wavy effect I wanted. Sure, I would have saved myself some time, but I’m not sure I would have been happy with the end result. What I should have done was wax and dip it the second time instead of trying to paint it on again.

Making this vase taught me two things. First, that I shouldn’t try to cut corners in my writing. Doing it right the first time (or in this case, the second time) prevents me from having to do it again. But it also taught me that sometimes it takes many revisions to get a story I’m happy with. Even if it takes me a bit longer than I’d like to get there.

There are many more pieces that I made and that taught me valuable lessons, but those I’ve shown are enough to make my point.

“And what is that?” you’re wondering by now.

It’s this.

Working in clay is like writing a book.

Most of us start out having no idea what we’re doing. We think, “Hey, this might be fun. I think I’ll write a book.” But when we get into the process, we find out it’s not exactly what we were expecting. Still, we dive right in, determined not to give up. We write that book. It may be misshapen and probably didn’t work exactly like we’d hoped it would. We go ahead and revise and sometimes discover that it’s still not quite what we wanted. So we start asking questions, finding out more about our craft by reading writing books, asking other writers, following blogs, whatever it takes. Slowly (at least in my case) we learn more and more. We write more, we revise more, we learn different techniques.

We learn what we can add, what we should take away, how to polish it and revise it. We show it to others, get their opinions. Learn that what we’ve done is good, but there are still ways to improve. So we go back and start again (or at least revise again). This time, we’re happier with our work. Again we show it around, feeling all proud of what we’ve done, only to learn it’s still not quite where it needs to be. Something is missing.

The more I work with clay, the more I learn. It’s the same with writing. The more I write and learn about writing, the better my writing gets. I’ve been told by my instructors as well as some of the people in the class that I learned how to work with clay pretty fast (most of them had been doing this for years and hadn’t learned what I had).

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the same with my writing journey. It’s been a slow process!

Technically, I wrote my first “novel” in sixth grade, and I continued writing through high school and beyond (mostly poetry). I took creative writing classes in college (my first go-round), but didn’t really learn much. I decided to take my writing seriously in 2003. I set to work on a MG fantasy novel. I joined a critique group. I read writing books. I got some good feedback and revised and revised and revised. In July of 2003, I gave birth to my fourth (and last) child.

This put my writing on hold. I no longer had time for critique groups or writing. I worked on my novel here and there, but my main focus was on my family. As JR got older, I went back to my writing. I sent out a few queries and got the rejections I deserved. I wrote a sequel to my first novel and started the other two books I’d planned for the series (Nano 2005, 2006, 2007). I revised some on them, but mostly concentrated on the first book . . . revision after revision after revision.

Just as I learned from trying to make my sister’s bowls, I learned a lot from writing those other novels; the biggest lesson being I needed to move on to something different. In 2008, I wrote a brand new shiny novel. I’ve been revising it, polishing it, making it all nice and wonderful ever since (I also had a full-time job for a while there so I didn’t have much time for writing). But that’s not the only thing I’ve been doing. I also wrote a Picture Book for the Cheerio’s contest (won a first prize), jotted down several ideas for new novels, read, read, read, read, read, and read some more. I also became a reviewer for TeensReadToo.com (more reading with some writing on the side).

I sent out some queries for shiny new novel. Received rejections, did more revisions, and queried some more. I even entered a contest with the first 250 words and received an honorable mention.

An agent asked to see my full MS. I sent it. An editor asked to see my full MS. I sent it. I received a rejection from the editor, but before the agent had a chance to reject me, I let her know I wanted to do some revisions. She asked to see the full when I finished the revisions (that was back in May of this year).

The revisions I planned ended up being more than I had anticipated, and I’m currently doing a complete rewrite of the novel.

But that’s okay. Sometimes imperfections in the clay would be too much work to file or smooth out; it’s better to smash the pot you’re making and start over.

Here I am at the end of 2010. I thought for sure I’d have the rewrite done and sent back to the agent, but I don’t. Have I stopped working on it? No (though there were days I didn’t write). I’m near the end now and anticipate I’ll be finished rewriting and revising by the end of January (at least I hope so). I’ll send it off to the agent and see what happens. There’s a good possibility that even after all the work I’ve done, I’ll receive a rejection from the agent. I’m prepared for that.

The story has changed quite a bit, kind of like pottery does once you put it in the kiln.

When you glaze pottery, the glaze dries to a powdery finish that could be scraped off . . . it’s not until it’s fired again (and at a higher temperature than the first firing) that the glaze bonds with the clay. The heat changes it, and revising/rewriting/learning our craft changes our work.

Even if the agent does reject the novel, I’m happy with where it is going now. I like it much better now than I did before . . . just like the mermaid vase.

In 2011, I plan to finish up my rewrite/revision, and write another novel I’ve had on the back burner . . . I may even get to write one of the others I have waiting. I’m taking time off school (at least the Spring semester) and really concentrating on my writing.

I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to work with clay and look forward to working with it again in the future because I still have much to learn. I also still have much to learn about writing and I look forward to 2011 as the year when I’ve finally written a novel that makes me happy (hopefully  more than one).

What do you hope 2011 brings for you (other than a book deal; we all hope for that)?

Happy New Year to all of you! Whether it be in your writing life or your personal life, may you be better by this time next year than you are now.

Improve on!

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About joanstradling

I’m a wife, mother, writer, pet wrangler, crafter, student, and anything else I can fit into my busy schedule. I still hope to ride a dragon, discover a new world by walking through a wardrobe, meet a Hobbit, or any of the other amazing things I read about as a child. In the meantime, I imagine and write about my own incredible worlds and characters–and continue to live vicariously through books.
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