Pulling Up Clay
My first two attempts at mugs sit on my board under plastic. They are short, stocky clay cylinders that no one would want to drink out of. Too heavy, clunky. Unfinished shapes. I knew that I was cutting them off the wheel before I had pulled up enough clay to make them tall and the walls thin enough to be successful tea vessels.
It’s tempting to play it safe like this for a beginner in throwing pottery, and also, in life. To leave work unfinished rather than risk failure. To avoid the vulnerability of pulling up clay until its walls thin and could easily, in unpracticed hands, become uneven and flop into an unworkable failed attempt. To be successful I’d have to be bold and keep pulling up clay, risking inevitable flops. And then try, try again.
It reminds me of a book I’m reading, Daring Greatly, in which Brene Brown says that only through being vulnerable can we be successful. It may seem trivial, yet pulling up the clay feels like making myself vulnerable. I go in to the clay studio to practice between the first and second class, partly to try to learn the techniques. More vitally, to teach myself to be bold and pull the clay up until it, and I, were vulnerable to failure. And then, to bounce back from any flops by slapping another ball of clay onto my wheel and starting again.
I dream of clay between my fingers turning into elegant shapes, but at the wheel, I only cling to faith. The instructors assure me that practice will get me from where I am to the subtle techniques for spinning a hunk of clay into art. Or at least into a cylinder.
I used to say that I never pursued anything in my life for which I didn’t show some immediate talent. I thought this was just my perfectionistic personality and inevitable. I wonder what I might have missed by not having any patience with myself and the process of learning from a slow start.
Which is not to say I gave up everything, by any means. I was good at school, and worked hard at it. And I have to give myself credit for my tenacity in learning a number of hard things outside of schoolwork. If I achieved early glimmers of success, I would practice to as near I could approach perfection. Like in whitewater canoeing I was praised early in the process for how quickly I was learning. When I went to a solo boat, I remember taking my canoe out on a lake by myself and paddling and paddling and paddling until that maddeningly spinning boat would go straight. I eventually was able to elegantly make turns and maneuvers on whitewater and even got skilled enough to earn certification to teach.
Yet even in whitewater I played it safe. Unwilling to try new maneuvers or difficult moves in rapids unless I was sure I could make it without flipping. I knew that if I pushed myself to be willing to fail, my progress would be so much faster. I even knew I’d enjoy paddling more if I weren’t staying within my comfort zone so much of the time. To be fair, this was not just a fear of failure but fear of consequences: a cold swim in rocky fast waters. Yet this consequence was another fear without merit. A swim was a pain, uncomfortable, scary sometimes. But not the end of the world. If I could paddle without this constant vigilance to always stay upright, I could canoe much more confidently, and more challenging waters. And have more fun.
So, too, with those first two unfinished cylinders, I was afraid if I kept working the clay upwards I’d make wonky uneven walls that would flop over and be good only for the reclaimed clay bin. Again. Instead, I had something to show for my effort, but they were not ready for a handle to become mugs. They were not full attempts. I was not daring greatly, but staying inside a comfort zone as constricted as these stumpy not-quite-mugs. So I returned for more practice.
Pulling up clay is not daring greatly like finishing pieces of writing and submitting them to literary publications. It is not putting myself out there as a health coach and boldly attempting to make a successful business. It is not getting back into my canoe after so many years and trying moves that might make me flip over. But I look at it as practice for those more daring feats. Practice of making myself vulnerable to failure and picking myself up from each failed attempt with patience and faith. A practice of not putting my self worth into any particular attempt, but rather in the process of trying and learning. To allow my own walls to thin as I pull myself up like a clay cylinder.