The Complexity of Simplicity

The Complexity of Simplicity

The Complexity of Simplicity

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Hey, author. You there sipping on your coffee or tea. Take a moment and look at that mug you’re holding. Simple as hell, isn’t it? Basically a cylinder with a bottom and a handle. You use it every day. It’s just so familiar and basic. How hard could that possibly be to create?

Hard. A lot harder than you think. Really hard. In fact I recently spent six pottery lessons and eighteen hours and countless pounds of clay trying to not only create a usable coffee mug, but one that could pass muster among other professionally made coffee mugs in my cabinet.

It was my husband’s idea to take a pottery class together, a suggestion that surprised me. Prior to this the closest he came to wanting to engage in a tactile art project was when he made a slurry of cornstarch and water for me to show me how a non-Newtonian fluid reacted to sound waves.

The pottery-throwing process has a lot of steps—each of which is vital to the success of your ultimate product: wedging the clay to remove air pockets, coning it up and down to smooth it, centering it on the wheel—and that’s all before you start doing the actual work of creating something with it. YouTube offers countless very detailed videos of these prep steps alone.

Then you actually start throwing a bowl or a pot or a vase. Then you wait—days. A week. Then you trim the edges and bottom, another very delicate process rife with potential disasters for which YouTube offers many further hours of instruction on how to avoid.

You add embellishments—a handle, a lid, hand-built piece parts to shape whatever form you’re creating. You fire it once to harden the pot. You glaze it with color and design. You fire it again.

Pottery fail!

You can learn the techniques, but they don’t fully sink in until you do them. Over and over and over. At every point in that system there are many things that can go wrong—most of which I have indeed caused to go wrong: air pockets in the clay, collapsing rims and walls, pottery coming uncentered and flying out of control before imploding like a black hole, ridiculously clunky bottom-heavy vessels that refuse to dry enough to trim. You may discover even more flaws you weren’t aware of in the final firing, when your pottery may just disintegrate or explode. (And yes again—check! Done…)

You have many more failures than successes. Even once you start to figure out how to get the clay centered, how to open it up, how to bring up the walls and shape it into a recognizable object, no two pieces seem to come out the same. They are different heights, different thicknesses, different widths. The walls ripple unevenly. The bottom wobbles.

It turns out that as simple as it seems when you’re using your very basic everyday coffee mug or bowl, creating useful, uniform, sturdy, appealing pottery is a very delicate operation, and the only way you get good at it is by continuing to throw pot after pot after pot.

Just Because It Looks Simple Doesn’t Mean It Is

Is any of this ringing a personal little bell, authors? Perhaps sounding a bit like writing? At first it seems like, How hard could it be to create a story? After all, most of us who love the written word have grown up reading them. We all live stories every day of our lives. We read books we sail through and think, I could do that. Surely it’s not that tough to put a story on the page.

And then we try our first one, and it might go pretty well. We’re not overthinking everything yet, just following our instincts, and given how little we actually know about craft at this time we’re pretty proud of it. Not unlike the first bowls I ever threw, which sort of sprang up accidentally as I was trying for a cylinder, but I went ahead and called them good enough and wired them off the wheel, these clunky, heavy clumsy little vessels with their untrimmed flat bottoms. I was pretty proud of them as my first efforts, but even now, just a handful of classes later, I find them a bit embarrassing.

Meh. At least it looks like what it is…but it’s clumsy.
Read more: “The Dunning-Kruger Effect (Or, Dealing with Author Despair Syndrome)“

Wanting to improve our writing skills, we start to learn our craft, and this is where things get pretty bad before they get better. My second pottery class I had boned up all week watching online videos about every step of the process. I had all the knowledge in my head and felt much more confident than in my first class.

And I wound up with not a single usable or presentable item at the end of three hours of class, so caught up in my head and trying to do it right that I couldn’t do it at all.

Read more: “Knowledge Burnout and Information Overload”

Our third class, our instructor demonstrated four times in a row how to throw a simple cylinder, then tasked us with creating four of our own inside of twenty minutes (we watched her do four of her own in about five).

This was where I started to get the feel for the wheel and the clay. Working under a deadline kept me from thinking about it too hard or stressing about it too much and noodling it toward perfection that only ended up collapsing whatever I was trying to build. I just kept slapping clay on the wheel, going through all the steps as efficiently as I could, and sure enough turned out four reasonable cylinders. They weren’t remotely consistent, all different sizes and thicknesses, the walls a bit rippled. But I did it and by the end of the exercise I started to get the hang of how to basically pull it off.

This, too, is like writing, where you just have to write and write and write. Most of your efforts are not going to ever see the light of day. Your first attempt at a full-length manuscript is very likely not going to be publishable. Nor might your second. Nor your third. It was my fourth novel that finally got published. But ultimately I got all of them out into the light of day.

Fail and Fail Again

I decided to try to replicate my two favorite coffee mugs, big, chunky hand-crafted mugs I bought in Salt Lake City years ago. They’re really not that complicated-looking, just thick cylinders with a fat handle slapped on one side. I had Play-Doh as a kid—I know how to shape things out of clay.

My model…

Pottery is quite a bit different from Play-Doh, though. (Not to mention I’m probably regarding my magnificent youthful creations through the eyes of the child I was when I made them. I’m betting they weren’t all that impressive.)

At first I was saving all of my reasonably cylindrical objects, proud of at least having formed them into something resembling what I was aiming for. But eventually there are only so many misshapen coffee mugs a girl needs, so then you get a little more cavalier about throwing your imperfect efforts onto the clay scrap heap. And you start again.

Just keep swimming! My many and varied attempts…
Read more: “Embrace the Suck”

Some of your creations—i.e., stories—may be good enough to share with other people. Some may be good enough to be publishable. You might even throw one or two that are an absolute smash (in the good sense of the word, not the scary sense when working with pottery). But most of the time you’re just going to be throwing pots over and over and over and over as you master your craft.

Being a craftsperson isn’t about creating product. The day-to-day reality of it is exactly that: simply pursuing the craft day after day, trying to perfect an imperfect, inconsistent, oh so human art form.

And here’s the kicker even after all of that: A cylinder is simply one of all the many shapes you can create on a pottery wheel. The most basic one, in fact. Our instructor and every video I watch advise that when you are learning, you have to throw hundreds and hundreds of pots before you get to the point of truly creating good ones. I’m not going to get to that in a six-week class or a couple dozen hours of instruction and practice.

You are not going to get to that equivalent as a writer after a few months or even years of working at it. Think of the complexity of what you’re doing, manufacturing humans from scratch like God, characters who must be fully fleshed, believable, and cohesive. You must balance that with a solid plot, high stakes, strong suspense and tension, relentless forward momentum, voice, and countless other minuscule nuances of craft that will take lots of time and experience and practice to master. That’s the process.

You wouldn’t decide to be a ballerina and expect to be en pointe in The Nutcracker in your first attempt—nor your hundredth…nor maybe even your thousandth. You would know you must spend years and years practicing, learning, honing your abilities, painstakingly working your way up in the corps de ballet—and then maybe you’ll land a prima ballerina role one day.

Or maybe you won’t. Would that negate those years of study and practice for you, if that were the case? Would you expect success in writing—where you aren’t simply dancing but singlehandedly orchestrating every element of the production—to be easier, quicker?

Process and Product

Here are my final products from our six-week pottery class. Not a single one of these vessels is what I set out to make, simple as it seemed. I’m clearly never going to be a master potter—at least no time soon and not without a much bigger commitment.

Et voila!

But I love them. I’m proud of them. It gives me immense pleasure to eat ice cream from these weird mismatched bowls on the regular, and I even sip my coffee from these inadequate little mugs now and then when I’m willing to forgo the massive serving size I usually prefer.

More than that, I had the best time making them—learning something new, playing with clay like a kid, trying to get better, laughing with the hubs as we both failed more than we succeeded and got covered in clay spatter, brainstorming ideas together.

Read more: “Measure Your Success by What You’re Doing, Not What You Want to Do”

I’m not suggesting you give up on the idea of selling your writing professionally and making money from it. I’m not even saying you won’t “succeed” until you’ve spent decades studying and plugging away at your craft. Art is a subjective business, rife with stories of people who hit the literary lottery on their first attempt, and also with near-misses, late bloomers, middle-of-the-roaders, flameouts, and wannabes. There’s no way of knowing which path will be yours.

I think what I’m saying is, enjoy the process and relish the product—at whatever level you’re at. Learn. Practice. Produce. Repeat. Building a happier writing career isn’t about the finish line, but the journey.

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Authors, have you tried your hand at other crafts that you’ve enjoyed? Were they harder than you expected? Were you attempting to master them, or simply allowing yourself to enjoy the doing of them? Did they teach you anything about your writing—or your life?

24 Comments. Leave new

  • Tiffany, I love this! Years ago, my husband and I took a watercolor class together. Fun and enlightening! Two eye-opening takeaways: (1) I’m absurdly cautious (like the world might end if I make a mistake??) and (2) he still can’t draw a stick, but he has an amazing eye for color and its nuances. Isn’t it cool to find new ways to keep on growing (and laughing!) together after so many years? And to discover that simple is often complex.

    • Oh, Jan, I can so relate to your “absurdly cautious” comment! This was one of the biggest bugaboos in my writing–or I guess drafting, more accurately–that I had to learn to overcome (and still do). It’s funny how conditioned we are not to make mistakes–when that’s the very process of learning anything new. I have to repeatedly give myself permission to suck, permission to fail.

      I love that your hubs may not be good at rendering, but that he has an eye for color. It’s such a good reminder that we don’t have to excel at every aspect of anything, that we can embrace the areas of “our greatness,” to quote Inigo Montoya, and realize we can learn the parts that don’t come as readily to us. And as you point out, there’s so much value is in this shared experience you had together. These are all such good reminders I try to stay mindful of when I get caught up in “doing it perfectly” or “right.” Thanks for this!

  • Lynn Carlson
    May 30, 2024 12:24 pm

    I’ve done both pottery and writing, but you’ve pointed out connections I’d missed. Always look forward to your posts! Thanks for the insights. I’m always telling my writing group members, “Focus on process, not product.”

    • I so agree with that statement, Lynn–and yet I also have to remind myself of it with my own work. When I do, it’s the most rewarding part of it. I love that you remind your writing group of that too. And thanks for the kind word about the posts–it’s nice to hear!

  • Garry Rodgers
    May 30, 2024 12:30 pm

    Wonderful post, Tiffany. Truly inspiring!

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    May 30, 2024 12:31 pm

    Oh, Tiffany, I loved this story, and the pictures. Thank you so much for sharing. Crafts, and those who’ve mastered them, have always fascinated me. I’d much rather have handcrafted items in my home than those manufactured.

    I’ve made few serious efforts outside of wood finishing years ago. I was fair at it, but that door closed because of unrelated lung damage (I’m okay). In a crazy twist, I’ve discovered that my clunky craft efforts in the past were somewhat hindered by the fact that I’m right-handed and left-eyed, though it has its advantages (I use my left hand for the computer mouse).

    I do indulge a love for amateur photography, but have no formal learning. It provides another perspective on perspective. In college, I took a drawing class and learned shading, shading, shading. It has aided my mapmaking. Also important, I’ve written 12 novels since 2000 that I cherish, but will never publish. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t good, yet were invaluable.

    In the end, my big takeaway is to grow through doing new things and gaining new perspectives, not just for our eyes, but about the world and what others do well. I’m not jealous of those more skilled, only appreciative of the time they’ve invested in mastery.

    • I so agree with you about handcrafted items, Christina–they carry an extra something, don’t they? Like they contain the spirit that made them, somehow. It reminds me of a recent newsletter from Cal Newport about this–the idea that so much of what makes something really meaningful to us is the human connection (it was about AI, and why he believes it won’t displace artists).

      I’m sorry to hear you had to give up your wood refinishing (a craft I’ve always admired and never tried) because of lung issues (but glad to hear you’re okay). I have never heard of the fact that we are eye-dominant as we’re hand-dominant! Makes sense though–interesting that it affects certain activities for you.

      I love all the artistic pursuits you’ve tried your hand at. I often find authors are creative in other ways as well. Like you, I’m more a dilettante in my own extracurricular crafts, like pottery, painting, etc., but it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment I get from the. Maybe the opposite, actually–my lack of skill and experience lets me be much freer in my work and my expectations. That’s a good lesson for my writing as well.

      The fact that you take all of these pursuits as simply a fulfilling way to exercise your creativity feels really healthy to me–such a good foundation for letting ourselves fully engage in and enjoy our creative work–the simple doing of it, not necessarily the work we churn out. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Andria Goldin
    May 30, 2024 12:50 pm

    I took a pottery course and came away with the most forlorn dish I completely related to. It held my paper clips for many years.
    We played Password over the weekend. Do you know how hard that is? I have new found respect for the TV contestants.
    And, yes, there was so much unused writing I did when developing my stories that are now two finalized manuscripts. To learn most of it had to be written for my sake, not the readers, as part of the process of getting there – and to know the difference.

    • Ha! I wish to see this “forlorn dish.” But it sounds like you love it like I love my clumsy little efforts. There’s something about the creative impulse that kind of handmade craft represents that makes it magical to me–I have so many pieces of “art” in my house that are meaningful because someone I care about made them–down to the half-broken rabbit figurine my mom sculpted as a kid, the pottery frog my sister painted for me, and the simple painting of a vase and flowers my brother painted in elementary school.

      You put this so well, regarding your own writing: “most of it had to be written for my sake, not the reader’s, as part of the process of getting there–and to know the difference”–that’s such a big ticket to creative freedom, I think: recognizing that so much of our efforts may be scrap-heap material, but it’s still necessary to get us where we want to go and fully realize the work. Thanks for this insight.

  • Currently writing a character who, when she is of age, wants to be a professional news photographer. I’ve got a digital camera my husband gave me and that I put away because I am so very bad at using it. I believe walking around the house, constantly taking photos, will be a good exercise. Mess-ups will happen and feelings will come afterwards. What great insight for story! Thank you for sharing.
    And, not bad on those cups and bowls. Give it another try. I bet you’ll find it amazing what will happen.

    • I’m so glad you got the camera back out, Robin! I try to remind myself, when I get discouraged at something because I’m “bad at it,” that I wouldn’t stomp out a seedling because it’s not a sunflower yet–or that if it were a friend or a child trying something new, I’d be nothing but encouraging. So often we’re kinder to others than ourselves.

      And thanks for the comment about my little pottery handiwork. I do think I’ll do more of it–it’s a really satisfying, tactile, Zen kind of pursuit!

  • Love this post, Tiffany- so reassuring after an intense morning at work! TY.

  • Vaughn Roycroft
    May 30, 2024 6:51 pm

    Gorgeous collection! I recently volunteered to be a judge in a well-renowned novel contest for self-published fantasy writers (SPFBOX), and I’m here to tell you that not everyone is willing to toss away the clay that doesn’t quite pass muster. I have never better realized how important the study of craft and the practice really are. I mean, you can have all of the cool fantasy elements in the world, but if you haven’t mastered the art by putting in the time sitting at the wheel, it’s going to be evident.

    Wonderful metaphor and insightful essay, Tiffany! Thanks, and good for you.

    • Aw, Vaughn, you are the best. Thanks for the kind word about my efforts. If artistic merit is measured in the satisfaction I took in creating them and my delight in using them, then they are masterpieces. 😉

      I think you’ve hit a key point in this comment about knowing what clay to scrap. That’s some of the hardest work of writing. As enchanted as I am with my own meager efforts as a potter, I know they’re nowhere near ready for prime time! But it’s hard to see our own work objectively, to be discerning about what serves it and what doesn’t, and ruthless about scrapping the latter. That’s the main skill of writing, I think–revising. Also my favorite part, to no one’s shock, though–and where I think the magic really happens. Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    May 30, 2024 8:16 pm

    This is Super Aweseome, and so are your ceramics. Reminds me of the time I took a spinning class (the wool to yarn kind). I couldn’t believe how uncoordinated I was— me a former dancer. I was in tears by the end of the class. Happy never to return. But I love the skein I brought home. It lives on the shelf next to my writing desk. A reminder of how once you find your creative outlet it’s easy to show up day after day after day, regardless of what happens in the external world.

    • That’s so COOL that you took a spinning class! How very Rumpelstiltskin of you. 😀 I love it, and I love the creative inspiration you took from it. Thanks for sharing this, Jocosa. And nice to see you here!

  • Thank you, Tiffany! This was exactly what I needed to read today.

  • suzanne trauth
    May 31, 2024 10:16 pm

    Thanks for this post. As always, so interesting and insightful. And inspiring…

  • Love your “Why Not?! Let’s try it and see what we can learn from it!” attitude. Thanks for sharing it. Sharing it’s like candle flame. You can light one more or one hundred more candles from the first one without diminishing the first one at all. Thank you.


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