| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life How Pottery Taught Me to Love Writing First Drafts
I reveled in the circularity of pottery: All mass—all creative matter—was conserved.
Despite invoking Anne Lamott’s principle of “shitty first drafts” to nearly every class I have helmed, my inner perfectionist has long struggled to bang out those first misshapen pages.
I write the way I sleep: murmuring incoherently to myself as I toss and turn between ideas, falling in and out of flow. “I long to write, and dream of its coming out easily as a spider’s web,” wrote a young Patricia Highsmith in her diary. There are days when my words unspool like that, days when I feel as if the reason I write is because it is easy, like following footprints in the sand, and not, as it is so often, like making a trail through a swamp. Usually, the words come very slowly.
My problem for a long time was that by the time I finished a “first” draft, it wasn’t “first” at all. I would have spent so much time sanding the sentences that I was attached to the contours of every line. My brain would snag on the attempt to find a particular verb, when really I should have been asking if the sentence was necessary at all. Because I thought I had already built revision into my writing process—reworking sentences over and over again—I struggled to know when to step back and evaluate the draft as a whole, much less to revise that “first draft” to a “second draft.”
Friends wrote their first drafts only to open new blank documents and start over from the beginning. They admitted it could be tedious, but they told me each time they wrote a new version, the core ideas were clearer, the transitions were smoother, the scenes were sharper. I admired their strategy, but trying it myself felt like throwing away a batch of unbaked cookies just as I was sliding them into the oven.
The “sunk-cost fallacy” says we are more likely to continue with something if we have already spilled our resources into it. For me, the resource I mined for those early drafts was time. Desperate to make every minute of the hair-pulling drafting count, I became a serial optimizer, killing darlings with one hand only to resuscitate them on another page with the other, eager to make anything resembling a jigsaw piece fit. I struggled to give myself permission to look away.
My perspective changed in the winter after I graduated from my MFA program. I found myself the lone writer among four potters at an artist residency on a farm in the Adirondacks. My envy was immediate. At the end of each day, I would have only moved around sentences on a screen, with no new pages to show for it, whereas the potters would have made rows and rows of drying vases, bowls, and mugs.
Each one, to my eyes, was a marvel. Walking into the bright warmth of the ceramic studio, the air tangy with clay, I’d groan with awe. How remarkable that the people I had kitchen dance parties with were, in fact, each little factories, capable of cranking out trays of Instagram-ready vessels!
The potters laughed at my awe as I walked between their wheels, shaking clay-flecked heads at me when I asked how their days had gone. So-so , they’d say, gesturing toward items I would have paid money to own. I remember one of the potters walking over to her shelf, shrugging as she surveyed her day’s work.
Not sure I’ll keep many of these , she said. I guess I like this one okay? She pointed to a pot that looked identical to its neighbors, then showed me how the lip was thinner and more acutely angled than the others. I’m going to make more like this one tomorrow.
I had come to the residency hoping to polish my MFA thesis, a collection of essays about fear, very many of them featuring wolves, both real and symbolic. My goal was to get a few pieces ready to submit to agents. Though I had worked on some of the essays for years in my program, the months since then had made me realize how much more I wanted the pages to do. It didn’t feel right to call the manuscript a “shitty first draft” because each of the essays had already gone through so many good iterations of feedback from other readers, but I was beginning to see that the thesis manifestation was not the end game. Far from it. It was the first iteration of the book I wanted to write.
Well, actually the second. My undergraduate environmental studies thesis had also been about wolves, but that one had been built on field work and interviews in my home state of Oregon. In the MFA version, I circled the animal in a completely new way, propelled by similar research and themes but expressing them differently, like an actor who went backstage then returned with a new outfit and hair.
I knew I was getting closer, honing in on what I wanted the words to do, but I was impatient with the drafting, with how long it was taking for me to figure it all out. It didn’t help that well-meaning friends and family kept asking if I was “done with that wolf book yet.” Beneath their words I heard: Get a move on!
It felt easy, natural, to beat myself up for how many iterations the project was going through. Not just because a part of me wondered if my Libra indecision was, in fact, “failing” me—if I kept making the actor go backstage and change clothes—but because I couldn’t even visualize what costume I wanted next.
A month into the residency, I gave myself permission to close my laptop and work in the ceramics studio a few days a week. First to sit in on a class one of the residents was teaching to the community and then on weekend mornings, pocketing my silver rings in the Levi’s I had decided would be my ever-speckled “pottery pants.” I had not sat at a wheel since high school, and it was harder than I remembered. Not just to make the spaghetti bowl I envisioned my fist-sized lump could become, but to throw anything vessel-like at all. The more time I spent around the studio, the more I understood how many of the things the potters threw on the wheel would never become ready-for-sale pieces. They were making drafts.
I had just failed to recognize that because the vessels weren’t “shitty” at all. On the contrary, I was smitten with nearly every one. Sometimes, the drafts were fired in the kiln, but very often, they were destroyed. Sometimes on the wheel, when a thumb nudged a vase into something asymmetrical, but other times once the clay had dried. Maybe a potter had experimented with an etching or an inlay, and maybe it hadn’t worked out. Plates and flower pots, bowls and vases, mugs and urns—all might get tossed in the shard bucket rather than fired in the kiln. Those fragments weren’t garbage, though. When reconstituted with water, they could turn back into workable clay.
They were making drafts. I had just failed to recognize that because the vessels weren’t “shitty” at all.
I reveled in the circularity of this process. It seemed to make visible something that remained intangible on my laptop screen: that all mass—all creative matter—was conserved. Even if the ceramic “draft” did not survive, the muscle memory of the potter’s hand did. They learned from it; they threw something new. That first pot wasn’t “failed.” It was just another phase of the process. We do not blame the blossom for not yet being the apple.
Through our conversations, I learned that even if the potters had an idea when they sat down at the wheel each morning—and even if they then threw something very quickly that was very beautiful—they didn’t expect to execute their mental image on the first try. They had to throw a few to understand what they liked or didn’t like about the shape, texture, and feel. They gave themselves room to learn, to be surprised, to experiment. Then they did this over and over, tweaking one thing or another as they moved closer to that ineffable ideal: the artist’s vision of what their work could be.
In the studio, I looked at their drying vessels and saw a catalog of items ready for glaze and sale. But they saw the gaps between what sat before them and what still danced in their heads. In repeatedly “drafting” a certain vessel, the potter was not only training herself how to make the form but also figuring out what she wanted to be making. The fact that some of those glazed drafts were not, to me, visibly flawed was, in some sense, the whole point.
Those pieces could still be sold, but they wouldn’t be the ones the potter selected for, say, an end-of-term show. Closing the moat between one’s dream for a piece and its IRL conception is both the challenge and promise of revision; very often, artists’ “favorite” creations are just the ones we sense do this best. There is no bell that rings when a piece reaches its perfect form, only a voice somewhere in the artist’s skull, some pixie of consciousness, telling the artist when to keep going and when to move away. Sitting at the wheel, I finally learned to listen.
I had thought the gift of time the residency allotted would mean I would be cranking out pages without interruption, but really, it gave me time to stop. To read over what I had written, tessellating paragraphs on the floor as I scissored them apart. To admit to myself that so much of art comes not from a blueprint but from its lack. From the permission artists give themselves for days of meandering with no clear “end” in sight.
I don’t remember how many hours I spent with the potters before I went into my writing studio and opened a blank document. Typed a title. Copied and pasted a few quotes and ideas and sentences I liked from my thesis, then started writing. Just like the clay pieces from the shard bucket, I took the old and made them new. I called them chapter one. The wolf project is now a book, Cry Wolf , forthcoming from Flatiron/Macmillan in the United States, and Canongate in the United Kingdom, in early 2023.
Chapter one looks remarkably different than it did that day in the Adirondacks, but that day marked the start of the draft that would become the thing my agent would, nearly two years later, send to editors. What of those earlier drafts, the multiple thesis projects, the pages of workshop feedback that informed their shape? Those drafts are still something to celebrate.
I like the phrase “shitty first drafts” because it gives me permission to word-vomit, but I’ve learned to make room in my mind for other types of drafts too. The ones that hum, the few that sing. Rather than burn those drafts, I cherish them the way I cherish the tippy ceramic bowl I threw that winter and now load with salad a few times a week.
When I left the Adirondacks, I took some of the potters’ ceramic drafts with me. They now fill my kitchen shelves. When I raise a mug of tea, I do not see failure; I see a watertight form, with a smooth nook for my thumb. Not a flawless mug, maybe, but a perfect reminder of what it means to be an artist—of what my former professor Patricia Hampl used to often say: Onward .