Embracing Mistakes

I forgot to post yesterday and I’m beating myself up about it, but I’m going to double up today and schedule something for the weekend to make up for it. So why did I forget? Yesterday I decided to barf out a bunch of sentences with no real thought of where to begin or where it should end up. I don’t have writer’s block per se, I’ve got plenty to write about but I am struggling with first lines and how to get the action going before describing where it’s happening and who it’s happening with. This is annoying because it means when I’m not writing all I think about are first sentences.

With that in mind, I just started by typing: “Why is it so hard to write about this?” and then kept asking questions until I got to a place I was not expecting. This whole process of trying to write about my personal experience with being a living donor has at times felt very fluid and at other times felt so trite and fake, the passion for it comes in fits and starts. I feel an obligation to the transplant community and the living donor community to champion the experience, and I do, I am proud to be a member of both. But, at the same time I am still struggling with the aftermath of such a profound experience, I am weighed down by feelings of failure.

As I was writing yesterday I realized just how dichotomous my feelings are, the cognitive dissonance is what’s holding me back. How do I write about the most important event in my life with grace and honesty without being a harbinger of doom? My end goal for writing about donating part of my liver to my husband is to provide solace and hope for people who might be embarking on a similar path, and I don’t want to scare them away. Equally important is providing an honest look at the psychological effects of a donation that ultimately fails. Our story is untidy and it is sometimes frustrating to tell. People lose a little interest when they realize the liver inside of Derek right now is not mine, but a stranger’s.

We often see and hear the stories of transplants between spouses through the lens of love, as a romantic gesture, and there is an aspect to it that is very much about love. But there is also a practical, pragmatic part that is rarely discussed. I know I would have been grateful to read about an experience like ours that was raw and honest, even a little clinical. That’s not what everyone needs, I know that, but it’s what I needed and I am hopeful others might find solace in that version of the story as well. All of this prompted a little melt down and was followed by a long walk around the neighborhood and then there was dinner to make and an event to go to.

Last night at a party celebrating a friend’s art gallery opening, a man approached a group of us and we started talking about ceramics and wood fired kilns. I know a little about wood firing from my undergrad days and we were sharing stories of loading kilns with firewood on stupid hot days and he said something about when you put a pot in a wood kiln you have to accept and embrace the unknown. And I was reminded of how I started doing ceramics as a sort of cross training for metalworking. I thought working in clay would be a good way to step away from the preciousness of working in metal and it was and it’s a good way to step away from the preciousness of everything.

When I learned to throw pots, I learned on a big kick wheel. It’s different from an electric wheel because in order to get it to spin you have to kick a big cement wheel mounted to the flat disk you plop your clay onto, just below your feet. There are pros and cons, in order to get it up to speed you really have to kick hard, but when you’re first learning it’s kind of nice that it goes relatively slow. (I learned this when I finally tried an electric wheel and discovered I have a bit of a lead foot and would inadvertently send stuff flying across the room.) After many missteps and trying and failing to get a slab of clay centered on the wheel, I finally pulled up a little bowl and was giddy with my success. My professor, Chuck Hines (I’m including his name mostly because I can’t believe I remember it!) walked over to my wheel and with one swift movement sliced the little bowl in two with a wire clay cutter. “A little thick and uneven, Shannon. Try again.”

I was shocked, my leg was burning from the effort of kicking the wheel for hours, and all I had to show for it was a pot sliced in two. I took a deep breath, slapped the two-pieced bowl together and chucked it in my waste bucket with all of my other wobbly failures and started again, tears welling up in my eyes. This is what I wanted, it’s what I signed up for; the option to cut up a failed piece of metalwork, melt it down, and start fresh right away is not really feasible. But I was overwhelmed by my failure, at the way he called it out and then dismissed it. I remember sitting in that room, the only light coming from the giant floor to ceiling windows looking out over the sculpture courtyard. Pretty soon I was slicing my own pots in half to inspect the wall thickness. You don’t get good at throwing pots by treasuring every little thing that comes off the wheel.

You get good at throwing pots by throwing most of the stuff that comes off the wheel away. And that’s just the beginning. There’s the failure of trimming a foot, the failure of attaching a handle to a mug, the failure of a shitty glaze, the failure of a pot that explodes next to yours in the kiln. Maybe it’s your pot that explodes and trashes someone else’s pot, that’s a whole other kind of failure and you feel like shit not because your experiment failed, but because it brought someone else’s work down with it.

When you load a bunch of pots into a wood fire kiln you have no idea what’s going to happen. You hope your pot is in the right spot in the kiln to get up to a high enough temperature so your glaze reacts ok. You hope whoever is feeding the kiln with hunks of wood doesn’t inadvertently send a bit hurtling towards a bowl you worked on for hours. But you just don’t know, you have to trust what comes out of the kiln is what was meant to be. You place the piece on a shelf and then it’s plunged into darkness and cooked with fire and when it cools you see what you get.

Tiny cup I made years ago, with a dainty little foot and pitting in the base glaze and dribble from the lip. Fired in an electric kiln.

Any creative endeavor has some similarities, writing is not the same as forming clay and firing it, but there are places where the experience could and maybe should overlap. You can see what you’re writing as you’re writing it, see the mistakes, the poor word choices, the odd structure, the lousy structure, the occasional dazzling sentence, as it’s happening in real time, and you can slice it up if it’s not what you want and piece it back to together, or you can delete and start fresh. Sometimes I shove an essay into a dark place and ignore it for a while to see if it looks better later, after it’s had time to cook and cool, but a lot of writing is about fussing and pruning and trimming and adding words back and working to make the reader feel something, anything.

What I need to do is wrap my arms around the ugly parts of the writing, get the words and sentences and paragraphs to a place where they resemble something coherent and then slice them up and start again. If I don’t get something down, there’s nothing there to work with, there is nothing to improve. I’m scared to face the reality that what I am writing may not be what I imagined it would be, but I feel compelled to keep trying, to keep making and cutting and seeing where it gets me.

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