Making it Light—On Pottery and Writing

March 9, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Melissa Uchiyama

At my last pottery session, Sakai Sensei picked up my mug. Eyebrows raised, she exclaimed “Karuii.” So very light. I took so much clay out from the inside and still, it didn’t crack. It’s drying. Next time, I’ll glaze, then in a week, it will come back to me, out of the fire.

It’s like that with writing: it’s deep excavation that mostly happens inside. Scraped clay piles up like eraser shreds. “Slowly, slowly,” the potter next to me warns. Or encourages. “Yukkuri.” He sees me trying to be Zen, shoulders pulled to my ears. He suggests a new tool every week, placing it by my arm. Lately, he nods more. My shoulders are less tense, but it’s not yet relaxing work.

Pottery class has me chip at my words with more force and confidence, though. I’m less afraid of taking away, more convinced that space inside means more volume for words or coffee. It is a physical, visceral metaphor. My hands are getting dried-out. Less timidity, more pick-axe. 

I see this with my young writers, too. The ability to examine their work and more quickly see what detracts. Perhaps I need to treat them to a session in my pottery class—to see writing under our nails, in our shoulders, and in the focus of comparing each word, each extra idea projected into this Japanese clay. They’ll get to know which tools in each bucket and tray gently erode silty dust from a piece and which tool goes in more aggressively for a “kill your darlings” feel. They’ll work a bowl and feel the weight in making a thing to keep. 

A young writing student of mine recently shaved off hundreds of words to make a strict contest word count. She chipped and shedded. Boom, 750 poignant words. “It seemed so heavy, so encumbered before!” Karuii. It was brevity and a lightness that allowed her real words the space to take up space with authority. The ones left needed to be there. And they were light so that the weight of each word could work. 

I’m only five or six pottery classes into learning at my local Tokyo studio, but the writing metaphors are halting every time. When carving, too thin and the base pops open, there is no “command z” to undo an error and bring the clay back. I had to chuck my first piece, throw it into a bucket of clay bits and water to be reborn by someone else later. Just a simple crack and it’s wasted. Too thick and the piece will also break, unable to sustain the kiln’s heat. 

Every move is both creation and peeling away. I go to sleep giddy, hollowing mugs and carving bases on the edge of dreaming. I’m hungry to form strong bases and thin walls that are lighter and mightier than those formed by my sensei, and I think: To hold this earth and gape. 

After firing, my mugs, bowls, and sake cups will be immovable. They will be able to take more heat, hot water, and thousands of coffee mornings. My words, too, and teaching, will stand with me, feeling every right to be there. They are the matter that allows negative space, to be filled with the volume of beauty and light. Milk and granola, coffee, truth, space, reflection. To remove and add are the functions towards art. Using clay is molecularly more like the story of creation—differentiating space, “light and day” from “darkness and night”. It is there, or it isn’t. The clay is either there, a part of the thing, or it’s taken off, peeled from its base to fall back to the bucket.

By the time I get to hold my latest piece, a real mug with a handle, it’s as if I am seeing a piece go live, seeing my name in the Table of Contents and turning to my page, heart proud and fluttery.

Every word that didn’t make it is also part of the work. I like this ballooning feeling, the hunger to make space and shape for lasting, good ideas.

I know, as I learn the balance of how much to add and how much to take away, I’ll be a stronger writing teacher, too, with more tools and buckets of watery clay that will become glue called slip. It’s just clay. 

Melissa Uchiyama is a writer and creative writing mentor for young authors, leading workshops and camps in her city of Tokyo. Her food and culture writing appears in The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, The Japan Times, The Kyoto Journal, Taste, The Epoch Times, and in anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again and Mothering Through the Darkness. Connect with Melissa on or on Twitter, @melibelletokyo. 

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