3 Years of Pottery But Not a Mug in Sight: The Importance of Being a Beginner … Again

There is something deeply humbling about being a beginner as an adult. Covered from bangs to cuffed ratty jeans in clay, I’ve spent many a pottery class watching the vase I spent 45 minutes working on fly off the wheel in front of me or the glaze on a piece I loved coming out looking rather vomit-ish.

In 2015, I signed up for a wheel pottery class — something I’d never done before. Arriving the first day, it appeared I had hit upon a secret club of other 25-year-old ladies having quarter life crisis as we dawned aprons and spent hours hunched over our wheels waiting for our creations (or perhaps lives?) to take shape.

That first semester, my class included a girl named Laura who took to pottery like a YouTuber takes to a photo op against a wall of fake flowers. From the first class, Laura was making mugs that held their shape, graduating quickly to complex designs like tea pots and casserole dishes with lids while the rest of us stumbled along in the dark creating bowls without bottoms and vases that “purposely” leaned to one side. At 25, I was a beginner beginner again, something I hadn’t been in years. It was a humbling feeling, to say the least. But as I continued to pursue pottery over the next three years — showing up each week to cover myself in mud in the pursuit of making a mug — I realized just how important that feeling was to me.

Almost comically, I never made a mug the entire time I did pottery. It was the first thing I ever learned and yet could never quite master. Milking the clay to make a handle alluded me and so I’d push it off to another week, another month. In that time I learned to make flower pots, bowls, vases, dishes, plates, jars to store anything and everything — but the mug always alluded me.

Perhaps it gives me a good place to come back to if I return.

I have always loved being creative, pursuing it fearlessly as a kid. Oil painting, drawing, dance, piano, percussion, writing — many of these hobbies I learned before I really knew what being a beginner actually meant. In some instances, I don’t even remember the learning process, only a time when I was able to do things like read music, the details of the years I spent practicing the fundamentals blurring so that I only remember the end result.

But as an adult, I’m fully aware of how much work goes into learning something new. It came so easy as a kid, my mind absorbing new skills like a sponge. But as an adult, I’m fully away that I have no idea what I’m doing and can find myself flustered in front of a group of new people. It’s vulnerable to be the new kid and it’s humbling to show up week after week making minimal if any progress. But it was also vital in teaching me how to find joy in the process, not the end destination.

Plus, if I only pursued things I was good at or things I already knew how to do, just think how many things would I be missing out on.

When I began doing pottery, it dawned on me that this hobby was one of the first times in a long time I had attempted something I had absolutely no previous skills in. With yoga, I found a natural connection between the movements and dance. Same with running and Zumba and pilates. Writing pointed me in the direction of starting this blog, while working as a violence prevention educator in college eased me into being a GenSex facilitator when I moved to New York. Sure, I wasn’t an expert in any of these things but I wasn’t starting from an absolute blank slate either.

And for that reason, pursuing pottery made a huge impact on my life. I originally gravitated to it because I wanted to enjoy a hobby that seemed fun and was entirely devoid of screens. Between my full-time job and freelance writing after work, I was finding myself in front of the computer for hours on end and it was starting to wear. Covered in clay, I didn’t have the possibility of checking my text messages or distracting myself with Instagram or even thinking about anything else but my pot in front of me. That’s the thing about being a beginner, it takes up all your brain space in the moment, subconsciously organizing racing thoughts into two buckets: Toss and keep.

It took years but I eventually began finding my groove with the clay, all those studio hours beginning to take shape in my centered pieces. I still would bounce from making four pieces in a class to the next week having everything fall apart, but that was just a part of the process. At times I could see my skills growing as I began giving pieces to friends and family and proudly displaying them around my house. And at other times I’d find myself frustrated by how long the process was taking to learn something the other potters could do in their sleep. But both feelings were important in the end.

I decided to take a break from pottery this summer. It’s an expensive hobby, especially in New York City. My last couple weeks before giving up my shelf I made some of my best pieces yet. It made me smile and take note of the fun these three years have been. I hope to return to it in the future but for now, there is a growing list of 42 other things I’m excited to try my beginner hand at as well.

In putting myself in the position of being a basic beginner, pottery taught me that being an expert is not the goal of a hobby. It’s about having fun and finding joy in the process. Failing and then trying again and again and again. It’s about making time to practice and learning not to take myself too seriously, laughing at the moments of being a total goober. But most of all, for me, it’s about letting go of expectations and diving in not knowing the outcome.

Because who knows, maybe that one class or one event or one meetup will open my world to something I never even knew I’d love. At best, my life will be a little more colorful; at worst, I’ll have a horribly yellow colored clay jar to store my pens in.

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