Sunday, September 7, 2014

Raku

We successfully completed a Raku firing yesterday. Here are my tea bowls:



I am mighty pleased with them. And by that I mean I can't stop crooning over them. To see more photos of the whole process, go here.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Haliburton School of the Arts: Thoughts on Week One

When I was trying to decide whether to come to Haliburton, I couldn’t find anyone who had blogged about their experience in the ceramics program. So I’m going to try to do that a little bit here, over the next few months, when time and energy allows for it. If you're reading this because you're interested in the ceramics program, I'm going to talk a little bit about what brought me to Haliburton School of the Arts and then go into what my first week looked like.

The first time I applied to this program was six years ago. Back then, when I told my extended family, they asked me why. Why would I study ceramics? I answered: Because I want to. I've never forgotten the response. With something very much like a sneer, one particular family member said: "Well isn't it nice to be able to do whatever you want." I was struck by those words. No one defended me, so it must have been true: I was foolish and selfish and entitled. Needless to say, I didn’t go.

Six years have passed and in those six years I've come to terms with the selfishness required to make art. The foolishness. The entitlement, even. This year especially. In the aftermath of my grandfather’s death, I realized that I too am going to die one day, just like he died, and in light of that glaring truth, I have to do what I have to do.

And before I move on (in case you, dear reader, need to hear it): No one will give you permission. You are the only one who can do that. So if you want to make art, make art. No excuses. If you want to move 3.5 hours north and study ceramics 12 hours a day, figure out a way to do it. There is always a way. And don't listen to the naysayers. Take that volume dial and turn it all the way down. And then go and do the work that's calling you.

Okay, back to business:

When I was thinking of applying to this program, I asked a few people I knew who’d either been through it or been through one of the other arts programs at HSTA. The word that kept coming up was “intense”. I didn’t really know what that meant or how seriously I should take it. But that’s definitely the word that sums up this first week: INTENSE. And while it’s sometimes stressful trying to juggle everything (flipping your slabs every ten minutes so they don’t warp while finishing up your lidded box before it gets too hard while being called over to watch a demonstration of the project you need to start and finish by the next day and also knowing that somehow you also need to wax and glaze your pots because there's a firing tomorrow…) the hours fly by because you are so absorbed in the work.

This week our instructor was Michael Sheba, and quite honestly, if all the other instructors are as knowledgeable and as good at teaching as he is, it will be a dream come true. In just five days I have learned SO MUCH.

These are what my days look like:

I wake up at 6am. By 6:30 I've scored a table at this little donut shop next door (it’s the only coffee shop that’s open earlier than 9am, which is when classes start) and everyone who goes there is a regular and seems like they’ve been a regular since 1970. Everyone except me that is. I tuck myself into a corner and write every day until 8am. I do this because I need to; because while I'm here to make pottery, my writing is important to me. So I carve out time where I can.

At 8am I return home, pack my lunch, and set out for school. It takes me 30 minutes to walk to the school, which is exactly on the other side of the lake, in the middle of a forest. Honestly, my walk is one of my favourite parts of the day. It is the perfect start and end to the intensity sandwiched in between. I love my walk to and from school. Haliburton is incredibly beautiful and I soak it all in.

Head Lake, Haliburton

Classes are from 9-5 everyday. But I’m there so much longer than this and I usually work through my breaks and my lunch. From Tuesday to Thursday the studios are open until 9pm and while I first thought this was optional, this week has proven otherwise. Studio hours are necessary. Saturdays are also studio days and sometimes classes happen on Saturdays too, like this week for example (we're doing a Raku firing tomorrow).

The nice thing about the ceramics program is that you can’t take your work home with you. It has to get done in the studio. So home time really is down time – even though I don’t get much of it. (And the nice part about not getting much down time is that it leaves no time to feel homesick.) When I do get home, it’s almost dark and this is when I Skype with Joe. Often while eating dinner. Which is usually cereal. I love this time of the day because even though we're far apart, it feels like we're coming home to each other, checking in with each other. I try to Skype with Yonder (my dog) but he doesn’t quite understand the concept and whenever I say his name he looks towards the stairs instead of the screen.

Last of all, just before falling asleep, I read. This week I'm reading through "Tiny Beautiful Things" by Cheryl Strayed. Her letters are just short enough that it's easy to read a few before getting too tired and yet they're so rich and wise that I leave the page feeling like I've read so much. I keep going back to one of her letters in particular, especially this part:

"If there's one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it's that you can't fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It's a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees."

And that is all I have to say for today.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

in the studio

I'm taking an online pottery course this summer and this week we're making footed platters and wall tiles - for the purpose of learning new surface techniques. Here are some process shots, taken in my studio:

Slabs waiting to set up. 
Leather-hard tiles about to be covered (to keep them from drying out).

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Writer Blog Hop

These four questions have been circulating the internet for a few months now in the form of a "Blog Hop". It's basically tag for writers who blog. So, I'm answering them here and tagging two lovely writers at the end who will answer them in turn:

What am I working on/writing?

Right now I’m undergoing a mentorship with an author I really admire and rewriting a fantasy novel. This is my third rewrite and the story has changed pretty drastically since its first incarnation, written four years ago. It's about a dragon hunter whose father will cancel the odious marriage he arranged for her if she can kill the First Dragon – a task so dangerous, no other hunter will take it on.

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

This is kind of a hard question to answer. I’m in various stages of working on three novels and all three are very different from each other (dreamy/poetic, fast-paced/epic, urban/edgy), so talking about how all three are different from all the other books in my genre? I'm honestly not sure how to do that.

Why do I write what I do?

Well this is an easy question to answer. I write what I do a) because of questions that I'm grappling with, b) as a way to push back against the world’s hard edges, and c) because I want to see the world I know and love reflected back to me.

Example a) I write about characters under forgetting spells because I watched my grandfather slowly forget everything and everyone he ever loved. I listened to people tell me that the man he'd always been was gone and yet, if I looked hard enough, I could still find hints of him. I wrote to answer the question: If someone forgets themselves and everything they love, are they still important? Are they still who they've always been?

Example b) I write about characters who believe that their deepest, truest selves are deficient because that’s what I believed (and sometimes still believe) and because there are plenty of others out there who believe that about themselves too. So I write to challenge this notion.

Example c) I write about characters who are just like those I live and love and laugh with but who I can't easily find in the stories I crave. I want stories to be fantastical, but I also want them to be truthful. I want to see the world I live in reflected in the stories I love.

How does my writing process work?

My writing process has changed a lot over time. With the first incarnation of this novel I’m rewriting, I started at the beginning, had a vague sense of where I wanted to go (a few key scenes throughout the story) and just wrote towards those scenes. The problem with this was that I didn't really know who my characters were, and they ended up feeling very flat. Rarely did they initiate action. More often they were just reacting to things that were happening to them.

With the most recent incarnation (and this is largely due to my mentorship) I started with the main character first (her history, wounds, etc) and only once I had a grapple on her did I start in on the story, loosely plotting it out with her at the forefront. This has given my character more depth. It's also changed the way I view plot - instead of just letting things happen to my character, now the plot exists to challenge her and it forces her (through her actions and choices) to move the story forward. It's a lot harder than the "just start at the beginning and write to the end" method, but it's given my story so much more depth and life.

I assume my process will change more over time, too.

And now I am tagging Anya Monroe and Andrea Brame. Go forth and check out their answers!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Viable Paradise XVIII

So. This happened on Friday:


If you're unfamiliar with Viable Paradise, it's a week-long writing workshop that takes place in the Fall on Martha's Vineyard. N.K. Jemison is a former grad. N.K. Jemison!!! Ahem. Anyways. Needless to say, I'm over the moon.

But that's not the thing I really wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was how, over the course of that day, I went from feeling like I was a fraud, that my writing was utter garbage, that my goals were completely unrealistic and silly, to feeling like maybe I'm actually doing okay.

The morning started at 5:30am, which is when I bike from my house to job #1 and bake my little heart out at Cafe Pyrus. It was just as I was leaving Pyrus to bike to job #2 (Words Worth Books) that I got an email saying that the writing contest I'd submitted to months ago had chosen it's winner and nine finalists... of which I was not one.

It's funny, but after getting so much rejection throughout the years, I've learned how to shrug and keep going. But this year has been a particularly hard one, filled with loss of loved ones and hard work that hasn't amounted to anything and also: I'd been up since 5:30. So I was ill-prepared for the soul-crushing feelings of failure. My day was ruined and it had barely even started. I still had to bike across town and work a whole shift at the bookstore.

I was miserable, on the verge of tears all day, and the only thing that got me through was the fact that I had a campfire with friends to look forward to at the end of it. It was there, at the week's end with my friend Ruthi taking orders for how everyone wanted their marshmallows (golden or burnt) and Joe playing the guitar and this pretty lady wanting to play that I put aside my feelings of inadequacy.

Which is when I got another email: the one at the beginning of this post. And suddenly, the world opened up and I could breathe again.

The creative life is strange like that.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

enough

Let me get this right out of the way:

I am afraid of bicycles.

It's true. I fear them with a mighty fear. Not the way I fear cars or guns or cancer, mind you. Those things can kill you and they evoke a very primal, panicked fear in me. The fear I have for bicycles is more subversive than that. It hides just below the surface. It's the kind of fear that's tied up in failure, in not measuring up, in not being enough.

Okay, so clearly I have some baggage around bicycles. You see, I used to date a guy who was a cyclist as well as a runner. He was good at biking and running... and pretty much everything else. Anything he put his mind to doing (and he put his mind to doing a lot of things) he did and did very well. (And he was only ever kind and humble about it, by the way.) Which was why I liked him. But it had implications for me.

I was constantly in awe of him. He was always doing something interesting or going somewhere interesting and after awhile it seemed to me to be in his blood, this constant need to be in motion, to do exciting things. Me, though, I liked to sit still. In fact, everything I do well (writing, reading, daydreaming, baking, drawing, claying) requires being still or staying in one spot for long periods of time. I started to define us by our opposite natures: him always in motion, me always still. And because of other baggage, events in my past that go further back, I came to think of his motion as ideal, and my stillness as a lack.

That relationship didn't last, but the thing that did last was this: the bicycle was a symbol of everything I could never be. Because when I was biking, it was always with this boy - who was faster, more confident, more skilled than I was. When I biked, there was always the pressure to keep up combined with the knowledge that I was slowing him down. So that's how I saw myself whenever I was on a bike: Less than. Not enough.

I was telling my bike-obsessed friend about this and he looked at me and said, "It sounds to me like you need to get back on that horse." And at first I was like: You do not understand! This is deep, scarring stuff! The bicycle is a symbol of my inadequacies... and on and on like that. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if maybe I was just making excuses. I mean, what if I could get back on that horse - er, bike? What was the worst that could happen? (My mother would say: You could be hit be a car and die! My mother is adorably neurotic like that.) So a few months ago I bought a bike. And then I did a brave thing: I started riding it.

Now when I bike, I go at my own pace. I decide which route I'm going to take. If I'm nervous about riding on the road, I don't; I walk my bike on the sidewalk instead. If I'm tired and need to slow down, I slow down. If I'm unsure about something - about gears or tires or whatever - I seek out answers. I'm redefining my relationship with the bicycle. And while I'm still afraid (the cars! the intersections!) it's not the same fear anymore.

Now when I bike, it's about reclaiming something that I let define me as less than. It's about being brave - but not too brave, because I need to leave some bravery for tomorrow.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

back to it


There was a time not so long ago when I made my living through pottery. I loved it. My mornings were spent walking to my studio, which was in a building full of artists and art enthusiasts, not to mention lots of potters. I could structure my life how I wanted. If I wanted to sleep in, I slept in and worked late. If I wanted to write in the mornings or afternoons, I could. I was my own boss. And I loved it.

I made most of my income from doing shows: art shows, indie craft shows, music festivals. This meant a lot of long days (and long weekends) not to mention driving vast distances to get to those long weekends. I loved it... for a little while. And then I started to get burned out. I was doing a lot of shows and the thing about shows is that they're often a bit of a gamble - especially one you've never exhibited in before. Will it be worth it? It's a question that constantly goes through your head. Sometimes it is worth it. Sometimes it isn't. And while I loved this part of my job - the uncertainty, the vast distances and new places, the mad rush to get everything ready - it ended up burning me out.

In the end, though, it wasn't actually the shows that made me stop and take a break. It was the work I was doing. I made the same things over and over again - because people loved and wanted them. Because they were dependable. But after three years of mass-producing (by hand) the same designs, I was sick of them. And there was a nasty little voice in my head that said this was all I could do, these trivial little things, over and over again. I wasn't a real artist. I was just pretending to be.

Looking back now, I think part of the problem was that I was writing a ton, which meant that all my creativity and drive went into my writing while my ceramic work took a back seat. Ceramics was my living, my job. I forgot that it was also my art practice. It was something that had once been life-giving. So I leaned on my tried-and-true designs and saved all my creative energy and drive for my stories. And the part of me that loved pottery shrivelled up and died.

So I stopped making things out of clay. I didn't go near my wheel or my kiln for a year and a half. And then last fall, I started to get this itch. My hands were hungry. Writing is my truest love, that's for sure. But my hands have always needed to make things. And my hands were craving clay.

So, slowly, this past winter, I've been easing myself back into it. At first, I didn't let myself make any of the old things. Only new things. I let myself doodle new designs in my sketchbook, and then I took those designs and transferred them to clay. It's been strange, becoming reacquainted while in the midst of baking, bookselling and writing. The thing that once took up all my time I now have to make time for in the midst of early morning baking shifts, bookstore shifts and novel revisions - and I actually think that's really good for it. It forces me to honour it, to choose it. And art always gives back to you what you commit.

Friday, April 18, 2014

(re)writing slowly


These are two characters from a project I've been working on for a while now. I was lamenting to my friend Anya the other day about being a slow writer. Or maybe not necessarily a slow writer, but a writer who rewrites a lot of times before she gets it right - or doesn’t get it right, and then keeps on rewriting. It means that I don't often finish something different and new. It means I spend years in the same story trying to carve out its proper shape. It means I get frustrated and disappointed with myself, because why can't I just get it right sooner?

But as I thought about it, I started to see that there are good things that come from spending so much time in the same story. Take the aforementioned project above as an example. I started writing it when my Pa started forgetting my name three years ago. It was the first time I came face to face with the realization that the people I loved best and the place I belonged to most would one day not be mine anymore. This scared me more than anything had ever scared me before and I started writing a story as a way to combat that fear. I was determined to keep these people and this place, to make them permanent so that I would never have to let them go or have them taken away from me. I can still remember where I was when I first jotted down the idea that would grow into this novel: sitting on the hill where my grandparent’s house is perched and staring out at the woods.

Fast forward two and a half years and I am revising that same novel in the hospital room where my grandfather is dying. And it’s there that my self from two years ago, the self who thought she could stop her world from crumbling using just the power of her words, meets up with the girl who is in the midst of that crumbling world and knows the truth: the words aren’t enough. And while that scared, na├»ve girl couldn’t save me from the pain and the grief of watching him die, she did something greater. She saw the chasm and she wrote a story for the girl standing on the other side.

And that would never have happened if I had gotten it right the first time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

some days aren't yours at all

Like today. It started out with anticipation (I was waiting for my kiln to cool so I could take out my pots) and delight (three books were waiting for me on my desk when I got to work) and it ended with me melting into a puddle of self-pity on my living room floor. That mostly had to do with the fact that my kiln had over-fired, leaving me with these hideous changelings where my beautiful pots were supposed to be.

Most of the time, I can keep my head about me in the face of art-related failure. I’ve had so much rejection that now I just do my work, keep my head down, and prepare for the worst (the worst usually being "no" which actually isn't that bad, in the grand scheme of things). I can still remember the day three years ago when I got my very first official rejection from an agent on a full. She was lovely and kind and so very encouraging; and I cried my eyes out. It stung so much.

Not that rejection ever stops stinging. And maybe you don't even really get used to it. It's more that rejection (when it comes to the business of art) is a reality, so you must prepare for it and learn how to use it.

I’ve been building up my writing armour for years now, but when it comes to pottery, I don’t have much armour. When I've put myself out there with my ceramic work, I haven’t faced a ton of failure. So when all of my precious pots – the ones I spent weeks making and bisquing and waxing and glazing – have to be thrown out, and maybe a shelf or two as well, I don’t have much protection built up. As I curled up in a ball on my couch lamenting the cruelty of the world, I forgot about all the times I’ve scrapped an entire novel (three times now) and started again from scratch. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve heard the word, “no” and “close, but not quite”.

If I were to give up on pottery after one bad firing, what good would that do me? There’s only one thing to do after a kiln over-fires, just like there's only one thing to do when you realize your writing isn't good enough: you learn and push on.

I long so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things require effort and disappointment and perseverance.

(Vincent Van Gogh said that.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Asterion

“The Greeks told the story of the minotaur, the bull-headed flesh-eating man who lived in the center of the labyrinth. He was a threatening beast, and yet his name was Asterion – Star. I often think of this paradox as I sit with someone with tears in her eyes, searching for some way to deal with a death, divorce, or a depression. It is a beast, this thing that stirs in the core of her being, but it is also the star of her innermost nature. We have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star.”

-Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

There are so many things I love about the writing of Thomas Moore. He is such a wise and insightful man and the thing that resonates most with me is his insistence on using myths and stories (instead of theories and analysis) to better understand ourselves. He turns the tables on notions of “caring” and “curing”. So often, when there is something I don’t like about myself, I want to eradicate that thing, make it go away forever. Cure it. But Thomas Moore takes a different approach, one that is braver and scarier and more holistic. In Care of the Soul, he talks about pressing into the thing you want to go away, instead of avoiding or exterminating it – because that will never work. Instead, he suggests that at the center of the problem (anger or envy or insecurity or whatever else) is the solution. Lying there in the heart of the beast is the seed (or the star) that needs to be cherished and preserved and brought into the light. The point isn’t to kill the beast, but to listen to it and love it and, in time, learn tame it.