If there’s one thing my house has a lot of, it’s pottery. My kitchen cupboards, of course, are stuffed with dishes I made. My office has become a conservatory filled with plants, partly because I love plants but partly because, well, you know: planters. My kids’ rooms haven’t escaped the invasion and hold teapot sets, piggy banks, lamps, candle holders, cups for pens and pencils, and jars for craft supplies. In every room, many pots serve their intended functions, and in every room, many pots don’t. There are teapots acting like bookends, decorative pots masquerading as junk drawers, water pitchers holding spatulas, and vases with bouquets of paintbrushes.
But very few of the pots in this pottery house are perfect. I sell the perfect pots. My house has become a graveyard of “seconds,” those pieces that dripped, cracked, crazed, or chipped, pots too imperfect to sell—and yet, to clingy me, too special to toss. Too pretty! The fact is, sometimes the drippiest pots are the most striking. Though all glazes will drip if they’re applied too thickly, certain glazes might drip simply because they’re heavy with flux and therefore drippy by nature. That runniness imparts such a lovely liveliness to a pot, a rush of color, a pooling of gloss, which explains why potters don’t banish such glazes from their studios. They’re worth the risk.
Not all potters hang onto their seconds. For instance, my first ceramics instructor, the very talented Bill Disbro, used to take a hammer to his pots that fired imperfectly before throwing out the pieces. I vividly remember these acts of destruction on the otherwise celebratory kiln-opening days. They shocked me and seemed like such a shame. After all, a Disbro pot with a glaze malfunction was still a million times nicer than anything seventeen-year-old me could have finagled. But he reminded me that pots stick around forever (picture a Grecian urn), and a thousand years from now, he didn’t want the dripper, cracker, or crazer in the world, representing his body of work.
I’m not such a stickler. Maybe I should be?
I exhibit similar attachment issues with my “seconds” in writing—all those not-so-greats, false starts, aborted pieces, and going-nowhere narratives. They’re still on my laptop. “Kill your darlings” is popular advice for writers, but whenever I manage to exercise some ruthlessness and take large chunks out of a piece, I save them elsewhere. I can’t kill my darlings. I can’t even kill my ugly ducklings. I tuck them safely in files where they can sleep tight indefinitely.
And then there are those pieces I regularly submit to journals that just as regularly get sent back to me, the ones for whom I harbor a lonely affection. If I truly believe in their worth, I won’t give up on them. Sometimes my steadfast hope pays off. I had one story, around three thousand words long, declined twenty-one times. The last rejection came from a prominent journal, so though I was disappointed, I wasn’t especially surprised. But then, get this: The editor of that journal contacted me later. With an acceptance! For the same story! His change of heart was the stuff of dreams. It made me think of previous heartaches (getting dumped, failing a test, being turned down for a job) when I’d fervently hoped for just such a fortuitous twist of fate.
Miracles happen. I need to remind myself of that—and also this: The rejections and acceptances are outside of my control. All I can do is create the best things I can and try not to be too hard on myself when I fail. And I fail a lot. Not everything I write is publishable. But even if it seems as if all I’m producing are “seconds,” I have to trust that the sheer act of practice is moving me closer to success. Maybe this explains why I’m so tender toward my dull clunkers. If it weren’t for them and the work they entailed, I’d never come up with any shiny gems.