Clay on the Wheel

Clay on the wheel
Photo by Quino Al

To distract myself from the terrifying void of unemployment (or Runemployment, as I’ve taken to calling it, since I can run whenever I damn well please), I’ve busied myself with writing. Most of the pieces I’m working on are in the beginning stages, which means fighting through ugly first drafts until there’s something salvageable and less garbage-y to share with the world… but the fight is a constant.

For each time I’ve been able to get into the flow and silence the backseat nagger who reminds me how terrible what I’m doing is, there’s an equal number of times that the nagger has gotten the upper-hand. The hope with the writing and revising process is to shape, mold, fix, and (ideally) improve the piece into something worthwhile. The reality often devolves into a pity party led by a searing, scathing, self-deprecating monologue.

And yet, we all press forward, because the hope outlasts the starker reality, and the revisions do make the work stronger. It helps knowing, too that if you do a search for books about first drafts, the results show that you’re not alone in the rough starts, missteps, and bad beginnings:

  • 6 Baffling First Drafts of Classic Novels
  • Crappy First Drafts of Great Books
  • 5 Novels Whose First Drafts Were Scrapped Entirely
  • 5 Hilariously Bad First Drafts of Classic Books
  • 8 Famous Novels That Had Very Different First Drafts

What’s even more comforting is knowing that this process is not unique to writing – it’s part of creating. Drafting. Building. Singing. Making business models. Crafting. Sketching. Ideating. Pivoting. Sculpting. Leading. And other verbs. Here are a few articles from different creative genres:

  • See the Sketches JRR Tolkien Used to Build Middle-Earth
  • 15 Shocking First Drafts of Iconic Movie Characters
  • 25 Must-See Design Sketches of Your Favorite Sneakers

One of the day-camps I went to as a 3rd grader had a pottery class where we got to put a wet lump of clay on the wheel. As the wheel began to spin, we began to shape. Sometimes the lump showed promise; sometimes the lump became lumpier. Still, we had a lump of clay with which to play, and as long as we kept at it, there was still a chance for that clay to become a pot, or a plate, or a bowl, or an especially fine lump.

In that way, creating anything is just a matter of putting clay on the wheel – and keeping it there.

What I’ve wanted to do, and have yet to do, is interview creators from across different industries, from footwear designers and startup founders to architects and cooks. I want to know what their first drafts look like. How did they start? How did they refine? When did they know they were done (if there’s even a ‘done’)? What keeps them going?

Whether podcast, video series, recurring articles, or something else, I know that a repository of first draft diaries would be sweet solace to other makers and doers who are struggling with their own beginnings.

In acknowledging the gap between our vision and our skills, it’s like Ira Glass said,

“For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Whether that gap is between your first germ of an idea, and the life you know you can breathe into it, or your very first piece ever, and the career you want to have ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, know this: the first draft is a constant. Even the professionals are beginners when they start a new draft, project, or business.

So how do they put the clay on the wheel?

“Ideas on Fridays” is a weekly effort to test, flesh out, and/or purge ideas from my brain. If you want to use one of these ideas – or collaborate on one – please get in touch.


Also published on Medium.

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