The unreasonable burden of ‘good ideas’

My woodfirng potter friend Geoff Pickett always trots out the motto “Only move things once”, but I never seem to pull it off. I never seem to think far enough ahead to plan out future uses for all the things I want to save/store/potentially use. You see, I’m a great believer in temporary solutions and intermediate steps. The moves I make are often only provisional and contingent. Sometimes, it seems, the unclarity of open possibility is better than the security of rigid final decisions. Sometimes tweaking ten times is better than solving it only once. Sometimes the best thing you can do to address an issue is to put a band aid on it….

Things eventually tend to find their uses, problems their solutions. If we only give them time to unfold. Moving things just once sounds a bit preemptive. Like needing to decide what we will have for dinner for the next twenty years. Or treating a boo boo with amputation. Isn’t there also a real need for the here and now? For just this thing today? For keeping your options open? For indecision? Not everything needs to be solved once and for all. Not everything needs to be ‘fixed’. Sometimes it needs to be maintained, encouraged, or left to itself. Not everything fits on the scale of an efficiency calculus….

But sometimes they do. The real problem I have is that I can’t let go of things. I am not efficient at letting go. I don’t necessarily like clutter, but it seems to be a natural law in my life. Deep down, I like to save things. The consequence of seeing the potential value in things is that nothing is ever truly disposable. It can often be repurposed. Recycled. Reused…. Or pending that fate, it can be stashed away. Its not yet dead until it has been buried in the ground….

In my youth my mom had fits trying to get me to throw out old shoes and pants that obviously no longer belonged on my body. But I’m a keeper, not a shedder. And sometimes my ‘good ideas’ and hoarding instincts are good in theory, but less so in practice. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of where my good ideas end up sometimes I wish I had never gone down that road….

In fact, I spent most of yesterday rectifying a ‘good idea’ from about 2 years ago. As any potter does, I also generate plenty of reclaimable clay. Failed pots and cast off clay are not ruined. It can still be salvaged with a little effort and space. But after damaging my wrists from so much wedging in grad school I have been reluctant to return to that folly. And when I realized that fresh clay can come out of a bag without the absolute need for wedging my prayers were answered. So, for the past 15 years I have been throwing from fresh bags of clay and generating new slurry with abandon. And then stockpiling it wherever seems to be convenient at the time…. Genius!

But what to do with this bounteous hoard? Two years ago I had the brilliant idea to take over a decade’s worth of clay slop out of the large trash barrels in my work zone and bag it up for easier storage/access in my clay/drying room. Keep it all in one place. Keep it out of my way. Keep it. Brilliant!

The problem is that I still never bother to reprocess it. And after an additional 2 years of accumulation what once was a ‘good idea’ is now a terrible one. My drying room has become overrun with bags of slop. And not only that, but some rats had gotten in through a hole in the wall and ate through some of the bags. Luckily only a few boulders were too dry to easily resuscitate, and those I’m just going to dump somewhere in a distant corner of my property.

But I still had to decide what to do with all those ‘good’ bags. My first brilliant plan had run its course and was now headed to disaster. So far my ‘good idea’ was only as advantageous as saving 15 years worth of table scraps in my kitchen: Comes a time when they aren’t doing you any good where they are, and if you aren’t going to ‘use’ them you should move them elsewhere…… Time for another step out on the frontier of creative problem solving.

It actually took me several days of pondering before I could solve the riddle. Cue the flash of inspiration! I felt like Bobby Fisher playing 50 games of chess all at the same time. Invincible! Genius! Sometimes (it turns out) the best step forward is actually a step backwards. Sometimes more than one. Sometimes you need to sacrifice your pawn to take the rook. Or take a wrong turn to discover something new…. I ended up putting my original ‘good idea’ trash barrels outside the studio into the yard and loaded them back up with the bagged clay. Brilliant! Carry a few thousand pounds 30 feet south and then 2 years later carry it 40 feet back north…. Stupendous!

All that freaking effort over the years of saving and slaking the clay down, the inconvenience of storing it, then digging it back out of the barrels and bagging it up, and then the further inconvenience of tripping over it in its new home for the last year or so…. And I still have no actual plan to use any of it……. What the hell am I thinking?????

But such are the little obstacles I routinely put in my own way. On purpose. Because I have so many ‘good ideas’. Because I can’t seem to ever move things only once….

My studio is still a shambles in preparation for the wood stove. Semi-organized chaos. Band aids and intermediate steps. I haven’t figured out where everything is supposed to go once things get straightened around again. Soon, maybe. Hopefully I do a ‘good’ job of creating a clean slate. I know that eventually I will start to file new ‘keepers’ in odd corners, and all my sparkling uncluttered surfaces will slowly get loaded with brand new hoards. But someday soon I will be starting from “square one”. I will call time on the game I just lost, sweep the board clean, and then push the restart button…. And there is a measure of comfort in that.

Studio chaos: Can you spot the potter’s wheel?

And it probably won’t last long before my brilliance takes over and I add a pile of this here, a pile of that there. I know I have to do this. It appears to be my fate…. Some things simply are worth keeping. Never mind that you may never find a use for it. But that’s the thing about paradoxes. That’s why having ‘good ideas’ can be such a burden. It never fails that some previous ‘good idea’ or other will be lined up in precisely the wrong spot to do me any good now.

They don’t start out that way. They need time to fail. It only goes bad after an accumulation of other good ideas starts to interfere with the smooth clock-like workings of the design. I swear that half the battle becomes removing the obstacles I have already spent great effort and good intentions putting under my feet…. Which in itself becomes fodder for more future ‘good ideas’…..

But I guess seeing the propensity is part of the solution to avoiding it. Maybe? (Fingers crossed.) So many of my good ideas seem perfectly reasonable, even inspired, only to wind up on the receiving end of all my curses. Must I continually suffer the ‘wisdom’ of fools? Oh yeah…. That’s me I’m talking about. So it must be true…..

Maybe someone else out there can put these lessons to better advantage.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The unreasonable burden of ‘good ideas’

  1. zygote says:

    I promised myself when I moved into my new studio space this spring that I’d keep it simple this time…. it’s not working.

    • Dang! Already?

      But no longer a damp moldy space, right? So that’s one major step in the right direction!

      Simplicity may also be somewhat relative. I just got rid of ten 5 gallon buckets of old glaze that I never use anymore, which leaves me with about fifty buckets to still find room for. Huge improvement! Of course I only use around a dozen these days, so that’s still another forty that I’m not brave enough to do something about! But I gotta start somewhere. Baby steps. And it was still like pulling teeth for me to let go of those glazes……

      Next up my collection of several hundred test tiles that I doubt I even have the proper notes on to find which versions of recipes they are. But I might one day need them! Right? Saving the evidence of my curiosity can’t be wrong, can it? Even the total dead ends are lessons worth remembering. I’m not smart enough to remember it on my own. How often do I want to repeat the same mistakes before I learn what not to do? I NEED to have those test tiles, don’t I?

      Help me Joel! I can’t seem to give these things up yet!

      Help! Anyone?

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Also, this post title reminds me of the quote that goes something like, “Your ideas are only as good as your ability to execute them.”

        So, test tiles with good notes for them? Brilliant. Clay slops with an intern and a pug mill? Heaven! Otherwise… Just clever varieties of trash and self-deception.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    My studio is half ‘future storage bin’, too. I wonder how the hoarder impulse relates to optimism/pessimism? It seems inherently optimistic to look at a scrap of plywood or two thousand pounds of slurry and think,”Yeah, that’ll come in handy someday!” But then once so much stuff is piled in there that you can hardly move, there’s the pessimistic reaction of, “Well, I could start throwing out all those old glazes, but if I can hardly make a dent in them right now, why bother?”

    A friend of mine, who also has this problem, tried a strategy where every work day he had to spend five minutes either organizing or clearing out one little section of the studio. Just five minutes! Sounds like it worked pretty well for him. So maybe it’s about generating just a little momentum, building the confidence that we’re capable of turning back the tide of our own junk?

    (For me, sometimes, once I see a little daylight or a freshly cleared horizontal space, I can almost turn the hoarding impulse back on itself, where now I want to hoard empty spaces instead of random crap.)

    • I guess it is all an ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism. Except in extreme circumstances it seems we can never get so high that we won’t come crashing back down, nor so low that we can’t raise ourselves back up. Maybe that’s just what’s healthy? A little bit of both? Each in its own place and time? A balance? Maybe our life mottos should be “Look for the silver lining. And then get your head out of the clouds to see how close to the precipice your feet have taken you….”

      I think if I ever change the name of my blog it will be (with your permission!) “Clever varieties of trash and self-deception”. Brilliant! A close runner up would be “Turning back the tide of your own junk”! Dude, you have such a great poetic flair!

  3. barbaradonovan says:

    Well, I can relate. When it’s obviously time to cull – that point when I can’t turn around without tripping over something, and there is no longer room for my pots because of all the valuable things I’m holding onto for future use – I psyche myself up for the task by literally repeating to myself that I must be ruthless. RUTHLESS. No thinking allowed. It works for awhile until I start to slow down and examine things individually and my mind drifts into dreamy dreams of what I could do with these things one of these days……..but by then I’ve usually made enough headway to abandon the task until next time.

    About that reclaim…..maybe a university student with more time and energy than money with access to a school pugmill would be happy to haul it all away. It’d be like supporting the clay arts.

    • “Ruthless” is the only way I can surmount the pile of crap I surround myself with. And like you, it only seems to last long enough to take the rough edge off the chaotic shambles. I’m officially “done” when I start back on the dreamy wishful thinking of finding new homes for my useless troves. Kind of sad how soon it happens……

      Amazingly I know potters who are even poorer than I am, so I have made offers like that in the past. Unfortunately the clay bags are often a mixture of unidentified sources. It seems that even “free” clay isn’t always worth the effort. Haven’t tried the college kids yet though. Still can’t shake the idea that I WILL someday find a use for all of it…..

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