Charles Bukowski: So you want to be a potter?

Erm… he said “writer”, but I’ll rephrase it for those of us captivated by the lure of muddy fingers:

So You Want To Be A Potter (Writer)?

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your hands (mouth)
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your potter’s wheel (computer screen)
or hunched over your
water bucket (typewriter)
searching for forms (words),
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
retrim it (rewrite it) again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to throw (write) like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to show it (read it) to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many potters (writers),
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves potters (writers),
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the galleries (libraries) of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Charles Bukowski (harvested from Brainpickings and rewriten for potters by yours truly)

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.
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7 Responses to Charles Bukowski: So you want to be a potter?

  1. kyle says:

    holy smokes, I love this…Im a Bukowski fan anyways but this…written as a potter…genius!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    “Retrim it again and again” hit a nerve for me — damn perfectionism! And I confess to always being at least a little bit “doing it for money”, although never primarily. And no doubt I am frequently “dull and boring and pretentious”, probably including right at this moment.

    But other than that, my commitment/sickness remains intact!

  3. The same exact thing could be said for me. But its worth knowing what the challenges are. I too have to deal with the ‘perfectionism’ thing. You should have seen me the other day! I threw two teapot bodies, removed them from the wheel, came back the next day, decided they were both crap, stuck them back on the wheel as close to center as I could manage, and then rethrew them into much better shapes! Talk about making dumb first steps in the wrong direction….. I wonder how many other potters out there allow themselves to throw crap like I sometimes do, and then have the audacity to perform one saving technique after another like I then seem to need to do. It seems much easier to throw good forms first, even when you are trying to be all casual like I try.

    • Scott Cooper says:

      At least I’m not the only one! Although, with throwing I’m pretty good about taking it off the wheel and leaving as-is — I really want the freshness of those lines and rib marks. That’s part of why I do almost all my throwing before lunch, to get that “fresh off the wheel feeling” that only seems to happen when I’m energized and/or fully caffienated.

      For me, trimming feet where I go bonkers and keep shaving the clay away; as if thin = good.

  4. Trimming plates is the one I get hung up in the most. This latest bout of plates had, I think, four that I needed to come back to and retrim after the initial trimming and after they had stiffened up some more. I really didn’t want to be doing that, but a few of those were probably not stiff enough when I first went to trim them. Dang it all!!

    Sometimes the outside pressures of ‘getting it done’ interfere with the ideal practice. All this lag time and timing is for folks with, well, time. No wonder I went through a phase early in my throwing when I made only things that were completely done (as much as possible) as soon as they were pulled off the wheel. If I couldn’t throw and assemble a teapot in a single sitting it wasn’t getting made.

    Thankfully I’m well over that prejudice, but my sense of timing is still for the birds….. I’ve heard it described as “chasing plastic” (Ron? Joy?), and I can totally relate.

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Yes, I’m a hopeless plastic chaser, too. It’s to the point where if I know from experience that there is an ideal consistency/stiffness to do the next step, I’ll almost always force myself to wait for it; to not compromise on rushing it before the clay is ready. Not sure if that’s another symptom of perfectionism syndrome, or just a commitment to good craftsmanship. Or if there’s even a difference between them!

      With plates, I usually rough trim the whole group and then set them aside to stiffen up a bit more before returning them each to the wheel for final adjustments. Seems really inefficient or picky, but since a footed plate is something like 75% trimming to 25% throwing (the inverted proportions of most other forms), I seem to be able to rationalize it OK without feeling like it’s a violation of Bukowski’s maxims.

      • Ooh! I like the way you think!

        “The first pass shall henceforth be known as ‘The Rough Trim'”. That’s what I need to tell my students, at least. Takes the pressure off being one and done. Amazing what folks will settle for just to avoid having to recenter an upside down plate for another bout of trimming….

        On the whole perfectionism=craftsmanship equation I wouldn’t be so sure. That’s like saying obsession=love. You can still do perfectionism poorly or go overboard with it, so I can’t see it necessarily equating to craftsmanship. Perfectionism is more about an internal attitude. While craftsmanship may look like it in that it upholds standards, its more the objective counterpart. You can be a perfectionist and still be a lousy craftsman. Perfectionism just means that you are looking at something obsessively, not necessarily what. (You can be a perfectionist with glazing but still make mediocre forms, you can be a good thrower of mugs but pull lousy handles, etc…)

        Perfectionism isn’t always a good thing, and I’d hazard that craftsmanship isn’t always the most important ideal to strive for. Sometimes one thing needs to be sacrificed or suspended in order to promote a contrary or potentially conflicting value. For instance, in a three-dimensional pot sometimes one angle of looking at it requires that a different angle is not as congenial. Its not necessarily all or nothing. Unfortunately we are burdened with the whole Greek notion of ideal perfection. Its not very open minded or tolerant of deviation. Which is fine in some circumstances but not so good in others. Its like saying that only micro-thin pots are good pots. It doesn’t accommodate different views or alternatives. What would we say if painting were judged by how much things weighed? Obviously the Mona Lisa weighs too much to be considered ‘good’.

        As soon as you start to admit that there are variable standards the notions of perfectionism are harder to sustain. It all starts to unravel out in the world where it gets applied. And if its only a personal obsession, don’t bother to ‘pretty it up’ by referring to it with glamorous words like “perfection” and “craftsmanship”. The wise man of Filmore Indiana even once declared that the whole perfectionism gig may in fact be self defeating.

        That’s what it seems like to me at least…..

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