Zeno’s paradox for potters and other creatives

Okay, I lied. Its not Zeno’s and its not a paradox in the proper sense. But what I want to talk about is the same sort of mental cramp that leads us to paralysis, and the paralysis is what needs to be cured.

I know it first hand, this paralyzing feeling, and from recent conversations I know other potters and artists feel it too. Sometimes getting our butts in the studio is a challenge. There are excuses we can summon, if we need to feel justified, but sometimes, also, it just doesn’t make sense to be there. Hence the paradox. When we are stricken by this curse, sometimes at least we have just lost sight of the good reasons for being there. Making art no longer makes sense. We have lost touch with something important, but what? Our inability to remember is what holds us up, and the thing that’s at stake is our capacity to function as potters and artists. We are blocked by some distracting obstacle. We are no longer truly ourselves, in an important respect.

So what am I talking about? I have three formulations I want to discuss, and it might make sense to start by asking the question posed by Jack Troy in a great poem: In the beginning, if we had known what it would take to travel our creative path, would we have still done it? Here is how Jack phrases it:


I have picked up, moved, shaped,
and lightened myself of many tons of clay,
and those tons lifted, moved, and shaped me,
delivering me to this living-space
I wake and move about in,
space perhaps equal to that I have opened and enclosed
in plate, cup, bowl, jug, jar.
I am thankful no one ever
led me to the pit I’d help to make in Earth,
or showed me all the clay at once.
I’m grateful no one ever said, There.
That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
Go make yourself a life.
And oh, yes, here’s a drum of ink.
See what you can do with that.
I wouldn’t have known where to begin.


“If I’d waited till I actually felt “ready” to pursue my dreams, I’d never have started.” Tim Federle

Darn right! If transported back to the beginning we looked at the mountain we must climb, probably we should be daunted. Not everyone, surely, but some of us will look at the mountain and turn aside. We didn’t actually know we were climbing this mountain. We can find the easier paths where the slope is gentle. We can turn back the other way. We can take the easy road. If we are deciding the course of our life by our commitment, and knowing where we should end up, knowing how hard it will be to get there, would we ever take that first step out the door?

Part of the problem is that looking back we DO have that knowledge. We walked the path, endured the trials, and faced down what challenges we could. We picked ourselves back up when hard times knocked us down, dusted ourselves off, and took the next step. And throwing all that information at us as we prepare to take that very first step is of course intimidating. Why? Because knowing all that wasn’t necessary for the journey. Knowing it would actually get in the way.

Knowing where you are going to end up is a conceit of looking backwards, hardly ever truly of looking to the path ahead.

Keep that in mind: Knowing is not a solution in every circumstance.

As we are white knuckling our way into the future we sometimes think its all up to us, that every wrong decision threatens our progress, and that its up to us to choose wisely. We feel that knowing is our only salvation. The real truth is that if we actually looked back at how we got to most places in our lives, knowing would have little to do with so many things. We would see our own hand has been conspicuously absent from the tiller. We’ve been asleep at the wheel and got to places we never began by imagining. Or it simply didn’t turn out as expected. Others paved the way for us and we followed in their wake. We got pushed by rough seas and chivied against our will. Our own powers of control and insight are simply very often exaggerated…… The futures our decisions point to are not always what we imagine.

But we also, sometimes, seem incapable of taking our eyes off the future. We are committed to the path, because every fiber of our being tells us this is what matters, this is what I need to be doing, this has a place in my life. The other stuff is just a waste of time. If we can’t do what we think we should be doing, then its all a waste of time. If I know with solid conviction that the art I want to make is this exactly, then how can I settle for less?

Another formulation might be, if I only have a limited amount of time I can spend making my art, then I simply have to be making these things and no others. If it were the last day before the earth exploded, what would I add to the world? Some ‘experiment’? Some frivolous fart at posterity? And global catastrophes aside, my own end is assured, perhaps sooner than latter. If there is so much at stake in my efforts to bring beauty to the world, how could I not make the very best I know I am capable of? Can I accept even a moment’s worth of something less?

This second formulation essentially has the same misinformation at the crux of the decision: That its all or its nothing, and that our knowing plays a crucial role. We can get paralyzed thinking we only can afford to make these pots and no others, that the value of the future is somehow irrevocably set. And we can become immobilized by thinking that our first step on the path locks us into an inescapable future, that we are committed, all or nothing. We are paralyzed by knowing what to fear and also knowing what we love, paradoxically. They both become the potential excuses for not doing anything.

Knowing what we take to be the important facts we contort ourselves into immobility. We induce our own mental cramps by overthinking rather than simply doing. And as in Zeno’s paradox itself, the evidence that is so willfully ignored is that the doing itself is what matters, not just what we think about it.

Consider how fatuous the idea of ‘knowing’ becomes in this meme below.

knowing and trusting


Let that sink in for a moment. Knowing closes as many doors as it occasionally opens. And the twist? Whatever we think we knew, the person/circumstances can change.

So here is the third formulation: We count our expectation of the creative life as the pretext for being there when, in fact, being there actually creates the condition that really matters. We sometimes feel we require wanting to be in the studio before we can be in the studio. And so we wait for that feeling. We wait until we want it. If we are in a dark place or are confused, it may turn out that we have lost sight of wanting it. Waiting for it, it may never come again……

But the problem isn’t our need for that feeling, its that sometimes we forget. Sometimes we forget why we like being in the studio, and how that even happens. Wanting to be in the studio is a side effect of being in the studio, not the other way around. Its like we are saying we can’t eat unless we have a fork. Its putting the cart before the horse. The fork is not the important thing, it merely helps us do the job.

What we have forgotten is that we actually love being there. We may have ended up feeling strongly about some specific object we feel destined to make, but we were in love with the studio long before that piece of information came our way. And the silly thing is that if we look back at our past infatuations, we can see our history littered with former loves and cast off lovers. We often have simply confused our affection for the product with the real and deep relationship we have with the process. What we make will come and go, but our life in the studio is as close as we get to a constant value. THAT should be the center of our understanding. The cart and the horse all lined up correctly.

The confusion of retroactively mythologizing the mountain and knowing what it will take to climb puts into our crosshairs the blind spot of not being familiar with the process. Seeing the dangers but not the actual love that will grow in us as we climb, of course it will seem intimidating. The climbing itself IS our reward. There is no end, no highest peak of the mountain, except where you are when you decide to look back. The point is not the summit but the climb itself.

And in the same way we often forget that our pots or other art objects themselves are merely blips on the continuum. They are mere resting points in the progression of what we will be interested in and the eventual proliferation of forms that will come from our hands.

But its easy to get duped by the impressive things we make. We see this crystalline moment of our desire and extend its hold over us as far into the future as we can imagine. But the truth is that making itself changes us. Even when we are making what we think we should be making our sense of rightness is evolving. As I have said repeatedly on this blog, what we are working on is not really the pot or art before us, the clay between our fingers, but our own selves.

When we look back or we look forward we take our eye off the ball. Sure, its good to remember, its good to anticipate, but we have to live in the present, and it is our own selves that have to make it through whatever obstacle course is presented to us. We can’t afford to get hung up in our doubts, but neither should we be overcommitted to the wrong things. Change is in our nature. If we don’t know exactly what pots we will like best in ten years, that should take some pressure off needing to make specifically these things and only these right now. In ten years time we may even come to hate that commitment as our biggest regret.

The point is, you don’t know, precisely, but what you do know is that your tastes will be different in subtle and large ways. One true fact of our lives is that we are different creatures as we pass from the cradle to our grave. My fact of the moment: I hate the pots I was making two years ago. If I had spent even more time making them I would be sick right now. That would have been the waste, making the stuff I really really liked not so long ago…… Isn’t that a strange but normal situation, desire and regret tangled together?

What does that tell us about the trip up the mountain? This: The person making the climb is not the same person who started out. And so, we can’t really go back. And we can’t jump ahead either. Because the person who has the right to evaluate our work five years (or five minutes) from now may not be very much like the person whose job it is to actually make these things. All we have is what we do right now. Do what you think is best, or as best as you can, but don’t get hung up in today’s best. It won’t be tomorrow’s best.

Making art is not a laboratory experiment with ideal conditions, pinpoint accuracy, or even an absolute objective target. And if you are in some way obstructed from your best today, you have absolutely no idea whether what you are capable of will seem a miracle in the future. So do it anyway.

Don’t save yourself for the best. The ‘best’ is not why you are here. It is the doing itself which justifies us. The best is at most a shifting ephemeral target. So the practice of making has to involve chasing something that might cross our path in unexpected ways and at unanticipated points. Knowing targets is just inadequate. Some knowing is useful, don’t get me wrong, but its use is in helping us ask the right questions rather than in providing the right answers. Its best use is in putting us on actual paths, not identifying where those paths will lead with any certainty.

Let me say that again: Knowing is useful in helping us ask the right questions more often than in getting the answers right. Knowing answers is conditional and provisional. Even brilliant answers to the wrong question are worse than tentative answers to the right questions. Think of our time in the studio as asking better question. Getting the right answer is a poor way to spend your time if the question itself was terrible…… We’ve seen plenty of artists asking poor questions, haven’t we? The limits of what they know are so clearly exposed.

Things to think about, surely.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

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, Beauty, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Zeno’s paradox for potters and other creatives

  1. “Poetry is just the evidence of your life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
    Leonard Cohen

  2. From Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto For Growth:

    #9 Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

    #17 ____________________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.

    #40 Avoid fields. Jump fences. Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.

  3. Rich Panico says:

    Carter, just discovered your Blog. Its a real beauty and i admire your writing. keep on keeping’ on!

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