Sunday, November 23, 2008

With Perfect Clarity

52. With Perfect Clarity

Several years after finishing graduate school I started working for a scholarly press. The money was regular, it was good to have my family on health insurance, and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was about memory.
The work I did was meticulous, exacting, and highly repetitive. Occasionally I would get asked a question about some point of detail, or just asked, “Have you done x?” Invariably I would answer, “I think so, let me go check.”
Often this would surprise them. “You think so? You mean you don’t remember? You were just on this half an hour ago. Do you usually have trouble remembering things?”
To which I would patiently reply, “Of course I remember doing that. I’ve done that particular thing hundreds of times and I can remember every detail of that operation, with perfect clarity. What I can’t be sure of, and don’t want to guess about, is if any of those memories are of today’s work and the particular job you want to know about.” It’s not that I don’t remember enough, it’s that I remember too much, all those other occasions that are no longer relevant.
For potters, this comes up with all those repetitive chores around the studio, especially the really anonymous ones. For me, in particular, switching up an electric kiln often has to be re-checked. You’re busy, you’re moving fast, you ask yourself, “Have I turned up the electric kiln? Certainly I remember having turned up the electric kiln, but what did I do just before then and just after? Am I remembering switching it up today or some other day?”
And so you check, just to be sure.
This can also be important while mixing glazes. I make check marks on the recipe card. “Have I measured out the dolomite?” An interrupting phone call or family emergency could ruin an entire glaze bucket. “Don’t you remember having measured out the dolomite?” “Sure I do, hundreds of times, with perfect clarity.”
Where error can intrude it will. Keeping good notes and double-checking will protect you and your work from some of that error. I’m sure that there are people out there with perfect memories who can recall every detail of their lives in its correct sequence by date and hour, but they don’t work in my studio and I suspect that they don’t work in yours either. When you are learning to be a potter you are not only learning what the clay requires you are also learning about what you require. Adapt your working habits accordingly.

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