Sunday, December 28, 2008

Telling Stories

90. Telling Stories

Once upon a time, a student of ceramics happened to be throwing a pot and was having some difficulty. Aside from the usual challenges associated with throwing a tallish sort of pot, he was nervous. You see, he had an audience, a young woman who would later become his ex-wife.
She asked, “Does my watching make you nervous?”
He agreed that it did.
“Too bad. If you’re going to ever work teaching other people how to do this you’d better get used to people watching you.”
He had to admit her point and persevered.
Years later, a student asked him, “Do you want us to not look at the clay while we’re pulling it up?”
Apparently he had been showing off by maintaining eye contact with his (now much larger) audience while demonstrating throwing. He apologized and assured them that they should, by all means, watch the clay when they were throwing.
Learning about ceramics is not just about reading books and manipulating clay. For beginning students it may be enough to be shown the physical skills required for handbuilding and throwing, but for more advanced students to learn the broader lessons and skills of ceramics, stories must be told. (If you’re naturally shy about this sort of thing you’ll just have to get over it.)
This is one of those areas where experience confers so many advantages. Not only are there a wider selection of stories to choose from (your own as well as those told to you by others), you’ve had more practice at telling them. The same practice that makes you a better potter also makes you better at telling the stories about the making of pots. Of course, this may require a particularly tolerant spouse since the spouse often ends up hearing the stories over and over again.
Furthermore it’s not just a teacher’s students who need to hear stories. Part of what makes a handmade pot more personal for the buyer is knowing something about the maker. Even just the small talk of a day at the Fair is going to demand much more from you than, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am.”
“So, you’re from Kansas? That’s certainly a long way to come. How was your drive?”
You could just answer, “Fine.” But what if your van caught fire in the mountains of West Virginia and you had to crawl under it to put it out, but the fire extinguisher was mysteriously empty, so you used water instead, and when you yelled to the kids to get away from the van you heard them reply from way up the slope along the road, “We already have, Dad”? Or maybe you miscalculated your timing and drove across the George Washington bridge into New York City at five p.m. on a Friday afternoon, bumper-to-bumper, bouncing along through the potholes with your eight year-old son gleefully bouncing around in the back of the van, asking you to go faster, like it was some sort of amusement park ride? Or maybe you just took a side trip at Flagstaff to let both son and daughter stare in amazement at the Grand Canyon for the first time. (“Kids, this is what can happen when erosion gets really out of hand.”) Don’t little stories like that give your customer more value than just a pot and the word, “Fine”?
Many of us in our culture are starved for story material. Think about all of those men who would have nothing to talk about at all if it weren’t for sports. I’ve even had a fellow tell me about his restaurant dinner the night before, and what he ordered, and what he usually orders, and why they go to that particular Mexican restaurant because they’re related to the people who run the other restaurants, and there’s this feud that’s been going on for years (though no one can remember what started it), and if you’re a relative, and you go to one of those other restaurants, it means you’re picking sides.
Jeesh! Please, give these people something better to talk about!
Thinking of food, though, reminds me of the last Art Department pig roast, when the pans collecting the grease under the pig (all of it inside a big, gas kiln) caught fire, and they thought for a moment that the whole building was going to go, and…well…perhaps some other time.

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