Thursday, February 25, 2010

"failing and breaking, failing and learning and failing again"

Rebecca Brown's wonderful essay on Failure in The Stranger contains this:

Young Sook Park, Korea's foremost ceramic artist, was asked to make a group of moon jars for show in a gallery. A moon jar is a traditional Korean vessel made of two thrown pots, pressed together at their lips to make one.

Moon jars developed in the neo- Confucian culture of the Choson dynasty between the l5th and early 20th centuries and are the epitome of Choson sensibility, representing elegance, humility, integrity, purity, and self-control. They are solid white. Traditionally, moon jars have been relatively small—the size you can hold in one or both of your hands.

But when Park went to look at the gallery and saw how huge it was, she realized that traditionally sized moon jars—which had been made for more intimate settings—would not be right there. So she decided to make really big ones. And though she had been a ceramist for decades, it took Park five years to make a moon jar the size she wanted.

It was one of these five-years-in-the-making moon jars that I saw at the Seattle Asian Art Museum a while back, and it was stunning. Even if you didn't know what went into making it, you'd just find it plain beautiful.

Then, when I saw the making-of video, I was blown away. In one scene, a bunch of guys are loading some big, white, beautiful pots onto the back of a cart.

As I watched the video I thought, They're being kind of cavalier—just popping those babies into the cart like that, with just a little piece of cloth between them. Then the guys push the cart a little way down a path and unload the cart, yanking the pots off and hauling them up into these woods.

Then I saw the artist, Young Sook Park, standing next to a big shallow hole in the ground. The guys bring the pots over to her, and she takes a hammer and slams it right into a pot. The pot breaks and she hammers it again and again, into smaller pieces, then kicks the busted pieces of pot into the hole, and the guys bring another pot and she does it again. Smashing all these huge beautiful pots to smithereens.

It turns out that each of those pots had some little flaw or crack or blemish, something most people wouldn't see, but not exactly what the artist wanted. So she knocked apart that "draft" to see how and where it broke apart, then took that knowledge back to her studio and started another pot again.

She did this for years, failing and breaking, failing and learning and failing again on the way to make the object she desired.

The article is here.

as usual, most of the really good stuff starts out wearing Slayer underpants


Anne Gallagher said...

Thank you for this Janet.

Stephanie Barr said...

Very appropriate.

Writing is like that, at least for most of us. Natural story-telling is one thing, but you still need to understand the rules (even if you break a couple - much better to do so with a reason than through ignorance) and learn craftsmanship.

Like artistry, craftsmanship in writing is about understanding and using the subtleties of language and taking something as clumsy as words to paint pictures, conjure conversation a reader can hear, evoke memories, even simulates sensations like smell and exhaustion.

You might know what story to tell, be a font of fantastic ideas, but you need your tools and your skills to communicate them to others.

At least, that's my opinion.

Christi Goddard said...

Sometimes, in some ways, I would rather fail than succeed. When I fail, I learn from it, but when I succeed, I always go, "Wait a minute... how'd I do that?" and learn nothing, except for how to stop sounding as shocked each time.

Anonymous said...

I believe we have some moon pots at The Newark Museum in New Jersey. I'm not sure they're hers, though.


Alli Sinclair said...

Love, love, love this story. Thanks so much for sharing (and inspiring - especially since I'm doing yet another draft of my MS right now!).

Andrea Coulter said...

My twin sister's a ceramist, and I recently helped her smash a bunch of substandard work. I think it was harder for me than for her - I didn't see all the flaws, but she did. When I'd protest the smashing of this piece or that, she'd just smile and say that the next one she made would be better.

She and I have found a lot of similarities between ceramics and writing. I suppose art is art, and the pursuit of perfection translates. Still, I'm glad I can figuratively tear apart my drafts while editing instead of literally destroying them :)

Sean Ferrell said...

Words cannot express how deeply this pierced me.

Alice Sabo said...

Having been a scenic artist for a time, I learned to be fairly Zen about creating. After spending hours, if not days, creating scenery for shows that don't happen or scenes that are cut, you learn to find your joy in the process. And you learn to appreciate your own journey towards excellence.

The Daring Novelist said...

Potters have the advantage in that they can literally smash things up with a hammer. It's satisfying.

I try to get some satisfaction out of ripping and remodeling a manuscript, but it's just intellectual. No great crunch! Crash! Thunk! (Although the cats enjoy the resulting paper balls.)

Unknown said...

However much I loathe failing, I must agree. I wouldn't write as well as I do today if I had clung on to my first novel ten years ago and never decided to tear it apart, look what I did wrong, learned, and started on a new piece. As a writer, I'm simply lucky because even when I break apart my work, it's still there and not in tiny tiny clay pieces in a hole in the ground.

Andrew said...

Tangential musing on the grammar of hypertext:

After skimming your post and realizing it was 99% quote, I went back to the top and followed the link for "Rebecca Brown's"--expecting it to be the quoted essay. I read the whole thing before noticing it was not. I intended to inform you of your error, but was interrupted by noticing my own.

While I had seen the link for "The article is here" at the bottom, I assumed it was a repeat link, as one often finds when a poster wants to emphasize and promote a link forecefully.

My question: if the initial link had only been under "Rebecca Brown", leaving the possessive apostrophe-S un-linked (and somewhat dangling, perhaps), would that have conveyed more clearly its content to me? I think it likely. Underlin(k)ing the whole possessive, as you have, implies that the link belongs to her. Underlining only the proper name implies that it is a link about her.

Not a nitpick, just a musing. Now I think I'll go actually read the (second) article...

Sarah Allen said...

Wow, really interesting stuff. I always feel like I am part of the "in" group of writers after I read this blog.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Rebecca Knight said...

This really speaks to me right now :). I feel calmer just for having read it.

Also, I am now on a quest to find and procure Slayer underpants.

Janet Reid said...

Andrew, very interesting point you raise. I've never heard the phrase "grammar of hypertext" before.

My first reaction was "hey, you're lucky the damn link works" since I've had to do some (ok,lots of) link fixes in my day.

My second reaction is this is going to be something to think about.

Now I have go google "grammar of hypertext" to see if anyone is talking about it and if so what they're saying.

Work? pffft. This is research!!

M.R.J. Le Blanc said...

Wow! If ever there was a great story of perseverence, that's one of them.

Now I have to go look up moon pots. You piqued my interest.

Coral Fellows said...

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." - Mr. Beckett

Unknown said...

This is why I always keep a hammer next to my laptop...

Actually, that's to keep the kids away from me while I'm working, but it's nice to know there are other uses for it.

Unknown said...

Wow - this happens to be one of those times when I happen across a post that I really needed to read. Thanks for the reminder.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Thanks. This was a very interesting story.

It's like that story about Thomas Edison: "I did not fail 1000 times at making a ligh tbulb. I learned 1000 ways Not to make a light bulb."