Sticks, Frogs, and Drawing Boards

2014-09-15 20.17.11A broken yarn bowl – sad potter is sad


If you follow me on G+, you’ll know that in addition to my work as a writer, I am also a potter; as in I work with clay, both throwing on the wheel and hand building. I have recently rediscovered an old hobby as well: knitting. So what do these three things–writing, ceramics, and knitting–have in common?

It’s all too easy to screw up in any of them.

When I spend time at the studio, I typically have a plan, as in, “Today, I’m going to throw small serving bowls on the wheel.” I start by weighing out chunks of  2 1/2 pounds of clay, then wedge (work the clay so the air bubbles get smoothed out), and plunk it on the wheel to throw. In an ideal day, I’ll end up with what I’ve planned about 75% of the time. Often, I’ll make mudpies.

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Sometimes, I’ll get the bowl thrown just right. In that case, it will need to dry for several days before it’s stiff enough to trim and shape, adding a foot ring, and taking off excess thickness at the base. Sometimes, when I trim, I’ll trim right through the pot. Oops.

But if that doesn’t happen, and I get a bowl whose shape I like, where the sides and rim are the right thickness, then I’m ready to sign the bottom and put it on the shelf to dry fully in preparation for its first trip to the kiln. Hard part over, right? Well, no. Last week, I squeezed the sides of the trimmed bowl when turning it over and warped it. I had 3 choices: try to return it to round (never really works), toss it (after all that work?), or hit it with a stick.


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So I hit it with a stick and created a deliberately squared, non-symmetric bowl.


It’s easy to mess up knitting, too, especially when you’re watching world series baseball and not looking too closely at the pattern.  Really, I should just knit plain old stockinette, but where’s the fun in that?

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If you look at the left hand edge by the knitting needle, you’ll see several rows that don’t match the pattern. I was off by ONE row. But the pattern got messed up. I could say screw it and keep going or choose to return to the pattern and have a half inch that doesn’t match. (Either way, every time I looked at the finished piece, it would be like sticking a thumb in my eye.) Or I could choose to frog the mistake rows. (Frogging in knitting is tearing out mistakes . . . because you ‘rip it, rip it.’)

Frogging will commence after dinner. Sigh.


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Which brings me to the drawing board. So I recently did a deep revision pass on TIME AND TITHE, the sequel to my first published novel, THE BETWEEN. I sent the manuscript to a handful of my trusty beta readers to get one last big picture sense of the story before it heads to the editor next month. And they all said pretty much the same thing.

The opening chapters had issues.

Pretty significant issues related to the fact that this is a sequel and I didn’t do a good enough job drawing readers into the present story while anchoring them in the prior one.


I could ignore them.

I could totally ignore them because hey, what do they know, it’s my story anyway. Oh, poor misunderstood artiste, me. . . (Yeah, no. Totally not me.)

But that would be no different from putting a poorly formed bowl in the kiln, or finishing a shawl with a noticeable error in the stitch pattern. So I”m going to hit it. With a frog. Or something.

Actually, I’m reworking those problematic opening chapters after solving the problem with my dear friend and reader extraordinaire, Diane, helped by the liberal application of a bottle of wine. I’m actually really excited to rebuild the opening. It will be much stronger and much more compelling than my original idea.

Art is transformation, and mistakes are an invitation to let something magical into the process. And as an old ceramics teacher used to say, ‘Don’t be afraid to hit it with a stick.’


LJ Cohen

LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, reading omnivore, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. In love with words since early childhood, Lisa filled dozens of notebooks with her scribbles long before there were such a thing as word processors.

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  1. it’s hard whenever you have to completely rework a section of a book (or an art piece, or a costume; trust me, i know. i’ve had to rip so many stitches in the process of making my renaissance faire costumes). i’m in the middle of reworking my current novel for the umpteenth time, trying to get the beginning just so. so hey, at least you’re not alone <3

    • I absolutely struggle over beginnings and have in every single one of my novels. Why can’t I just skip over the start and begin where the story works??? Oh, yeah, I have to go through the beginning to get there. And fixing the broking start is what revision is for. : )

      • You know, though, stories never really have a beginning or an end. Technically things are always happening, so we always start stories in the middle of something. Whatever situation we use to start the story, there is always something that came before it that led to the point which call the “start”. And likewise, even when we “end” the story, life will go on in our imaginary worlds for our characters because something will always happen next if we hang close enough for long enough to that imagination. So, it’s perfectly fine to “start” wherever you like in the chain of events, and then back up or move forward to fill the reader in from there. : )

        • I know, Melody, but my brain seems to have a hard time working non-linearly. At least in first draft. Later I can work forwards or backwards, though. Which is very helpful for revision.


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