Facing the First Day: What a Writer Can Learn from a Lump of Clay

A student makes a tiny table out of clay, and sets on top of that two even tinier clay cups.  Another picks pieces of green off with his fingernails then sticks them to a brown trunk so that they become leaves.  Across the table, his classmate carefully carves a face into a circle of clay with the point of her pencil.

To any passerby, this would look like a strange way to start a writing class.  To me, it’s perfect; it’s the best way I’ve found to settle the nervous stomachs of my students, to answer the question I hear most: Am I really ready to do this?

Every semester, I enter the classroom and see faces which show excitement, but also fear.  After all, in making poems we make small records of ourselves, of our most embarrassing loves and our most seemingly-untouchable dreams, our deepest fears and darkest nightmares.  Even if students are not required to take a creative writing class and sign up because they want to study writing, there’s still a fair amount of fear. 

Each student is expected – required, even – not only to give but to open themselves to criticism, to hear what others really think of the poems they’ve probably kept to themselves for years, in notebooks hidden between mattresses and box-springs, in files relegated to the farthest corners of their hard drives.  It’s kind of like exchanging gifts with a new friend: it’s fun and exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking: will they like what you got them? And will you like what they got you? Inside each wrapped, ribboned, and bowed package is a surprise, be it wonderful or terrible, and you never quite know what you’ll get. 

Enrolling in a creative writing class means facing this fear, but also facing the fear of the unknown. In a creative writing class, the students will not only give the gift, but make the gift. A writing class is driven by what they produce, by what they say in response to what others produce.  It is, by its very nature, a class in which the only thing that can be expected is the unexpected.  Stepping into the class is like unwrapping that one present in the back of the tree that’s either wrapped in newspaper or plain brown paper. It could be anything. A kitten.  A BB gun. The ugliest pair of socks ever.

It’s not an easy thing for students to do, and, as a teacher, I feel it’s important for me to recognize their bravery.  On our day of class, I bring in a gift of my own: several packs of clay, rainbowing down the spectrum.  I let play for a while before I tell them what the gift is meant to tell them: that there’s joy in the making, and this is the one thing that can be expected in such a class. Even if it’s not perfect (as clay creations rarely are) and even if it’s not permanent (as clay creations never are), there’s still that great joy in making, in trying and trying and trying again, the kind of joy I felt when I reached under the tree, grabbed a package, and found not only a great pair of socks but a Play-Doh barber shop inside.

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