Unlikely Influences: What Lisa Shapter learned about writing from pottery

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by Lisa Shapter and was originally published on her site last year, so the references at the end to her progress through the stories are not current.

“Conner-prairie-pottery-rack”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ways of doing art

by Lisa Shapter

One of the most important influences on my writing was a pottery class I took in college.

That’s right, pottery.

My pottery professor taught us the major types of pottery construction and how to make clay, mix glazes, run a wood-fired kiln (designed and built by advanced students), and keep the studio clean and organized. He also taught us how to be working artists.
He explained that there are two basic approaches to doing art: process and planning. I’ve met, seen documentaries, and read about these two types doing every other kind of art (painting, printmaking, puppetry, music, acting, dance, mime, sculpture, writing, etc.) Process people let art evolve organically from within without consciously planning or censoring the work as it forms. “The clay knows what it wants to do.” “Let’s get started and see how this turns out.” “I’ve got the character, I’ll find the answer in rehearsal.” Are process-style statements.

Planning people work from a consciously thought out structure, plan or outline. They tend to get irritated when the art develops currents of its own that go outside of that plan: they create art in order to perfect the vision in that plan or outline using a set of orderly techniques. (And every type of art has guidebooks that will tell you what to do at each stage or how to fix a particular type of problem.) They talk about the technical possibilities of the medium (clay, paint, metal etc.) and when and how they did or did not match their original idea for the piece.

Both methods (and every variation on them) are valuable and successful ways of doing art, my pottery professor taught. A growing artist should try different ways of doing art and practice their art with the rigor and discipline of a classical musician or professional dancer.

I’m a process artist. I start with a blank page and write when a character starts talking. This horrified some of my visual artist house mates: “But you have no control!” I don’t want control, not at the drafting stage (that’s what revisions are for). I don’t want to interrupt, intervene, modify or censor: I want to bring the narrator forward and get as much information out of him or her as possible (the overt story they are telling as well as the background sensory details and half-conscious thoughts). I like the results: they can be multi-layered and vital (and they can flop, so can any artist on a bad day). So I practice: write one story a week, revise it as best I can within five or six days, and send it out. (I do go back to stories later but my initial goal is to send them to the first magazine that very week.) I’ve finished 98 stories this way: 4 of them have been published. (Most magazines only take 1 or 2% of the stories sent to them.)

I’ve just finished the last story in the First Series (a set of stories covering 19 days on a colony world, one story to each day of the alien week.) I’ve written the first story of the Second Series (a second character’s very different perspective on that series of 19 days.) When I try to write the next story, next week, I may get nothing at all, I may get other stories from completely different narrators but I can open a blank screen, put my hands on the keyboard, and ask the Second Series narrator, “So what happened the next day? What’s the story in that particular Tuesday? How did you get from everything falling apart to everything coming together in only 19 days? What did the 2nd little piece of that look like?”

Lisa Shapter attended Earlham College in Indiana and the Bread Loaf Young Writers’ Conference (now the New England Young Writers’ Conference) in Vermont. She has worked for Wesleyan University Press and the Johns Hopkins University Press and a succession of small libraries. Her interrelated work explores themes of identity, orientation, and gender.

Inspired by Robertson Davies, she writes composite stories from the perspectives of multiple narrators, each with their own truths, half-truths, and shortfalls. Although each of her novellas and short stories stands on its own, each is part of a larger story told across several pieces that develops facets and shadows under different narrators’ perspectives. A Day in Deep Freeze is the first work written for the Canadian 3-Day Novel Contest to be published by a non-sponsoring publisher.

Lisa Shapter lives in New England where she writes a short story each week, collects antique typewriters, and researches the history of women in SF. She once apprenticed to an ABAA antiquarian bookdealer in preparation to open a second-hand SF/F bookstore that never got off the ground. Her LBGT-friendly feminist military SF has appeared in Black Denim Lit, Expanded Horizons, Four Star Stories, Kaleidotrope, and in the M-Brane SF anthology Things We Are Not.

Her alternate history novella A Day in Deep Freeze was published last month by Aqueduct Press. Her short story “Planet 50” is coming out this month in Black Denim Lit and two sequels to that story will follow in the same magazine this summer.