Once in awhile, as students are practicing on the wheel, I’ll announce, “It’s storytime.” Usually – maybe oddly – there are a couple of cheers. I think that maybe students might be used to teachers getting distracted with stories, going off-track the subject of the day. They would prefer the stories over the drills. I try to use stories as a way to get students to think as they practice. Lucky teacher, this gal, in that my subject matter involves the muscles as well as the mind, and that both can be engaged at the same time.
We know that narrative is compelling. Narrative – like pottery – really, like narrative on pottery – is how we know so much about our collective history. I had really dry history teachers in high school. Content, memorize, test, repeat. So I was ready for art history in college to be a bit of a nap. But the first day I met Maureen Vissat, I realized I was in for a different sort of experience. Maureen hooked us on the history of art with the stories. We got to know so much dirt on the renaissance artists! Once we were hooked in with the stories… well, we wanted to know the dates, places, and facts so we could re-tell the stories at parties. You say manipulation; I say great teaching. I miss her.
Turns out, there is real science behind why students enjoy stories – really, why we all do. And storytelling is in the midst of a seismic shift, because technology is transforming how we do it – and expanding the rational of why we do it. (The field of narrative medicine is utterly fascinating to me.) Check out this conference on the Future of Storytelling that took place last week in New York. The speakers all presented their topics as narrative films that are fabulous. I’m about halfway through watching them, in no particular order, and so far Jonah Sachs’s is my favorite. Trying to figure out how to build a lesson around this in Graphic Design, but that’s a tangent.
Anyhow, I stumbled on the conference because I investigated a link sent by a colleague. The video he sent was published by Future of Storytelling, but not part of this conference. It’s a gorgeous little film. And one could argue that the research is motivated by manipulation, but, frankly, I think that motivating people to give is a pretty solid rationale.
As for me, my stories are all over the map. One of my favorites is coming up this week, and it sort of relates to the idea of storytelling with meaning and intention, so I’ll retell it here. Intention is the point of this one, and I don’t go quite so deeply into the tale when I’m telling it to a class. When my potters hear this story, I simply want them to develop the ability to control the direction of their walls.
While I was teaching at PHS, I decided to invite my friend Jon – whom I hadn’t seen in at least three years – to demonstrate throwing techniques to my students. I was anxious – we’d always had a good rapport, but three years is a long time, and I hadn’t quite settled into the rhythms of my job yet. The invitation felt right, but oddly off-balance.
Jon remains one of the most gifted potters I know, equally as gifted at pulling metaphors out of clay as he is at the medium itself. So he’s demonstrating to my students; I’m sitting on a bucket in the corner, mostly trying to process the whole scene. He asked them how they know what to make when they start out, and in response to the shrugs, he urged them to have a plan – and intention.
Then he described: “The difference between just sitting down at the wheel to throw – it feels good, right? – and throwing with intention… it’s like the difference between a kiss and a KISS.”
The kids tittered.
I fell off my bucket.
Embarrassing, at the time.
The demo continued. And I still use the metaphor, now to studios full of teenage boys. (Let it never be said that I’m timid…) It works.
In the years since, I’ve come to realize that Jon was more right than any of us probably realized at the time of the tale. And his metaphor doesn’t just apply to pottery. I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between just getting through each day, and living life with bigger intentions than this.
Does intention set us up for failure? Maybe. Does it sometimes seem pointless? Definitely. Recently I tried to make a puzzle jug. It took me more than eight tries to create the piece. I kept thinking about the cups I could have been throwing (ho-hum), the horses I could have been riding, spending time with my friends, and *%&$ this *%&# clay. But I had a plan. Maybe that plan didn’t mean anything to anyone else but me, but it meant something to me and I was determined to carry it out.
We can get by. We can get through each day. At some points in our life, we owe ourselves congratulations just for doing so. Sometimes I feel like I drift in and out of this place of patting myself on the back just for getting over the daily hurdles. Sticking with Jon’s metaphor, sometimes life can feel like a series of pecks on the cheek.
I could have lived without my puzzle jug. No one would have really known the difference… besides me. And I guess we can get by without the kisses. But I know, for myself, when I’ve gone for awhile in the drifting place, it’s harder to get out of bed in the morning. Intentions – and how we rise to them or shrink away from them – define who we are.
I know all of this – and yet I’m still stuck in trying to figure out what comes next. It’s… a puzzle.