Free Vase

For more than 30 years, I’ve displayed a hand-thrown porcelain vase in my home. It has an opalescent glaze that I’ve always liked. As an off-again, on-again potter, I admire the skill needed to make the vase. Recently, when I wiped the shelf it sits on, I saw the artist’s name inscribed on the bottom and recalled the odd coincidence that led to me having the vase.  Inside Vase

My younger sister Margo and I are two years apart, and during college, we ran in different social circles. One quarter, we each took an introductory ceramics class at the Toledo Museum of Art (my class was at 9:00; hers was at 1:00). Consequently, we worked in the same ceramics studio but at different times of day.

Two assistants—both accomplished potters—helped students figure out how to use a kick wheel to throw a pot. To do this, you have to balance on your left leg and use your right foot to regularly kick a bar that keeps the pottery wheel spinning fast enough so you can use both hands to center your gray lump of stoneware. I was WAY too uncoordinated to do this, but gamely tried for the duration of the class.

Fortunately, I was better at making hand built pieces, so my grades on those pieces kept me from failing. Margo was a little better at throwing pots on the wheel, but not much. We both produced awkward heavy bowls we should have trashed.

Unbeknownst to us, the two assistants were good friends, and they had taken an interest in us. Jeff was attracted to Margo, while Pete was interested in me.

With her waist-length dark hair and dimples, Margo had been turn-and-stare, good-looking since she was 14. I didn’t come into my own looks and style—honey blonde wavy hair—until I was in college. I wasn’t as used to being noticed as Margo was.

30 years later . . .

30 years later . . .

We both enjoyed flirting with our respective guys, but neither Margo nor I mentioned the minor flirtation we each had underway. We both had jobs and school and didn’t see each other that often. Similarly, the guys didn’t know they were chatting up sisters until one day during finals. After our pathetic bowls and mugs had been fired in the kiln, Margo and I came in together to pick them up. Jeff and Pete were cleaning the studio while they waited for students to claim their pieces.

Jeff was about to discard the porcelain vase he’d made because it had a small chip off the bottom and the some of the glaze on the side was too opaque. We asked if we could keep it—it was so pretty, especially compared to what each of us had made. Pete, in turn, gave Margo two tall porcelain vases.

But although I have dusted it a thousand times, I rarely see it anymore, so I think it’s time to give it to someone who will like it as much as I have. Do any of you want it?

This blog was inspired by a book called The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffell.

Competing With Friends for Writers’ Awards

Earlier this month, I applied for an Emerging Writer’s Grant and a Loft Creative Prose Mentorship, knowing full well that I’m competing with my good friends for these honors. I really want to win. So do the women in my creative nonfiction writers group.

We’ve known each other for years. We’ve visited each other’s homes. We’ve cried together when one of our circle died. These women often know more know about the contents of my mind and heart than some of my family members do—they read my innermost thoughts firsthand when our group meets.

They are insightful critics and steadfast cheerleaders. Because we share personal essays and memoir, our subject matter is always personal. Sharing our stories requires trust, and we’ve strengthened that trust over the years. The other writers don’t judge me or my life. But they do evaluate my writing craft and urge me to do my best. We all understand that the writer is different from the writing.

Perhaps the ability to draw the distinction between the person and the craft is why we’re able to draw other distinctions and balance two seemingly conflicting ideas: we’re friends and we’re competing.

Although there have occasionally been moments of frustration or resentment among the group members, we have been able to rise above them. For me, these aspects of our group dynamic have helped keep our competition from turning into conflict—

  • All of us are accomplished writers who deserve to win a grant or a mentorship. But we know that winning these contests is a crapshoot. Once you’ve met a certain level of competence, the next round of judging is subjective—my memoir about wrestling with feminism in 1979 might not appeal to a judge as much as my friend’s essays about traveling in Cuba. Luck plays a role.
  • Over the years, we have fostered a “one for all, all for one” mentality. When illness sapped our founder’s energy, the group mounted a submissions campaign to help her get published. When members ask the group to review their grant proposals, we give them our best advice.
  • Some of us openly state that we’re going after an award; others are more circumspect—each according to her personality. Perhaps that tact and reticence is what enables us to avoid open conflict.

I don’t know for sure what the magic is. And I hope talking about it doesn’t wreck it. I’m proud to be a part of a group that has navigated these tricky waters successfully . . . so far.

I want an Emerging Writer’s Grant or a Loft Mentorship. If someone else in the group wins, I’ll be sorely disappointed for myself. But I’ll be happy for her.