Clay Has a Memory.

By: Jen Shoop

In her lovely book on creativity, potter Frances Palmer writes: “One of the first rules I learned about making pots is that clay has a memory: When you throw a pot, the shape that is created at the beginning is the shape that the clay will move toward as it dries.” I have to say that at 37, after decades of writing daily, I returned from this passage to my computer with a radically new perspective on language. Words, too, have a memory. They have multiple, in fact: they have a social memory, a historical memory, and of course a deeply and idiosyncratically personal one. What I mean is that there are words too freighted with social baggage to use right now without inviting (deserved) backlash. There are also words that have fallen out of favor, or that have faded into obsolescence, or that have collected new and different meanings across the march of time. And there are words to which we pin peculiar meaning: in an exchange about my recently deceased colleague, someone said: “He was the only person I’ve ever heard use the word ‘disambiguate.’ And I’ve used it ever since.” I couldn’t recall Nate using the word, but I don’t think I’ll ever look on it the same way. That now belongs to him. Encountering it in a bland article, I will feel the tug of grief.

But there is a more abstract sense in which “clay has a memory.” Sometimes I sit down at my desk with nothing more than a word vibrating in my mind, as though a divining rod. I will spin an entire essay around that one word, or one metaphor, and it is as though the word itself contains a universe. As a specific example, a few weeks ago, I had the phrase: “my focus rolled away from me like yarn” reverberating through my afternoon. I could not deposit it anywhere. It was at once an accurate representation of the way I’d felt a few nights prior, beleaguered by motherly anxieties assiduously interrupting my sleep, and at once a nothing-at-all. I didn’t know where it belonged, or why it clung to me like pollen. But I put it down on paper and the rest of the essay grew around it, like a secret garden unfolding in time-lapse fashion: branches extending, vines encircling, thickets doubling in density. The result was a musing on love and letting go.

It sounds preposterous: this blood-letting borne of an innocuous gif of a skein rolling out of reach. But writing is magic in that way, beholden to its own fugitive rhythms and inspirations. And so when Palmer writes that “clay has a memory,” I think of the material in my own hands, the way I am as much a conduit of words as I am a thrower.


+Do you consider yourself creative?

+Musings on a Taylor Swift song I absolutely love.

+On doing small things with great love.

+What would you study if you were going back to school tomorrow?

+My daughter has a forbearance that far outstrips my own. (A reflection on her medical condition.)

Shopping Break.

+Another gorgeous wedding guest dress option, or this one — which is currently 70% off!

+Thanks to Mackenzie for discovering these adorable and reasonably priced swim trunks for boys — the patterns are fantastic! More swim for littles here, and vacation gear for littles (including beach toys!) here.

+These shrunken tees have been very popular with Magpies the last week! Inexpensive and come in tons of great colors.

+LOVE this new stationery set from one of my favorite Etsy paper vendors, Cara P. My other favorite: Erin Wallace, who just listed the exact invitation she dreamed up for me for Hill’s third birthday in her Etsy boutique.

+I have been eyeing these slides from Staud for weeks. You can get the look for less with these.

+Speaking of J. Crew, three recent buys: this cheery pink mini, this striped tee, and this sweatshirt for micro.

+These white jeans keep selling out!

+Eyeing this white blazer after seeing it on the chic Janie Pierrepont.

+Nicola Bathie just launched some fun new statement rings. Love this daisy style.

+Minnow recently launched a new set of travel bags / backpacks / etc. Adorable for summer trips!

+Love this simple and sophisticated black dress.

+Re-sharing this personalized tee that you all loved earlier this year in case any of you are Disney-bound!

+One baby gear regret: I thoroughly researched EVERYTHING and have very few regrets on gear, but I wish I’d bought a Stokke Tripp Trapp high chair. The one we had (Phil and Ted) was serviceable and easy to clean, but I love the look and philosophy of the Stokke.

+Speaking of baby gear: how stunning is this play mat?

+Punchy doormat.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

2 thoughts on “Clay Has a Memory.

  1. I think the metaphor of writing with words / throwing with clay is an apt one. And I agree that some words/phrases “belong” to people.

    Certain rules, too. I often think of editing an article for a journal that had a strict efficiency: you were required to slash words ruthlessly, which engrained in me a close attention to wordiness. My director also made me meticulous about dangling modifiers.

    ^not exactly what you wrote about, but it makes me think about all the ways our writing voices are influenced by the readers and editors in our lives.

    1. Oh yes – this is SO true. Certain modes of writing, certain contexts for writing, demand a certain style. This happens with me even on a subtle/small scale, i.e., if I am reading something very provocative/stirring and I write in conversation with that text, I find myself conforming in some ways to the other author’s style, whether by writing shorter sentences (my achilles heel is long, clause-dense sentences) or focusing on metaphor or what have you.


Previous Article

Next Article