Quantity Over Quality: Master the First and You’ll Achieve the Second (Theoretically)

There’s a story of a ceramics teacher (and if I had the gumption I’d find the source for it) that carries a lesson for us all. It goes as follows:

It was the end of the year and the teacher gave the class two options for their final project: they could choose to have their work graded by quantity or quality. Those who chose quantity were challenged to see how many pots they could produce in one week’s time. It didn’t matter what the pots looked like, only that they were completed. The students who chose quality only had to make one pot, but it had to be the best pot they could create.
Half the class chose quantity and began churning out pots right and left. As soon as one was done, another was started. And so on. All week long.
The other half of the class spent their time working out their designs, analyzing their methods, pondering and planning and pouring over every detail, in order to create their one perfect pot.
At the end of the week, the results were graded and an interesting discovery was made. Not only did the “quantity” group produce the most pots, they also produced the best quality pots. Over and above the “quality” group.

Reason being, or so we can infer, they focused on the process rather than the results. And because they kept churning out pot after pot, they were learning and correcting errors as they went.

Ceramics teacher
Let’s pretend this is the ceramics teacher. He’s kind of cool, don’t you think? (Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash)

The article wherein I found this story related it to our own creative endeavors. Whether writing, painting, quilting, woodwork, music — anything we do where we hope to improve — the key is to focus on quantity over quality. Push yourself to produce as much as possible.

Want to improve your writing? Push out story after story. Your drawing? Create five or more drawings every day. Your photography skills? Take pictures everywhere you go. Really annoy the hell out of everyone you know.

You get the idea.

This concept was driven home to me a few days ago. I was working on a project, actually it was the “Bible Stories in Text” project I mentioned before, and I wanted to include some limericks and silly rhymes for it.

How hard could that be?

Turns out pretty hard. I spent one hour alone on Jacob and Esau and still didn’t like it. I was about to give up when I thought of the ceramics story. For the next hour I produced five more rhymes. None of them particularly good, but at least they were done. I shut the laptop and left to run some errands.

I had to go to my credit union because like a dope, I left my debit card in the ATM when I last used it. (No worries, nothing bad happened other than a dent to my ego.) On my way home I decided to stop at the park and sit on my favorite bench, the one under the willow tree. And though I never noticed it before, this time I read the inscription:

In Dick's memory

There was something about “Tuesday Bridge Club” that tickled my fancy. I grabbed my notebook — another article I read said you should always carry an idea notebook — and jotted down:

written in notebook

Soon 15 more lines appeared under it in some semblance of a poem. (I’m guessing since I spent the morning in rhyme, it just naturally flowed out that way.)

Not knowing anything of Bridge, I googled the rules and added a few references; once I got home I finished it up and within the next hour had that bad boy ready to post.

My point is, I’m fairly certain that had I not spent the morning focused on those silly rhymes, had I not pushed myself to produce several even though I was dissatisfied with them all, Dick’s tribute poem might never have happened.

Of course I can’t prove any of this, but it feels right and I believe it so. Plus I’ve got that ceramics teacher backing me up.

Here, let’s look at the guy again:

Ceramics teacher

Quantity over quality.

Now in truth, none of this is too surprising. If you want to improve at writing, write. If you want to improve your singing, sing.

All together now: Duh.

But the fact is, however much we know this truth we still fail to put it into practice. Or at least, that’s the way it is for me. Maybe you’re self-disciplined to the core, wake every morning at the crack of dawn and write 20 pages before your first cup of coffee. In which case I don’t like you very much and I think you should go away now.

For the rest of us, we need reminders to keep going in spite of the drivel we produce. To push on, produce, finish our stories and trust the process. Let go of our need to produce lovely rhymes or charming stories, to let go of our desire to like everything we’ve written. Eventually — hopefully — we’ll like what we’ve written, but we’ll probably produce plenty of crap before we get there.

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. — Anne Lamott

I have a stack of messes. About five or six unfinished stories I found while unpacking, one of which I barely remember. Each one began in a fever of creativity, that much I remember, but as soon as the going got rough they came to a screeching halt. As I look at them now… well, they’re not horrible. Some spots are quite good, others maybe not so much, but overall they don’t suck.

So here’s the thing: I’ve decided I’m going to dig them out, one by one, and give myself a timeline for finishing them. Let’s say one story per week.

They may appear in this blog — that part I haven’t decided yet. I’m not in the habit of printing much fiction here, so I’ll give it some thought.

(Okay, technically, I suppose there’s fiction here. For instance, I have no idea if Dick liked white wine or if he was a bourbon man.)

Mainly I thought that if I told others what I was doing — Hey guys! I’m spending the next 6 weeks writing 6 stories! —  I stand a better chance of actually doing it.

The key is, and golly I sure hope I remember it, is to finish them even if I don’t like them. Because maybe by the sixth one I will.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever shown you the cover of my idea notebook:

my idea notebook

I’m not expecting too much here, believe me. I just want to get the stories finished. And if you’re reading this, I expect you have something unfinished to work on as well, or some skill you wish to improve?

Quantity over Quality: Ready, set… go!