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How Play-Doh Helped Save Me From My Despair in Grad School

Around this time, I found two small cans of Play-Doh in the back of my desk drawer in the laboratory, left by some previous occupant. It was around Halloween, and these cans of Play-Doh were neon pink and puke green. I started making tiny macabre figures appropriate to these awful colors: a person half-buried in quicksand, a corpse with a knife in its chest, a swarm of rats circling a decapitated head, a snake with a zombie leg in its mouth, more snakes crawling out of the eye sockets of a skull. “Look how I’m drowning,” I said via modeling clay. “The person I was when I started this path has died, and I can’t see a way forward.”

Morbid though they were, my clay figures brought a levity back to my life that I had forgotten. Who knew how meditative it could be to roll clay around in one’s palm? When I did, my mind was no longer crowded with my relentless to-do list, the next 10 steps of my experiment or the prospect of 16 wasted weeks if my experiment failed. I focused only on pinching off a piece from the Play-Doh cylinder, kneading the clammy lump between my fingers to soften it and rolling the warmed mass into a perfect sphere. From there, I gently squished the doughy sphere into the shape of a skull, forming eye sockets with my thumb, outlining teeth with light fingernail indentations. By rolling a smaller sphere between my palms, I could elongate it into a snake, then press a thinner tube of clay around the snake to make stripes. It took me only about 20 minutes to make a simple figurine, but for that short time, I existed outside my endless anxieties.

Late at night, creating something recognizable out of a shapeless mound of Play-Doh gave me the greatest sense of satisfaction I’d felt in years. This was how I had imagined my artisan life. And, unlike my academic pursuits, clay was something that didn’t need to be perfect, given how little was at stake. Unlike an experiment, or even another, more permanent art form, Play-Doh required no advance planning or skill or discipline. If the skull I molded wasn’t quite right, I could roll it back into a ball and start over, and then again until I was happy with what I’d made — an approach I was too afraid to apply to the rest of my life. With Play-Doh, I started to practice courage, building myself up to eventually leave what I perceived as the security of academia and begin anew.

I used up all the Play-Doh within a couple of weeks, and the grotesque figurines sat dried and cracking on my desk through the rest of graduate school. They inaugurated a period of intensive creative searching: I spent the next few years trying to incorporate my interests into a career through journalism, podcasting and assembling the poems that would become my first book. It might be giving Play-Doh too much credit to say that it inspired these pursuits. But each time I felt stagnant or burned out and looked at those clay figures, I was reminded that I had made perfectly recognizable scenes out of modeling clay designed for children.

In other words, I could be resourceful, and I could create my own way forward, a reminder that would help sustain me through the uncertainties of post-academic life and the pandemic. Most of all, I was reminded of how much I loved making things. And I was no longer willing to sacrifice it indefinitely. My mother had taught me that life was too short.

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