What do I do with my notebook? First, I sketch every pot I make. Well, I sketch every pot after trimming it. I've goofed up so many pots while trimming them that I decided only to put them in the notebook when I'd successfully trimmed them. After sketching the pot, I list next to it what clay I used. This is extremely important, especially if you're using several different types of clay. It's amazing how similar a recycled dark clay or a red clay or a black clay can look after they come out of the bisque kiln. And if you have pots that are made of B-Mix, you may mistake them for porcelain when they're standing next to a bunch of pots made of Black Mountain. Or was that Jamaica? Or Amador? Glaze decisions are based on the type of clay the pot is made of, but if you can't remember what clay you used, you can't make an informed decision about what glaze to use.
I also use the notebook to sketch ideas for pots or ceramic sculpture. I record carving ideas, glaze ideas, anything that comes to mind that might be useful. I keep my notebook close to me during the day because I never know when inspiration's going to strike. My muse has no sense of timing; maybe yours doesn't either. I also carry slips of paper in my pocket so I can jot down notes that I'll put in the notebook later. I've found through hard experience that even the most vivid design ideas can't be recalled unless they're written down immediately. About a year ago I was walking past a store when an undulating design under the front window caught my eye. I stopped, pulled out a slip of paper and sketched something quickly. Took only about 15 or 20 seconds and I was on my way. Later I put it in my notebook and it inspired an important design motif for me.
Next I describe what I did to alter the piece. That may include what tools and techniques I used, especially if I tried something different or someone showed me a technique I didn't know before. Maybe I noticed that while pushing out the bottom of a large bowl with a rib on the inside I needed to steady the rim by holding a rib at the top on the outside. Stuff like that.
As often as I can, I write down different ideas for how to glaze each piece. This may change, but it gets me thinking about how to glaze a pot before it's even bisqued. Potters often have large collections of bisqued ware they haven't glazed in months, sometimes years. Julia Galloway calls these people "bisque potters." I'm surprised at how many people get nervous about glazing, how they can't decide what glazes to use or how to apply them. Rather than standing next to buckets of glaze with a pot in my hand, I sit with a notebook and imagine what that pot might look like with one glaze or another. Some people might feel more confident glazing their pots if they spent time with their notebook mentally rehearsing different glaze ideas. After awhile they might find there aren't enough pots to try all their glaze ideas on.
After glazing the pot, I write down the glazes or slips or ash or whatever I used and then place the piece on the shelf to be fired in the glost kiln. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to record what glazes you actually use on a piece. Whenever I see a gorgeous piece come out of the kiln, I ask the potter what glaze they used. Quite often the response I get is something like this: "I can't remember. Maybe it was this or that, but I'm not sure." Or they can't remember the way they applied it. Did they spray it on thinly? Did they dip it thickly? Factors like these make a difference in the final result. All of us are spending quite a bit of time, effort, and money to become better potters. Let's be ready to learn both from our mistakes and our successes. If we aren't, we'll lose something important from our experience.
When the pots are done, I record the results. Sometimes these are positive entries but quite often they aren't. I try to learn from every piece I fire, especially from those I'm going to discard or donate. Why did that bowl slump? Why did the Tenmoku run on to the kiln shelf (again)? Why did that accent glaze I splashed on completely disappear? Why did the celadon turn out tan instead of green? I want to know so I ask potters more experienced than me, I go back to my books, I try to put the pieces together to understand what happened so I can learn from it.
The final thing I do is to record when the pot came out of the glost kiln, and I put a big "X" over the piece if I decide to donate it or throw it away. I throw very few pots away now, but I still donate quite a few, at least 50%. This is a way to help out the Hawaii Potters Guild. HPG conducts a few sales a year in which they sell donated pots. These sales help to raise funds we need to buy new kiln shelves, hydrometers, or slab rollers. Right now we're raising funds because we need a new roof and a new kiln in the near future. Adequately supporting community ceramics groups like HPG is essential in Hawaii since land is extremely expensive and very few of us own enough of it to set up our own studios.
One other step I should mention is that I take photos of all the pieces I make, even those that don't make it through the bisque firing successfully. To these images I add similar notes about what kind of clay I used, what techniques, what glazes, slips, etc. This visual record is important and one that I often refer back to. I always learn the most from my own pots. Sure, I learn a great deal from the pots that people at HPG and Linekona are making, I learn a great deal from the pots I see in books and galleries and museums, but I know my own pots most intimately. By reflecting on my own work, I learn how to do better work and in turn I learn how to reflect on it better. We might call this a "virtuous circle" or something like that.
You are your own best teacher. Always have been; always will be. That doesn't mean other people can't play a significant role in helping you to learn, but all they can do is help. They can't learn for you. Only you can do that.