“I never feel that it's finished, but you have to stop somewhere.” — Annie Proulx
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valéry
This is the third in a series of posts on creative process. The first was on the trouble with starting, the second on the long, boring middle of a project. The latest one is about finishing, which is maybe the hardest thing of all.
The first two posts came easily, and this third one didn’t. During the past few weeks I’ve retreated in all the stereotypical ways: cleaning, web surfing, fiddling, organizing, rethinking processes, tweaking, sorting, goal setting, clearing out inboxes, fixing broken things, replacing unfixable things, re-watching old movies, finding new music, making lists, doing nice things for people, journal writing, finding lost items, trying out different pens, re-organizing, and learning new skills.
I’m never better at starting things than I am when I need to finish something. There’s so much more uncertainty in finishing than there is in traveling through the middle, which I often do mindlessly “grinding” like the kids do with their video games.
There is also a world of difference between finishing and being done. Sometimes I’m ninety-five percent through something, and in my mind I’m already done. It’s not actually complete, but there are no more big creative decisions to make. All that’s left is the drudgery of doing it. The work that’s left is entirely bereft of the excitement of discovery I’ve felt throughout, none of the exhilaration of starting a new thing.
Sometimes as I’m wrapping something up, my attention is already on that glimmering new thing on the horizon that pledges everything this project promised back when I was close to wrapping up the previous one.
When my friend Kyle Bishop and I are bored with the courses we’re currently teaching, we often begin planning future ones. These plans are so perfect, smooth, and far off, so full of potential and possibility and not at all fraught with the drudge work of the present. Who wouldn’t want to choose new books or films to study tomorrow instead of grading the assignments of today? It is a highly refined and productive form of procrastination. It’s certainly not loafing, but is sure isn’t shipping either.
Seeing a project through to its absolute end speaks to a creative person’s character more than their talents, vision, intellect, or flair. The world is bulging with geniuses who have nothing to show for it.
The writer, marketing guru, and man about the internet, Seth Godin regularly reminds creative people that they aren’t “creative” for a living, they “ship” things for a living. Conceptually, this isn’t that hard to wrap your head around. The difficulty is that we’re so often afraid to ship. Godin tells us this is because our lizard brains, which are motivated by fear, deprivation, and death. The lizard brain becomes active the closer we come to shipping. It says, “Hey, man. Once you finish that, you’re going to have to share it, and people are gonna laugh. They’re going to think you’re ridiculous because you spent so much time on such a ludicrous project. You should probably just keep it under your hat. It’s totally safer.” Since so many of us have lived through middle school, we trust the lizard.
The people we consider creative are the ones who’ve decided to finsh. They see stuff through to the end. They’ve figured out how to shut up the lizard brain, so they can do their work. All of us need to know how to mute that inner voice.
This whole problem might be easier if there was just one kind of finishing, but there isn’t. Sometimes you don’t get to decide when you’re done. Someone else is going to do that for you: a teacher, client, boss. You’re done, not because the work is done, but because you have to hand it over. At that point it is what it is. You’ve hit your deadline or not. Most people rely on this kind of finish becuase it doesn’t take any presence of mind other than watching the clock. Your boss pokes his head in the door and says, “I need the Henderson Report by three.” This kicks your adrenal glands into gear, and your lizard brain has nothing to say about it. You hustle blindly until you’re done. Every time you see your boss walking through the office or everytime you look at the clock, you get juiced again.
When there’s no external pressure, a lot of projects just dwindle or peter out. You keep working until everything on your to-do list is crossed off. Little by little the work just dissolves. The thing is done, and it probably got done because you had good work habits. You showed up every day and stayed on task enough to do what needed to be done. This kind of finish is often capped off by a celebration, because without one it’s hard to know that you’re even done, especially if it’s not something that will ship. You’re going to put it on the shelf and move on. A celebration is the sign that some fairly invisible processes have gone on, and we all need that.
Graduation is this kind of finish. I’ve earned three degrees, and each time the ending seemed like a non-ending. I didn’t finish so much as I stopped, or rather I was told it was okay to stop. Graduation is also a lot like the first kind of finishing, if you add to it all kinds of questions that come from the institution that graduates you. Did you finish the program as it has been laid out? Did you pass everything. Do you have enough credits? Has the work been turned in? Is it the end of the semester? Okay, you’re done.
Interestingly enough, I get the same feeling twice a year when I submit grades. I push the button, and there’s a little green banner that says I did it. I usually try to find someone and go get a Coke, or something, because it seems like at least a little confetti should drop from the ceiling. I didn’t make anything, really; I just came to the conclusion of the work. Tomorrow there will be no work, or different work, but not this work, not anymore. It is that kind of finished.
God himself knew that you have to pause after you accomplish something and take note, or maybe no one else will remember to. When He wrapped up each stage of the creation, He took stock of His labors and said, "It is good." It seems like this kind of reflection is a best practice. I wish I did it more often. Sure, I want a "day" of rest. Who doesn't want to put up their dogs and grab a nap? When I wrap up a project I rarely notice if it's any good. Mostly I'm just glad it's over.
Sometimes I’m done before I’m finished. There’s an old Hollywood story about Alfred Hitchcock sleeping on set. They say he’d done all the hard work with the script and the storyboards, so shooting held very little interest for him. That’s what it’s like when I’m done before I’m finished. If there’s no actual discovery and excitement, if I’m just slogging it out to round things up, then there’s no intrinsic motivation for me to finish. It’s all external, and it’s easy to tell when the character of the project changes from pleasure to work.
For me this is how professionals are made. Pros can push through this part. Amateurs often wander off to something more exciting, leaving a mostly done but entirely unfinished project behind.
This is like the difference between the climax of a story and its denouement. After Frodo drops the ring into the magma on Mount Doom, there’s almost a hundred more pages of get home, say goodbye, and mope around in pubs realizing that you really miss the adventure.
I often feel relief at the end of a project but not much joy. I'm also usually more than a little sick of it. Familiarity breeds contempt, yadda, yadda, yadda. Part of the feeling is that I want to move on to all the other little sprouts that have come up during the time I've been indisposed.
After I defended my dissertation, I remember taking a whole week. I parked myself on the couch, ate bagel sandwiches, and watched old samurai movies. Eventually, it was clear to me that I couldn't just lie there forever in sweatpants, but I did feel like (a) I couldn't just jump into another project without a recharge, and (b) it was clear I needed to find something fitting to work on. I did wonder, for fleeting moments, if I would ever write again. And more secretly, I wondered if I ever wanted to write again. At that point I was thinking if I was going to exert any creative energies again, I would do something useful, like build a boat. That impulse faded, sort of. Brian Evenson who got me through the lion's share of that project told me that it's normal to go through a period of not wanting to write. He said to keep reading, and eventually the ideas will return. He was right. It has happened every single time. It’s happening right now with this blog post.
After every big project I feel like there is a refractory period when you just can't jump in for another round. Of course there are outliers like that jerkface Anthony Trollope who would just chain smoke novels and make the rest of us look like dopes.
Finishing can be scary because you’ve been living in a project for a while, and once you’re done working, you’re going to have to share it. Sharing is scary for a lot of people, because when you finish you’ll move out of striated space and into smooth space. Instead of examining the work day by day, you now have to start thinking about it as a coherent whole, and what if it isn’t coherent? What if isn’t complete? What if it doesn’t work? What if people don’t like it? What if people offer feedback and criticism that will involve more work? What if you yourself decide that you must go back and start over or rework major sections?
Don’t worry. This is actually common. Work often has to be redone. Sometimes, in order to finish you have to be willing to start again. Iteration is part of the work.
The people in my family are project-doers. Their ability to imagine an outcome far outstrips their skills. This gap creates a lot of frustration for everyone, each, of course, in their own way. Kid projects used to regularly result in melt-downs when the work and the vision didn't jive. The thing that saved us was the idea of prototypes and iteration. When anxiety would run high with the kids (and also with the grownups) we'd casually ask to see their prototype.
As they would share their work, we'd start asking them what kind of changes they were planning to make. How were they planning to remedy this fault or that one. Then we'd say, "I'm really excited to see what model 2.0 is going to look like." All of this we'd say just like it was the most normal thing in the world. Before too long the kids started to absorb that language and reflect it back to us. After teaching in higher education for a long time, I can think of no better equipment for professional life than being able to see creation as a series of cycles and not just as a linear path to completion.