Unfinisher: The Struggle to Complete Anything

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good.”
Steven PressfieldThe War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

“If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose) someone will try to make you feel lousy about it”

-Stephen King On Writing

Periodically I find myself attacked by a spirit crying out for expression. These fits strike me most often right before bedtime and are often, oddly enough, accompanied by a touch of melancholy. Sometimes I put my head down on the pillow, stare up at the ceiling, and wait for the feeling to pass. Just as often I gather myself and take a seat behind my computer in an effort to leverage my fleeting enthusiasm. Full of fervor and passion, my fingers dance across the keyboard. Thought after glorious thought materializes on the page until the fever passes. What I’ve created is an unedited, unpolished, incoherent, disorganized, and unfinished product.

Feeling pretty happy with my initial effort, I save my work, turn off the computer, and return to bed. As I close my eyes and prepare to drift off, I promise myself that in the morning I will edit and refine my writing before finding a suitable place to publish. I tell myself that this time I will overcome my apathy and see a piece of writing to its conclusion. As the twitches that signal coming sleep begin, feelings of immense satisfaction rush over me. This is the one, this is the best thing I’ve ever written- surely other people will notice the good work I do when they read it.

When morning comes I throw off the blankets and work the stiffness out of my back having forgotten all of my aspirations from the previous night. Now that the day’s tasks are ahead of me, it no longer seems important that I edit that silly piece I wrote the night before. The sink is full of dishes; I have a cookout to go to, and why has no one bothered to put their laundry away? Nobody would read what I wrote anyway, and even if they did they wouldn’t like it. To the very foundation the writing is mediocre- not Earth shattering. My creation is not as mind-blowing as it looked the previous night. I’ll file it away in a folder on my computer and try to salvage some of the parts for my next great written work.

This entire narrative is part of a completely healthy writing process. Initial fervor is always replaced by a more steadfast and less passionate effort; this is true of most creative endeavors. The flaw in my execution is not that some unfinished pieces get thrown away with the intention of being integrated into another completed work; the fatal flaw is that the completed work never comes into being.

My computer features a folder simply labeled “creative.” In that folder is a graveyard of decent ideas, good intentions, and lofty aspirations. An unfinished novel, some unpublished short stories, an essay or two, and a few embarrassingly written poems are buried there. I browse through these headstones periodically and consider what might have been if only I had focused my creative efforts long enough to give life to the characters concealed therein, and then with some regret I put my laptop aside and find some less taxing distraction.

I believe that what makes us human is the innate desire to create, not just for utility, but also for enjoyment. When we fail to exercise our ability to create we experience restlessness. An idea in our spirit cries out to be made manifest in the world. It causes distress as it thrashes around in our mind and, because we are human, we flee from it. Comfortable distractions and low priority responsibilities suppress the idea until, eventually, it lies dormant, but though the initial vigor is suppressed, the feeling of restlessness remains present.

Man must create because he is. The same way that God created man in His own image, so does man create in his image. Anything we create is a reflection of us. No two paintings are exactly the same. No two books are exactly the same. Each is made unique because of the very act of creation; something has been added to the world as a result of individual effort, and deserved pride will soon follow should the creator look over his finished work and deem it good. But then the creation is sent out into the world to be judged by others and this is where my creative process most often falls apart.

In writing, a work is never finished in the mind of the author, the narrative can always be polished just a little bit more, a comma can be added here, and a synonym could replace a repetitive word there. Eventually however, a change in ownership must take place. The story must be given over to the reader and as the reader consumes what is written they begin to interpret the words on the page, and as the reader interprets, the reader takes ownership. In short, no writing is ever finished until it is published, read and understood. There are no real deadlines when undertaking a personal creative project. All deadlines are negotiable when they are made with one’s self. My personal deadlines are always broken because the prospect of sending a piece of writing out into the world to be eviscerated by sometimes unfriendly readers is daunting at best and terrorizing at worst.

Now that the world is smaller, and more polarized than ever, uncensored creativity comes at a higher cost. In the current political climate a controversial idea can be disseminated to a mass audience with a few mouse clicks and very little forethought. That same controversial idea can cost its progenitor his job, his community, or even his life. The Internet has empowered the creative individual in unprecedented ways, but critics and those who would persecute the creative have also been empowered. Countless men and women have been fired from their jobs because of blog posts that vary from the controversial to the benign. The government has a responsibility to uphold the private individual’s right to free speech but private entities and bureaucracies have no such obligation.

And yet, in spite of all those aforementioned risks, people still undertake expressive ventures simply because they are compelled to do so, but fear has irrevocably changed the creative process. In writing at least, controversial topics are avoided altogether, and self-censorship has prevented many individuals from seeking out their creative voice. People who would otherwise be compelled to write and publish remain silent, or squirrel away their ideas for some distant day in the future. Fear robs humanity of a contribution to popular discourse. Fear robs the individual of their creativity. Each person has a duty to build and create, to imprint the world through his or her efforts. Fleeing so desperately from any idea that might cause slight offense is counterproductive to the goals of tolerance, justice, and truth. Some ideologies do not merit having a voice, that is understood, but the notion that the censorship of unpopular ideas through intimidation somehow promotes a healthy discourse on the various faults of humanity is both a popular lie and an unfunny joke. People cannot be coerced into compassion. This propensity for the criticism of others, I believe, stems from the inability of the critic to gather the bravery to step into the creative void themselves. The creation of unjustified criticism is only a distraction. Terrorizing those who would create is only an outward manifestation of frustrated creativity in the self. We should encourage one another to overcome fear and pursue our creative minds, not use our creative power to manufacture fear.

Aside from the very real fear of ridicule or personal loss, the fear of mediocrity impedes creativity just as often. Most of what I write remains unread because I have a deep-seated fear that what I’ve written is forgettable. The need to create originates intrinsically, but it is endured through appreciation. Creators need their works to be acknowledged, not for vanity, but to make the loss of time and the expenditure of effort seem worthwhile. But appreciation is almost never immediately forthcoming. A bit of luck and years of sustained effort are required to capture the attention of an audience, and even then the audience is typically fickle.

But fear is the best indicator that you should do something. Fearfulness of failure means only that you treasure your craft enough to covet the notion of success. Every time I sit down in front of the computer to write I feel a slight terror that grows with the word count. The idea of sending my writing into the world makes my pulse rise and my palms sweat. That visceral physical reaction is how I know that I must continue to write. Through writing I feel alive, and though I’ve failed to see any written work through to its conclusion, I continue to write because while writing I feel like the most pure version of myself.

To speak in generalities for a moment, I believe that most people are unhappy because they avoid what it is that they are meant to do. They find proficiency and some level of esteem in their profession but they remain unfulfilled in their lives. What’s missing? creativity. It is dangerous to be creative. If you’re a writer, an artist, an architect, a dancer, a doctor, a teacher, someone will inevitably belittle your efforts. Resist the urge to believe what they say of you. No one is good at anything the very first time they do it. Taking the time to polish and refine is important to be sure, but the simple act of doing your work for better or for worse is just as vital.

Yet most often we are more in love with the contemplation of acting on our creative impulses than we are with their actual execution. The idea of writing the great American novel or becoming the next Jackson Pollock is sexy, intriguing, exciting, and full of potential. We can imagine ourselves rubbing elbows with the day’s preeminent members of our given field. The perceived path is clear; all we have to do is get started, but if the idea of becoming great is sexy, the actual act is prohibitively hard work. Hours of hard intellectual and physical labor are ahead, past them the possibility of rejection. It’s understandable to fill up on the junk food of imagination, floating from one exciting idea to the next until life ends without the completion of any one single thing. Imagining is fun, creating is hard work. Just as junk food does little to nourish the body, contemplation without action does little to nourish the soul.

So how do we overcome? How can we start to hone our creative mind and bring our visions to reality? Truthfully, I don’t have a concrete answer. I’d like to tell you that for a nominal fee I could remove your creative blocks and set you on the path to finding your true self, but what I’ve written here is only a self-meditative effort to overcome these tendencies in my self. I think that the best course of action is just to cast caution and fear aside and begin working. I encourage you to do the same. Your first efforts will be an embarrassment once some time has passed, but you will no doubt look fondly on them as the first stumbles toward some as yet unforeseen conclusion.


3 thoughts on “Unfinisher: The Struggle to Complete Anything

    1. It’s the story of the lives of a lot of people unfortunately. I”m addicted to the starting phase of a project and allergic to the “see it through” phase.

      1. I would be great in a position where I came up with the ideas and had another person execute it.

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