There are three key steps to finishing any project:
- Make it a distinct task, separate from your initial creative impulse
- Define what “finished” means before you start, so you know when you’re done
- Adjust your expectations down to realistic levels
The dirty secret that keeps people from finishing things: They don’t want to. Finishing things is no fun. That’s why you have to treat finishing as a separate activity, distinct from your initial creative impulse.
Finishing has nothing to do with starting. It’s like doing your taxes, or taking out the trash. When you get to the end of a project, the most useful thing you can do is reframe it as a brand-new thing, with a brand-new set of expectations and assumptions attached to it.
The least popular of my classes is the last session of Intro to Writing Fairy Tales. Everyone has heard the same stories at least once/week for five straight weeks. They’ve listened to endless iterations, struggled with intractable characters or plot points that never quite resolved to satisfaction, watched with frustration as the delicate soufflés of their literary ambition slowly deflate (every once in a while a story turns out better than anyone expected, but that’s rare). And they hate it. The only reason they stay is because I trick them into signing up for a public reading while their enthusiasm is still high, and we use the last class to polish the stories for the performance. There is so much sighing and grumbling in the last Intro to Writing Fairy Tales class. (“Finished” for them means “ready to read to a room full of strangers.”)
But you know what? The ones who hang in there, who honestly consider feedback on their second and third revisions, then go home to revise those hateful, lumpy passages again and again? When the time comes for the reading, they stand up in front of the microphone, read their fairy tales to a fresh group of listeners, and their stories shine like diamonds. Their stories are not only better than the stories of their less persistent classmates, they’re overall better than they realized!
By the end of the night they forget how much they hated their stories, and they’re practically drunk on praise, satisfaction, and the pleasure of showing up and doing their best. It’s amazing.
It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re working on the sixteenth version of something. You think it sucks, your [classmates, friends, family, pets, etc.] are starting to act like they’ll die if they hear/see it again. You can’t remember why you’re working so hard on something you’re probably not getting paid for.
By the time you’re finishing something, you’re usually sick to death of it, yourself, and everything associated with it—and you’re nose to nose with your limitations, which is often unpleasant. (This is why it helps to have low expectations. Don’t try to write a masterpiece. Just write a story with a beginning, middle, and end that you’re not ashamed to read to some strangers in a bar.)
But if you can make it to the finish line, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of satisfaction that’s bigger than the castle in the sky that got you started in the first place. Starting is about sparkles and fairy dust, tangerine-colored splashes of creative juice running down your chin, worlds of possibility opening before you—each more perfect than the last. Finishing is about sandpaper and touch-up paint, obsessive attention to detail and, finally, compromise—reconciling your real-life abilities with your ambitions. It’s also about having a real thing to show off. It sets you apart. Lots of people start. Finishing things makes you kind of a rock star. That’s worth a little discomfort, isn’t it?