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Done – The Art of Knowing When to Stop

Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I disagree.

When you start a work, you have something in mind, something you want it to look like when it’s done, something you hope it will say. You don’t know what that something will turn out to be, but you want it badly enough to commit to the effort of making it happen. If it is a large work, like an oil painting, or a stone sculpture, or a novel, that will take a lot of thought, time, and decision making, then you have to plan it out first, subdivide and sequence the work, or you’ll never make any progress. Each decision you make gives you more to work with. At every step, you revisit your original inspiration to stay on track. If the work takes you somewhere undiscovered, then you change directions and run with it. Even then, though, you have a direction, a goal, that something you want it to do.

If you have kept your objective in mind throughout the creative process, then you will know when you’re done. That sounds easy to say, and it is indeed harder to do, but it is not the impossible moving target Leonardo lamented.

Leonardo did set a high water mark for perfectionism. He kept coming back and tinkering with his paintings over periods of years, sometimes as many as fifteen. The problem with taking that long is you yourself change over time and you’re looking at the work with a different perspective fifteen years later. Your “younger phase” works are every bit as legitimate as your “older phase” works. If you just keep rehashing the same work over and over, then none of the rest of us will ever get to see what you have been doing all this time. And you won’t grow as an artist.

So how does one know when to stop? As an independent writer I am both cursed and blessed with no deadlines. I don’t have to hope it’s good enough while making a deadline, but I also have to fight the temptation to keep going back and fixing one more thing. I have tried setting deadlines for myself. Deadlines are very useful. I used to do competition costuming. Getting the work done in time for the show was a way of life for me for many years. In my career work, I often find that nothing motivates like a deadline. If you have a publisher waiting for you to finish, by all means deliver.

I am talking about that inner feeling, that “knowing” a piece is complete. Walk with me, for a moment, through the steps an “almost completed” work has already gone through. You started with the inspiration. Then you collected information and started making decisions. At some point you had a clear enough vision that you decided to commit. Then you gathered your materials, your research, your references. By then your enthusiasm was brimming. You started the actual construction, making decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. You got enough done that the work started giving you feedback about where to go next. You started imaging what it might look like when it was done. All through this work you have been touching base with your original inspiration and making any course corrections. Then came the day when you saw past the unfinished corners, through the unclear shadings, and knew what this piece was supposed to look like. You and time and your materials had made all the compromises and reached an accord. It wasn’t done, but you knew what done should look like.

Then you stalled. You started worrying about whether the finished piece would live up to the potential you saw. You wondered whether all the time and effort you put into it so far was going to show in the finished piece. The dark night of artist’s despair sank over you, and you stopped.

How do I know? This happens to all of us. Do not feel bad about it.

What usually follows is this. You pick yourself up and tell yourself it will be great, that you’re not a failure, and you start working to finish it. But you aren’t really finishing it. You are dawdling with it. You are fixing things that need fixing. You are moving it very slowly toward done, just because you are adding hours to it. But you missed something vital.

You didn’t go back to your original inspiration. Your dark night of despair left you not trusting your original inspiration. Get over it. You have to make yourself go back and believe in your original inspiration again. Pick up the mojo, embrace it, rebuild that enthusiasm that convinced you to commit in the first place.

You now have a clearer vision than when you started, yet finishing feels impossibly far away. You’ve made thousands of decisions that you can lean on and move ahead. The trick is to decide what you still need to do. That also means deciding what you are not going to include. You must recite this magical incantation: What else did I ever want this to do? Is it as fun as you wanted? It is as scary as you wanted? Is it as heartfelt as you wanted? Make yourself come up with a finite answer of what is still missing. This becomes your to-finish list. Then you get back to work with an achievable goal.

Some art forms lend themselves to feedback. It is all too easy after many hours invested to get too close to the fish to see the ocean. Find people who care about the medium you’re working in and get their honest opinion of what works and what does not. Their “fix this” list goes into your to-finish list.

Also listen to the piece you have built so far. In novel, listen to the characters when they tell you where they want the story to go. In a sculpture or a painting, look at where the piece leads the eye and make that work for the whole piece. Use the work so far as feedback for how to finish.

For this to work, you must be heartlessly realistic about what the piece does not need to include in order to be done. One way to never finish is to think of the piece as your masterwork that must tell the world your whole philosophy. Keep piling on requisites and it will become the neverending project.

Keep focused on what you were trying to do in the first place. Incorporate all the feedback, both from critics and from the piece itself. Polish all the rough edges so nothing throws the audience out of experiencing the piece. Do these things and there will soon come a day when you will see you have captured the essence of what you started out to say. On that day you will realize that any other changes you are tempted to make are not going to add anything to the success of the piece. It does everything it was supposed to do. You can allow yourself one last time to ask, “What else did I ever want this to do?” Chances are really good the answer will be “Nothing.”

That’s what done feels like.

Categories: Writing
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