Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The End: On Finishing, Or Not

Night Driving, fabrics, 12x13in. Jude Spacks '99


Have you ever had a project that dragged on and on, like a nightmare road trip?

Constant whining comes from the backseat, "Are we there yet? Far from it. No grand finale appears around the bend, no billboards full of accolades.

Sure, you could toss the whole thing out the window into the litter of false-starts and almost-dones beside the road, but you've already put so much into it....

"Are we there yet?" Did we miss a turn somewhere? How'd we wind up running on empty on a back road to nowhere, cranky and out of ideas? What drives us on to the finish, anyway?
What slows us down?

Danger: Judgment Ahead

Embarking on a creative journey can bring a grace period of pure potential. The work feels open and fluid. It seems too soon to evaluate and not too late to change.

But as completion approaches, the form solidifies. Judgments more easily grab hold. The possibility of rejection from ourselves and/or others cranks up fear of finishing. Meanwhile, fear of the consequences of not finishing pressures us to get on with it.

Competing fears make it hard to connect with the actual work right through to the end. Fear of failure may goad us towards completion, but it holds us back, too.

'Hope is as Hollow as Fear'

Hope of success might drive us on to the finish, too. There may be rewards for finishing, but does wanting them really help us get there? Is running after a carrot of success any more effective than fleeing a stick of fear?

When I'm frustrated with trying to complete something, I tend to believe that I can't have peace, freedom and fun until this thing is finished. As I focus on my hope for a future utopia of All Done, I reject my current condition. I divide myself. Attention disconnects from the present, where the source of creativity always lives.

No wonder the tank feels empty, like I'm running on the fumes of some earlier impulse that has abandoned me. My own thinking does the abandoning, by leaving now for an imaginary later.

"Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance."

--Tao de Ching, Stephen Mitchell, trans

Finding the Ground

What I call PressureHead--the state of mind that believes it has to keep hiking on that ladder--makes a misery out of the journey of creating. When I'm in PressureHead, I'm cut off from a genuine flow of creativity that might be followed to a satisfactory ending. I cannot fake, force or figure my way out of this fact.

Relief approaches when I notice (again) that I am not in charge. I am not the Creativity Queen, commanding my inner muse to cough up a conclusion, under threat of fear or lure of hope. My feet touch the ground of reality, and I can start taking one humble step at a time again.

What For?

I got very frustrated in the finishing stages of a fabric hanging recently. I worked doggedly for days trying to get it to lie flat against the wall, and it wouldn't. I told myself it didn't really
matter, but the part of me that was determined to get it 'right' took no comfort from that. PressureHead was about ready to blow her stack.

I remembered that the pain is in the brain, not the circumstances--the artwork couldn't really be causing my aggravation, only my thinking about it could do that. So I asked myself what I thought it meant if the piece continued to billow out asymmetrically on one side. Well, isn't it obvious? It meant that I was incompetent and unprofessional, and people would make fun of me behind my back.

After getting some space from identifying with these kind of thoughts, it became suddenly clear that in reality, there was nothing to lose and nothing to gain from getting it done or not. Obviously, I was incompetent at prevailing over the physics of heavy paint on light fabric, so those imaginary critics were right. If they make fun of me, I hope they enjoy it.

With that release of self-image, a realer self reappeared. What good luck! I fell back in love with the artwork. I felt infused with an enthusiasm made of indifference to outcome. Of course, completion came easily then.

Believe it or not, someone asked me at the show how I had gotten that piece to billow in that wonderful way--she loved how that added to its movement.

Integrity Check

When you're struggling to finish something, you might ask yourself: if you knew you had nothing to lose and nothing to gain, would you still do it?

If you answer no, maybe it's time to consider ditching the project. If you simply quit, voila, that makes it done! You can go out and play.

Or you could choose to continue, motivated by what you believe you stand to gain or lose.

If you answer yes, (to continuing even knowing there's nothing to lose or gain) you've rediscovered the freedom of a deeper motivation than the reward/punishment tricks the mind uses to feel in control.

The same creative Source that started the project
rolling is still here, whole, always new. It provides just what your project needs, but only in the present moment, in the open space left when you've given up, at least a little, on the win/lose success/failure hope/fear game.

You may not enjoy every minute of your finishing-up work. But when you reconnect with that ground of integrity in yourself, it doesn't matter. As trite as it sounds, you're in it for the journey, not the destination.

Are we there yet? Nope, we're still here.

"There is no there there."--Gertrude Stein