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,
the way to a fulfilling creative life?

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 and seems fixed.
Judgments from within and without more easily grab hold.
Trying to protect against potential criticism can lead to the
wheel spinning of perfectionism.

When I taught elementary school art, I sometimes saw even very
young children consumed with intense hatred for what they'd made.
Nothing I'd say about loving their work could keep them from wanting
to destroy it.

I have recognized the same tendency in myself. I don't violently shred
something that didn't come out the way I wanted, but the threat
of disappointment and criticism from myself still feels painful.

The possibility of rejection, misunderstanding or indifference from
others adds to the fear of finishing. Meanwhile, fear of the possible
negative consequences of not finishing pressures us to get on with it.

Fear makes it hard to maintain openness and zest for the work
right through to the end. Fear of failure might goad us towards completion,
but it holds us back, too.

'Hope is as Hollow as Fear'

Hope of success might be driving us to finish, too. What do you hope
getting done will give you? Maybe there will be rewards, but does
wanting them really help you 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 finish something, I tend to believe
that I can't have peace, freedom and fun until this thing gets done.
(And I can't have dessert 'til I eat my veggies, either).

If I focus on 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 simply cannot find a
flow of creativity to coast on to a satisfactory ending.
I cannot
fake, force or figure my way out of this fact.

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

Some things that help me get off the imagined ladder and onto the
ground of being:

Remembering the body and sensing its energy--
stretching, conscious
breathing, movement.

Doing something else for a while, preferably outside--
taking a real
break. Or a nap.

Doing The Work on the thoughts, hopes and fears that created
PressureHead, to find out if they reflect reality or are actually
made up.

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--
that stubborn 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 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.
It was all about my self-image,
and trying to prove I was ok.

After doing The Work on these and related thoughts, I realized that
actually had nothing to lose and nothing to gain from finishing or not
finishing, from doing it well or poorly, from getting my way or not.
was incompetent at prevailing over the physics of heavy paint on light fabric.
So sue me! I'm already ok anyway. And if people make fun of
I hope they enjoy it.

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

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


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

If you answer no, maybe it's time to consider ditching the project.
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

The same untamable 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, when you've given up on
the win/lose game.

You may not enjoy every minute of your finishing-up work--most
adventures have their share of hardships, calling for stamina and
fortitude. But when you reconnect with that ground of integrity in
yourself, you will love your creation like the precious child of your
heart that it is, flaws and all....

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

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

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