I have ruined more than a few paintings by working past completion, adding brush strokes beyond what was needed. The result was muddy. It is also easy to overdecorate a room, or to put on one too many accessories before heading out the door. When are our efforts just right? Finished? Ready to stand on their own?
That’s a challenging question for any creative endeavor. One of my painting instructors told the class that it’s helpful to walk away from our work for a few days near the end. Then we can return to it with a fresh eye. It’s hard to do, especially when we are eager to finish something we have labored over for a long time. A few days away might turn into weeks or months, and getting back into the swing of things might not happen easily, if at all. I’m experiencing this with the final rewrite of my book.
How can I tell when my story is finished? I’m lucky to have an intrepid writing partner who helps me edit, but Leah is thoughtful and careful not to instruct me. The call is mine. It comes down to confidence. When that’s short in supply, I might keep going, unable to feel a sense of resolution. Looking back on the paintings I spoiled, I recall moments of trepidation where I lost my footing. I dropped the forward motion and started thinking too much, dousing the zeal zone with cold water.
This happens when I lose sight of why I am creating this art. Is it for myself? I don’t think so. Is it to please others? No. There’s an image in my mind’s eye, or a story in my thoughts, that longs to take some sort of external form. In giving it form, I understand its message. So dawdling over the final touches doesn’t make much sense. Letting it go to serve its purpose is the last step in unravelling its meaning. Billy Collins captures this perfectly in his poem, Envoy:
Go, little book,
out of this house and into the world,
carriage made of paper rolling toward town
bearing a single passenger
beyond the reach of this jittery pen
and far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.
It is time to decamp,
put on a jacket and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes,
bound to be held in foreign hands.
So off you go, infants of the brain,
with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:
stay out as late as you like,
don’t bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can.
When your inner critic gets louder and louder, and perhaps meaner, it’s probably a sign that you are approaching the finish line – a good time to wrap things up. Chances are they are wrapping up nicely on their own without any last minute changes or edits from you. If it’s perfection you’re after, well, then, you will never be finished. I used to think that my perfectionistic tendencies were positive, a sign of my devotion to detail and quality. Then a wise girlfriend pointed out the arrogance of a guest at our dinner table who was recounting his flawless projects. Her comments made me realize that any expectation of perfection is not only unrealistic, but an indication of an inflated ego. Ouch. Ironically, some humility might generate greater creativity as we open ourselves up to greater resources. Then we could step closer to that elusive state: enough.