Embracing My Inner Tortoise
I just finished a pendant that I started six months ago. It’s not that I worked on it for six months, I probably worked on it for three hours. But, for several reasons, I just stopped in the midst of working on it. It got me thinking about why we leave things undone, what makes us pick them up again, and all the emotions we experience just because of that unfinished project.
Creative expression flows best when we are completely present and living in the moment. Our favorite pieces are usually the ones that come to us quickly. The vision is there. The method is clear. The colors make sense. The materials are available. Our hands do the work. And we create something on the spot that has spectacularly emerged from the depth of our soul. (Or, at least, that’s how it feels!) When we have to put a piece aside mid-process, for whatever reason, re-visitation can feel more like a chore and less like that inspired creative adventure I just described.
We’re typically neither the hare nor the tortoise, most of us tend to live in the middle.
But truly, how often does that live-in-the-moment, soul-reaching, spontaneous creation actually happen? Most often, my process goes like this: I get an idea. I look to see if I have materials to fit said idea. I plan it out a little, I start working on it one day and finish it another – usually within a week. We all have our own pace but it’s rarely a whizz-bang of inspired brilliance, and it’s also usually not the leave-it-on-the-shelf-for-six-months variety either. We’re typically neither the hare nor the tortoise, most of us tend to live in the middle. It’s just that sometimes we get completely stuck.
OK, back to those forgotten masterpieces, the Land of Unfinished Projects, or as Bernadette (owner of Mana Beads) calls them: our PhDs – Projects Half Done. Why did we stop mid-process? It could be a few things:
- LIFE. You all know what I mean, right? I mean schedules, time, stress, distractions, remodeling, gardening, holidays, vacations, illness… anything, good or bad, that simply takes us out of the studio.
- MATERIALS/SPACE. We reach for that color of paint, that perfect blue bead, the bail you thought you had, the piece of wood, the tool, the whatever we need to make it work and it’s not there. Sometimes we can go get it but sometimes it’s enough to put the brakes on the whole deal.
- “IT JUST ISN’T WORKING.” That one’s a stickler. We start out thinking it’ll be great and then it’s just … not. Not even a bit of that soul-touching inspiration I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s the day, maybe it’s the idea. It’s hard to tell when we’re in the midst of the disappointment and it’s even harder to know what to do about it.
So what do we do about these PhDs?
Here’s six ways that I approach my unfinished projects:
1. Leave it alone.
Wait. Get some distance. Embrace your inner tortoise. The whole idea here is to release yourself from the burden of accomplishment. Who says it has to be done now? For that matter, who says you have to finish what you started? This is art.
2. Don’t let it hold you up.
If you have an incomplete project, don’t let it keep you from starting something new. If you feel that you can only start something once that last one is complete, I’ll hazard a guess that you will find the “creative process” an endless stream of frustration.
3. Re-visit now and then.
This one is the most helpful to me. Maybe leave the unfinished work out on your table where you can choose to ignore it or to visit it from time to time. If you put it in a box or a drawer, you’ll definitely forget about it and dread coming back to it. At the present moment, I have about six projects-half-done on my bench. The oldest one is from seven months ago. Every so often I look at one, lay it out, and play with potential ways to mover forward. [As a side note, the longest-spanning unfinished thing I did was a pair of earrings that I started in 1991 and finished in 1996. Apparently, the beads were waiting for a specific pair of pants to come into my life.]
4. Be open to your options.
Think about why the piece isn’t done. If it was life – is there time now? Was it space – do you have some now? If it was materials – can you get them? Maybe you could abandon the original vision and find a new one. Maybe you need to hold the thing upside down to see something new. Ask friends and other artists… even people who don’t do your craft might see something fresh.
5. Go easy on yourself.
Maybe it’s not the masterpiece you envisioned at the start. Maybe you don’t really like it now that it’s done. Maybe that’s OK. Not all of your work will exhibit perfection and you might not like everything you do, but there’s a good chance someone else will like it. Someone else might really love it! Sometimes, all your piece needs to be is finished. [Another side note: I can’t count how many times the piece I hate the most is the first one to sell.]
6. Let it go.
If you feel like you’ve given it enough time and you’ve explored all your options, and you know it’s just not going to get done, give yourself permission to let it go. Maybe just part of it, but maybe the whole dang thing. It’s unsatisfying to cling to the amount of work you’ve already put in. And you might actually ENJOY ripping it all apart! Often times I’d rather do that than keep it around half-finished. Breaking it down can be cathartic, keeping it hanging around too long can be depressing. Whether you destroy it to salvage the parts or you decide to put it away in a drawer, let it be OK that it didn’t work. There is something liberating in letting go of that which serves us no purpose.