I’ve been working on a series of collage animals and one of the longest stages of development is when I’m deciding whether a piece is done. The bull you see above has been hanging out with me for months now and even he is getting impatient. My sense is that he’s almost there but there are still a few things I want to resolve. As I try to draw this piece to a close, I’ve been thinking about the question:
When is a creative project done?
In some ways the answer is never.
There may always be things we would tweak, shift or improve, especially as time moves on, our outlook changes and our skills develop. But instead of getting stuck in that perfectionist muck, it serves us well to find our way to completion. Instead of damming up our energy, finishing frees our creativity to keep flowing and growing. Creating a body of work will take a lifetime but each individual project must, at some point, come to a close. This allows us to continue on our creative journey and also gives each piece the chance to live and breathe on its own instead of withering under the endless scrutiny of “How could you be better?”
One: Declare it Done
Another way to recognize a creative project’s completion is to work to deadline. Many artforms, particularly the performing arts, have this baked in. The play, the dance, the event will be deemed ready on opening night and will be complete upon closing. These deadlines can be stress-inducing but that’s, in part, an indication of their power. Deadlines create time containers for our artistic energy, making it even more potent. In the Devotion program, for example, we have a showcase at the end of the season. Each artist shares the work she’s created during our time together and what it has meant to her. This end point provides a kind of creative alchemy, applying just enough pressure to coalesce the work, the wisdom, the growth and the confidence into something truly magical.
Two: Work to Deadline
And lastly, we know our work is done when we have the ineffable feeling that there is nothing left for us to do. In that moment, the work clearly stands on its own and reflects back to us, “I am myself now. I am complete.” Developing this creative discernment is a valuable artistic skill. It helps us avoid overworking a project or abandoning it too soon. This discernment comes with practice, patience and sensitivity. Give yourself the grace of time and distance as you sense the end drawing near. Leave the project for a while. Come back as a viewer, a reader, a listener, an audience member. Let the piece speak too. It has a say in the matter. Give yourself time to discover whether this artwork is complete.
Three: Develop Discernment
As creatives we have an an energy source that is infinite and renewable. One lesson available to us is how to make the most of that tremendous gift. An essential part of that is knowing when to complete a project so that the energy can move on to the next wonderful work that is waiting to come through.
I hope these three strategies of declaring, deadlines and discernment become powerful tools in your creative toolkit. May they help you realize the unique body of work that can only come to life through you.