When Is It Done?

The unseen labor of beauty

I subscribe to a daily message from The Creative Independent, a Kickstarter offshoot that conducts interviews with well known, lesser known, and unknown artists about their origins, their processes, their ways of working through frustrations or transitions. Today’s was an interview with the musician Sarah Beth Tomberlin. And, as often happens, there was one line that stopped me.

A song is finished when you connect to it and you don’t feel like you’re lying. 

That feels right. It feels like what I see when I look at the work of my friends who are woodworkers and paper artists. You can look at their work from every direction and see no loose ends, no decisions that could have been made but weren’t. Nothing “good enough,” just good.

When we make things, there are several levels of done-ness at which we could stop.

  • There’s “I don’t really care about this,” which might prevent us from starting it at all.
  • There’s “I can’t get this to work,” which may be momentary and may be terminal. The novelist Lee Martin says that his father’s gruff, farm advice was “Can’t never got nothin’ done.”
  • There’s “good, now it’s running,” which might be enough for a couple of days while we think about next steps or wait for the new parts to arrive.
  • There’s “that’s pretty nice… but I hope they don’t turn it over…”. It’s that moment where it’s really come together except for that one wonky thing that just never got resolved.
  • And then there’s “finished.” When you connect to it, and there’s no places where you feel like you’re lying.

The premise behind The Creative Independent, behind all those writers’ talks and MasterClass sessions, is that getting to “finished” is just really, really hard. Not just technically hard, but emotionally hard, because we live most of the time in some lower level of done-ness, straining to bring the beast along in parts toward “finished,” and then knowing that the completed parts don’t yet add up to an equally-completed whole. So we take encouragement and inspiration from the occasional glimpses we get of finished work, and we want to see how. That’s why we ask writers whether they drink coffee or have sworn off cigarettes, whether they write in the morning or at night, whether they think we should enroll in an MFA program or just sit down and go. We’re hoping to borrow some strategies for finding “finished,” not about the work but about our relationship to the work. About believing that “finished” is an attainable state.

I love finding things that are “finished,” and then learning how they got to be that way. A couple of weeks ago, I spent an hour and a half watching the musician Jacob Collier demonstrate the ways in which his arrangement of the song “Moon River” came about. He walked us through it, simultaneously sounding out chords on his desktop keyboard and showing us how he arranged the 4,719 different vocal tracks in his Mac Logic software. (That image at the top of today’s post is a screenshot of Collier’s Logic display of a different song; each of those little scraps of color is him singing a vocal part of seconds apiece, the scraps then assembled into an auditory mosaic.)

Yesterday, I spent some time reading about the custom 1959 Cadillac that won last year’s Ridler Award for automotive creativity. There is absolutely nothing about this car that wasn’t re-invented, re-shaped, taken four paces past reasonable… to “finished.” Two years of work and two million dollars invested, to win a ten-thousand-dollar prize. “Finished” is often an unreasonable aspiration, which is why we can recognize it when we see it.

We also need to know—our own unique, personal assessment—when “finished” is unnecessary. We only have so many hours, and I’d prefer to get a few things “finished,” so I leave lots of others “good enough.” My wood stacking technique is meager, as is my snow shoveling. But the walkway is safe, if you’re paying attention… and the wood is under cover and drying, as long as I don’t bump into that one faulty tower at the northwest corner and bring it down. That work does what’s needed, and leaves me time to aspire toward “finished” in some other area.

These blog posts aren’t “finished.” I give them an hour or two, helping me think through what’s on my mind, and (I hope) offering some encouragement or a few interesting minutes to others. But my real writing… that’s the unreasonable labor of making sure that no matter which way it’s turned, it remains integrated and legible and beautiful. The blog, in a way, is the gym where I get stronger and learn new ideas before I bring them to the performance floor.

The status of “finished” is also a unique, personal assessment. It has no bearing on whether the work speaks to others. It is, as they say, necessary without being sufficient. It is a baseline threshold for releasing the work into the world as a creative person, but what others do with it is beyond our influence. I have no place in my heart for opera or classical European ballet, even as I can recognize that it’s fully finished, elegant, thoughtful work. I have a neighbor who’s a professional, academic, renowned, award-winning poet (it’s quite a little town we’ve got here), whose work doesn’t speak to me at all. Nora doesn’t like Jacob Collier’s music, though she can recognize its level of craft. The state motto of Vermont should be “Huh… I don’t know that I’d’a done it that way…” As Martha Graham once said, “What other people think about you is absolutely none of your business.”

All we can do is to find some areas of our lives that deserve unreasonable labor, and then to dedicate ourselves to taking some piece of that work to “finished.” We all owe ourselves that much. It is our very best self, made material.