Just Putting It Out There.
If there’s one thing I struggle with, as a creative, it’s finishing. It doesn’t matter how hard I’ve worked on something, or for how long. I falter at the point where I know that I should call it a day, and send what I’ve made out into the world. I’m prone to a debilitating panic. Unable to click the big ol’ button marked Send/Save/Publish, my cursor will hover, and I’ll come so close…
I’m sure many creatives have this problem. Particularly when you‘re putting something out on your own blog or website or even your Medium account. It’s not like authoring a work for a third party. You don’t have an editorial authority who can have the last word on the quality or release date. Without that watchfulness, and without a clear deadline for completion, you can become stuck in a holding pattern, unable to reach a point where your work is done.
You think, maybe you’ll sleep on it. Maybe you’ll give it a little thought. Maybe it will read differently tomorrow. Maybe you can make it better.
Behind these vague thoughts, lurks a huge needling doubt.
Maybe it’s not good enough.
There are uncounted, untold numbers of creative works published every day. Maybe my work could never live up to any of them, let alone to my own benchmarks of success, derived from my favourite authors and artists and musicians.
Once that doubt takes hold, it colours everything. I can no longer even attempt objectivity, and the negative aspects or flaws of my work become amplified to an extreme degree, drowning out any positive elements.
This is true for almost any creative pursuit.
In a previous life as an indie musician, I used to produce electronic and experimental tracks. This was a few years ago now, when I was in my early twenties and I believed that I had found my calling. I would work for weeks on a piece of music.
Making the music was a painstaking process. It was a process of composing and re-writing, changing the mix, trying new things. I would be up late, far later than I should have been. I’d work on my laptop and on a collection of classic Roland drum machines until 4 AM some days. It was draining, but at the same time it was the most creative period of my life. I drank black coffee, bleary eyed outside studios in a freezing Sydney winter. I felt incredibly alive because of the creative spark that I felt so in touch with. Talking to my girlfriend or to my best friend, I would outline the plans I had for when the music was finished.
But the music was never finished.
All the excitement that accompanied making it was always followed by that panic. That panic over calling my work a finished piece and giving it to someone else to enjoy. I would compare the piece to finished, polished work by my own idols, and ask why it came up wanting.
It was unrealistic to expect my music to reach the lofty heights of artists who created amazing work with other voices and minds to guide them, better resources at their disposal and the benefit of cultural hindsight and connotations. But that never mattered.
When the time came to upload it to Bandcamp or SoundCloud, I would end up in a self-destructive panic and delete whatever I had in the pipeline to start again. Getting over that fear of finishing proved to be impossible for me, back then. If I’m honest with myself, I know that I deleted at least a dozen album’s worth of music. While not earth-shattering it was at least as good as anything else I could have made.
Thinking back, it’s not necessarily the loss of the music itself that bothers me. It’s knowing that if I had shared it around and played it for people, I could have found listeners who cared about my creations. There were years where I could have been building an audience, but for my lack of courage.
My inability to close and complete my work culminated in a rough morning where the weight of my failing overpowered me completely.
I wiped every external hard drive and gave away my machines and synths. After, I refused to even begin another project. I was angry and frustrated with myself because I couldn’t step back and appraise my work with honesty and say I was proud of it. I called myself a perfectionist, but even then I knew it was more than that.
Today, I can understand that it wasn’t perfectionism, and it wasn’t holding myself to a high standard. It was a fear of not being good enough. I’ve talked about this now with a few friends who are artists, designers and musicians. They understand my experience, and they’ve been there themselves. We all agree that we have learned to recognise that fear as it takes old now, and we’ve learned that publishing is almost more important than any stage of the creative process.
Learning from it is one thing, but acting on what we’ve learned is still not easy.
I took a long break from creativity of any kind after I stopped making music. For a few years, I focused solely on working at a series of tech and marketing startups. As of this year, I’ve started to become creative again, largely through writing.
So I’m Building An Editing Process.
Although I can’t say that I’ve solved the case of the crushing personality disorder and can now publish my work with impunity, the truth is that I’m still scared. As we say in Australia, I’m scared shitless. The only way I can get past it is by forcing myself to stick to a draft schedule. Now when I work on something I am allowed only three drafts.
- The first run through, which must be completed without touching a previously written line. This isn’t easy. It makes for a chaotic experience, but it keeps my mind focused on the work at hand.
- The re-work, where I take that first stream of consciousness and research and pretentious phrasing and organise it into some semblance of order.
- The final edit, in which I try to take the work and turn it into the best version of itself that it can be, through carefully pushing and pulling the content in every direction.
When I’ve been through each of those draft stages, I’m done. I’m finished. I’m not allowed to touch the keyboard one more time, and I have to publish the work. Even if I feel sure that it’s a terrible disaster of an abomination, I will push it out.
This drafting process is certainly not perfect. The first stage can take weeks to reach completion sometimes, and the second stage is a hair pulling and frustratingly tortuous process. But at least it’s a methodology, and it can be comforting to at least try to follow it.
Whether or not I am able to keep the doubt at bay and finish my work, pushing it out in front of readers is yet to be seen. I want to. I desperately want to. Publishing and finishing isn’t easy. Maybe it never gets easier. But just putting it out there — sometimes you have to just put it out there.