How do you know when it’s finished?”
Ask the writer, the painter, the musician, and you may just get a chilly answer. Oh, not the cold-shoulder type – only a reference to the practice of letting a work “get cold.” That is, walk away from it, put it in a drawer, on a shelf, or face to the wall. And while we may refer to letting the work get cold, the reality is that it’s the artist that needs cooling off.
It’s the old forest-for-the-trees thing. Our passion for perfection can lead us to get bogged down in minutia and lose sight of the big picture: in this case, the story you wanted to tell in the first place (literally, visually, or musically). But put it away for a period of time, maybe days, maybe weeks, and you’re apt to be rewarded with a fresh view of the entirety. Maybe you have a perfectly cohesive piece of self-expression, a real jewel, or maybe you’ll find a particular phrase or area that sticks out too far and needs to be brought back to the whole (or even sliced away completely) so you tweak it.
Then there’s the chance, the thing we don’t want to believe is possible, that the whole composition is substandard and beyond repair. All that work, time, heart, and soul…it all seemed like a good idea at conception, but it wasn’t – you were wrong. It’s a hard relationship to walk away from, but if you cling to it you may just sink yourself.
On the other hand, commit it to the fireplace, ceremonially if you like, tenderly or not, and you could experience an epiphany of liberation, a true freeing of that heart and soul previously thwarted by bondage. It was an admirable attempt. It showed your faith in yourself and courage to try new things. Lesson learned. Off you go, eyes wide open, to the big What’s Next, bruised but wiser. But bruises fade, wisdom needn’t.
I once sent a very naughty, and very large painting sailing into a dumpster after three years of repeated attempts to invigorate it and I have to admit I was not prepared for how wonderful that act would feel. I’d hidden the piece from sight for about six months and when I retrieved it for the last time I saw clearly what was wrong. Actually, what I saw was that only one tiny piece of it was right – and it was that piece of perfection that kept me from seeing the whole truth: the rest of the painting was a stinker. True, I could have cut that small piece out and let it stand on its own, probably could have sold it. But a few dollars seemed a poor exchange for the education I got from letting go and moving on.
Successful investments – artistic, financial, emotional – require artful handling. Instead of beating a thing to death, I’m all for finding a place of neutrality from which to clear the mind, a place without ego, without fear of failure, a place that offers improved perspective. And, from there, separating the junk from the jewels.