Dec
08

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

By
The Fine Art of Finishing

Before we start a project, we have a fabulous idea in our mind’s eye, get excited and dive in.

About halfway through however, everything starts to look like crap.

This is true for everyone and almost every project–not just you. It’s not a signal that you should chuck it, or stop, or that you have no talent.

Everything sucks halfway through. That’s why you have to keep going!

Your Mind’s Eye is Kind of a Liar & That’s Okay

The idea that seemed so clear before you started, well, it was just the rubber before it hit the road. It actually wasn’t nearly as perfect or clear as it feels like it was, so your hands and skills haven’t betrayed the perfection that you imagined.

The perfection you imagined functions more as a motivator for getting going–that feeling of getting excited and our visions of grandeur is one way the imagination gets us riled up enough to take action and actually start creating.

But you shouldn’t mistake it for the truth and decide the thing in front of you is a lie. Once you start to make your project–that’s the living truth of your idea, unidealized imperfections and all.

I Know What You’re Thinking

Right now, you’re probably running through the people in your mind that you think are really talented or prolific or both, and you’re thinking that this doesn’t happen to them. Believe me–they also have this problem–their stuff sucks halfway through just like yours. I promise.

They just push through it.

This pushing through sometimes requires courage (especially when you’re feeling rusty) and almost always requires a lot of shushing of your internal critic, which may also involve some huffing and puffing, various avoidance efforts, and maybe a little stomping around.

Successfully pushing through isn’t always pretty, but it must be done in order to finish something.

But if you do it enough, what happens is that you start to get used to being in this super uncomfortable spot, and you arm yourself with various problem-solving strategies to get through it.

The Messy Middle

Okay, so you had your initial dreamy idea, and you have your current expression of that idea–which at the moment is not measuring up. You’re slightly disgusted and are maybe hating it a little bit.

At this point, you have to be willing to live with the reality of the thing in front of you and strike a balance between listening to it–finding out what it wants and what it can do–and remembering your original idea. You then begin the work of marrying those two things into a finished product you feel good about.

For instance, if you’re decoupaging a tray, you might start having trouble with the side walls looking reasonable–you weren’t thinking about that when you were imagining how pretty the base would be when you glued down the three papers you fell in love with.

But maybe one of those papers is weirdly stiff or another one stretches more than you thought when it gets wet with the glue and now your edges are messy/look ridiculous because you can’t figure out how to transition from the base to the sides, and now that you think of it, from the inside of the tray to the outside.

It’s not not-working, you’re just halfway through where all the trouble happens. You just need to figure out what the tray needs NOW, in order to work. Not focus so much on how it didn’t need anything back in your imagination when it didn’t exist yet and was perfect.

The only way you can do that is to plow through the awkward, irritating, stressful halfway point when everything sucks.

Finishing

Plowing through will teach you a tremendous amount about art and design as you engage with all the possible solutions for each design problem you encounter, and that in turn will give you more confidence and make this step easier every time.

But the real kicker of working through this stage is experiencing the power of finishing.

Finishing is a real expression of commitment. It’s also an incredible source of strength.

When you get yourself to finish something that’s feeling hard or isn’t meeting your expectations, you’re learning that you can do it–and every finished project you’ve ever done helps you make it through the yukky middle stage of every new project that needs to be finished.

It makes you stronger.

There’s dignity in finishing, even if the final product is a disappointment. Finishing is its own reward, which sounds kind of funny lame pious, but it’s true.

This is not to say that you have to finish everything, or that you can’t play and experiment and poke around with things that might not warrant finishing. But it’s important to know when you should, especially if you have trouble finishing stuff in general.

For instance, If you’re feeling heavy about your project or disappointed, then you know it probably matters to you.

Up Side #2

Working through the difficult halfway period when your project looks like crap will teach you so much about making.

That actually increases your personal power as an artist/crafter/creator because the more you trust yourself in the design problem-solving process, the more confident you’ll feel as a maker of things because it’s very cool to come out the other side and have a finished product that really “works”–especially something that pretty much sucked a few hours/days/weeks ago.

When you get to the point where you start to assume you can sort out  the inevitable design challenges that happen as soon as you start to make anything, it’s really powerful and feels fantastic.

And this feeling is what makes the anxiety of working through the yukky middle messy phase easier–because the anxiety doesn’t really ever go away, it’s just that your confidence balances it out and makes it less noisy, which is what allows you to keep going.

A Few Things to Remember

>Everybody’s stuff looks like crap halfway through, not just yours. I’m not saying this to make you feel better, it’s true.

>If you’re not sure how to solve the design problems you encounter, know this–it’s something you can learn. It also starts to get predictable–it’s not some innate mysterious skill that you either have or you don’t.

>Even if this particular project doesn’t work out, you’ll learn a tremendous amount in the process of finishing it and each time you do that, it gets easier.

>The “process” or “journey” aspect of artmaking is really the whole deal anyway (I know, it sounds so saccharine, but what can I say), and honoring it will take you farther in making you feel like an artist then any amount of fantasizing about perfect work will ever do.

>The more you work through the difficult halfway point or plow through your design problems, the more you’ll feel in charge of your artwork, your artmaking, and creativity.

>Arming yourself with strategies to get yourself through the hard parts makes it easier. Click here for one of my favorite techniques.

>Finishing makes you stronger. It’s worth the risk.

Do you know have thoughts/strategies about the halfway through/finishing problem? How do you address it? Does the halfway through stage stop you? Are you working on something right now where you’re tearing your hair out trying to get yourself through the horrible middle phase? Leave a comment or drop me a line–I’d love to know!

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Comments

  1. J.P. says:

    Thanks for the motivation! This is so universally applicable that I’ve saved it to re-read no matter what I’m working on when I get mired in the middle. :)

  2. dora says:

    When I think my stuff looks bad I leave it and come back later. Most times it doesn’t look that horrible and I play until it looks good to me. Mid-work I like to take a photo to look at from another plane.
    This was a great post!

  3. Sarah says:

    Dora, that is an excellent suggestion that I didn’t mention. It’s so true that a little space/distance can make all the difference in knowing what you need to do next. Sometimes just overnight gives me a brand new perspectivee–or makes me realize that I actually like something just fine! Thanks for commenting!

  4. Sarah says:

    J.P.–So glad to hear it!

  5. [...] my blog post Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, I talk about the fine art of finishing, and the typical problems that happen midway through almost [...]

  6. yona says:

    yes, i like to take a photo too.. and a little distance… i been working on the same piece for months now, interrupted by a roadtrip and life happenings.. but i been plugging away.. still i just don’t wanna show it till it’s down… what’s that about? haven’t figured that one out… perhaps i am feeling fragile..thanks sarah… your posts always help a lot… yo

  7. [...] I liked, I still wanted to hang in there with it to the end–to finish it–for all the powerful good that happens from the integrity of that [...]

  8. [...] I write sometimes about the funky middle, and how resistance protects us from finishing something that might be [...]

  9. Amy Noelle says:

    Sarah, this is SO true and something I teach my staff all the time!! When it gets to that frustration point, I say “step away from the cake,” set a timer and come back to it in a few minutes. For me personally, it’s time to make some tea. It just takes a tiny bit of perspective (and clearing of the negative thoughts) to come back to something and realize it’s totally not as bad as it seems. It is so incredibly interesting that everyone else here seems to share the same thought. Nice to know I’m not totally alone in this!!! Thank you for bringing this to light and for the encouragement to get through it. Definitely looking forward to conquering the next wedding cake that temporarily am go awry.

  10. [...] Bush is a blogger focused on the crafter/maker/artist world. She wrote this blog entry about the art of finishing, that points out something important about [...]

  11. Lori says:

    Even thought this post is old, it was just the article and answer I was hoping to find. I really thought some people just had a special talent in finishing and making so much art. This was so encouraging as I learn to work with my medium. Thanks! Lori

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