UPDATE: well, like I said last week--I lied. I wrote this blog post right as I was starting the third draft of my book. I laid out my optimistic goal to limit myself to three drafts and a polish. That didn't happen. Now, finished completely, I wanted to look back at this post. It's one of my favorites and it has only become more relevant to me lately.
I am a perfectionist. It's a problem. Writing and perfectionism is not a good combination, like sleeping pills and wine or chainsaws and daycares. Perfectionists have a hard time letting pieces go--especially huge projects like novels that take years to craft into something mildly recognizable. Recently, I noticed I was also chasing perfection in my music. Mixing an album is an exercise in tedium. Finding the PERFECT decibel level for 8 or more tracks in 8 or more songs is a perfectionist's nightmare/dream. It's easy to keep passing mixes back and forth between bandmates. It's hard to take a stand and tell yourself, "you're done with this, move on."
But I did tell myself that, like I promised I'd stop working on my book after three (four) drafts. One of the best skills an artist can learn, paradoxically, is knowing when to walk away and call a project "done." Most projects you start will never be "finished" and some won't ever reach "done," but being able to move on is a key skill. Sometimes, a project reaches its intrinsic quality level and can only improved with a disproportionate amount of work and time. I'm a pragmatist when it comes to art. Time is a finite resource, and I want to spend my minutes on this Earth in the most cost-effective way. Could I spend another three years on my book? Yes. Will that make me a better artist? Maybe. Is it an effective use of my time? No.
So, friends. Move on. Accept "done." Try your best and always bleed for your art, but know when to call something "done." That's because "finished" is a very rare thing. You'll learn so much more by starting a new project and starting fresh.
ORIGINAL POST: I started working on the third draft of my novel this week. Sifting through the bright parts and the crap parts of this story for the second time has me thinking about the difference between being "done" with a piece and being "finished." People use these words interchangeably, but I'm convinced they couldn't be more different.
"Finished" doesn't exist when it comes to art and artists. "Finished" is an idealized state that rarely, if ever occurs. This very second, I could go back to any of my past stories and continue working on them. I will always be able to find something to fix, expand, or clarify. No piece is ever complete to the point where no more changes can be made. There will always be something: a compound sentence split with a conjunction, a certain word swapped out for another, a character's motivation tweaked.
This idea applies to the big picture, too. As I outline my third draft, I realize it's possible I could NEVER stop working on this novel. I could get this third draft finished, send it out, get more notes, and keep going through this process forever. The perfectionist in me will never be truly finished with this book. Only done. And that's the key: recognizing and understanding the difference between the two.
It's an important part of any writer's journey. Left unchecked, we're the weird sort who will lose ourselves in the same piece for long spans of time, seeking perfection and the nebulous sense of "finished-ness." Draft after draft, note after note, revision after revision. "Done" is realistic and beneficial to your mental health. "Finished" is quixotic.
I say all of this optimistically. After it clicked for me, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. For this book, I'm strictly adhering to three substantial drafts where I can revise anything: add or cut characters, re-arrange plot points, even wipe out entire chapters. After that, I'm going to do a 4th draft polish where I hone the language down to a sharp point. Like I said above, I would work on this damn book for another ten years if I didn't impose some limitations on myself. I'm itching to get started on my next Big Project. I am so excited to apply everything I learned about character, plot, language, and structure to my next book. I'm sure there are people out there who will either never get to their "next book" or it'll take them ten years. In my opinion, both types of people are doing a disservice to themselves. A few of us might start a project that actually needs and deserves ten years. I haven't found mine yet. Not sure if I ever will!
Every piece you work on is a learning experience. If you don't allow yourself to move on, to let go, you'll never be able to apply the lessons your current work in progress taught or is currently teaching you. As hard as it is, we have to put our collective foot down somewhere. Draw that line in the sand for yourself. For the time being, accept "done." Accept the months and maybe years you've poured into the piece. Reflect on how you've grown as a person and artist. Pile up enough done-s and you might master your craft so precisely as to brush close enough to a "finished" and change the world.