The Finish Line

Finish LineIn the world of a race, people talk a lot about the finish line. But to me, the most exciting part of any race is where it starts.

Think about it: at the starting line, there’s pageantry and pomp. News reporters speculate on the outcome. Fans cheer for their favorite. Whether it’s a 400-meter dash, a horse race, or any number of the events at the recent Winter Olympics, everyone loves the promise of a fresh start.

The finishing line, though, is a different story. Only one of the many starters will meet their own highest expectations when they cross that line. Second place always feels like second best. And what happened in between “Start” and “Finish”—the moment-by-moment decisions that led to victory or failure—often go down in infamy (if not in TV replays) for years to come.

I guess you could say, then, that creativity is kind of like a race. Except that each of us is racing against ourselves, and we all have the chance to be the winner . . . if only we have enough discipline to cover all the ground between Start and Finish.

And that’s where things get tricky.

Most people I know would say I’m remarkably able to get things done. I do manage to pump out a regular stream of content despite my busy non-writer “day life.” But let’s be honest. Reality isn’t always as glowing as its perception. One win doth not a lifetime champion make. And the ugly truth is—at least, when it comes to creativity—I’ve always had trouble finishing what I start.

(Take, for example, my humorous post about last week’s Anime Milwaukee convention. That was supposed to be done today . . .)

Seriously, though, there’s something terribly seductive about that starting line. But when it comes right down to it, the muck and mire that one must wade through on the page, after starting, can dampen the original joy of the idea. Finishing, for me, typically becomes something of a boxing match: Victory is determined by whether or not I’m still standing in the end.

I’ve asked myself why finishing (and more than that, finishing well)is so terribly difficult. One part of me would like to chalk it up to my Asperger’s. It’s true that I have a weaker-than-normal executive function, the part of the brain that handles breaking tasks down into steps and completing them. My writing mentors used to scratch their heads about why I could plan out complicated stories like nobody’s business, then become hopelessly entangled up in my own plot threads while trying to write it. (The worst instances usually had to do with me trying to revise. I’d take simple revision notes and turn them into a totally-written draft . . . which accomplished nothing but endless conniptions.) As soon as I began working with a writing coach who understood Asperger’s Syndrome, I connected the dots about what was really going on. And I stopped beating myself up so much about my “failure.”

But let’s be honest. While a weak executive function might affect my finished project score at some level, there’s another level I can’t excuse. And that level is fundamental to all human beings.

It’s the level of fear.

I don’t know what you do creatively. Maybe you’re not a writer, but you pour all your creative urges into your steampunk cosplay. Maybe you don’t know steampunk from cyberpunk, but you spend all your spare time playing an instrument instead. Or dancing. Or painting. Or maybe you’re in a lab inventing things. (Because yes, that is creative, too.) But whatever our “creative” outlets, I suspect we can all agree: there’s a certain amount of fear and resistance that naturally boil over at the far edge of a project. That place where “Doing” meets “Done,” where my brain (for one) is most likely to scream “Don’t!!!” and dig its heels in.

For me, this fear is tied to my endless battle with perfectionism. One of my former bosses at Flipeleven, who understood me probably better than almost anyone else I know, once told me, “Lisa, the finished product won’t be perfect. That’s why you have so much trouble finishing. The idea in your head is beautiful, unsullied, pristine. Translating the idea to reality is messy, and the result is never perfect. Until you come to grips with the imperfection of execution, you’ll never create anything great.”

And he was right. His words helped me confront my perfectionism, but it didn’t eliminate it completely. And when I’m not watching . . . it creeps back up on me. Just yesterday I spent hours cleaning and organizing my writing room, mostly because it got me out of finishing that anime article. And it saved me from writing a draft of a short story that I really, really want to be good.

It saved me for five minutes, at least. The regret of procrastination lasts far longer.

So this morning, I got up early again. Too early. My new day job starts very early, and morning is my freshest time to write. I got work done on two fiction projects, and I wrote this post. All the while, I said, “No!” to the screaming voice that asked me what would happen if my story turned out bad, if the article wasn’t funny. I put on my running shoes and ran toward that finish line for dear life.

I never looked back.

And that’s when I realized: finishing a project, like finishing a race, is really about making a commitment. It’s stepping up to the starting line, but resolving not to stay there, no matter how much “fun” it is to be on that side of the race–where you haven’t had to come face to face with failure yet. It’s saying, “I will not waver in my resolve until the last word (brushstroke, dance move, invention) is finished.”

That commitment, I fear more than anything else. Because commitment means dealing with the real outcome of the plan I set in motion. It means looking my great idea in the face and knowing whether it’s pretty or ugly or exceedingly nondescript.

It takes a lot of maturity  to do that, to be honest with yourself, to learn your lessons, and ultimately, to move on.

And that’s what finishing is ultimately about: moving on. Making progress. Because in the creative race, there is no such thing as running in place. You’re either moving forward toward the finish line, or you’re losing ground.

This morning, I put one foot in front of the other and ran my race.

How do you run yours?

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