Becoming A Finisher

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

—Anna Quindlen


We've now seen that there are different levels of finishing conflicts: from the purely practical, such as difficulty finding the time, to the deeper layers of wanting to please others from your past. So how do you ramp down your conflicts to the point where you can risk getting to work and finishing your projects? I like to use the metaphor of an old sofa to illustrate how we approach conflicts at Finishing School:

Many years ago I bought a new sofa. Eventually (like all things) it got old. When I sat on it it felt lumpy and it wasn't terribly comfortable anymore. I thought it was time to have it fixed, so I found an upholsterer to come to my house to take a look at it. A lovely older gentleman from France, he carefully examined the sofa. Then, he spoke: he said that a total reupholstering job wasn't worth all the effort and expense. He could work with the current condition of the sofa so that it would be more comfortable to sit on — but it wouldn't be perfect. At some point, he said, I might want to go down deeper into the sofa, even to change the inner padding and the springs, but that wasn't necessary right now. The question was: could I tolerate that lack of perfection? I thought about it. "Yes", I said.

This story is a metaphor for how we see conflict resolution at Finishing School. We are not setting out to resolve all your conflicts. We just want you to make the adjustments to your emotional and practical life that are necessary to get you working more comfortably and efficiently. We want to help you make your sofa a more comfortable place to sit so you can do your work and finish your projects. When you have completed the book, you still might feel some lumps when you sit down. But part of our process involves helping you to learn to tolerate the lumps and work anyway! The lumps can't hurt you and they shouldn't stop you from sitting down on the sofa for a while to do your work.

(However, if you find that the springs of your old sofa have come apart to the extent that you're being stabbed in the butt, you might want to think about a deeper method of conflict resolution such as psychotherapy.)

The following are samples of the exercises provided in Finishing School to help you make the adjustments to your emotional and practical life that you need in order to allow yourself to sit down and work through a project to completion:


Although obstacles concerning the practical matters of life can serve as distractions from the deeper issues you may have around finishing, the first step toward getting yourself to work comfortably is to examine how you're dealing with time management, finding a space to work, and making sure the nuts and bolts of your life are taken care of.


When you are sure a task is utterly beyond your powers, approach it one day at a time, without hope and without despair.

—Isak Dinesen

You've probably heard this one before, but one way of making some extra time is to get up earlier in the morning. Even a half-hour more can serve two purposes: (1) a half-hour of work gets done, and (2) during the whole rest of the day you will feel so much better about yourself and your life because: You already worked on your project today!

Practice working in smaller "modules" than you might be used to. Instead of thinking a work period is at least an hour, or an afternoon, practice giving yourself a five-minute "margin" in which you prepare yourself both mentally (breath slowly for two minutes) and physically (three minutes of gathering materials, sitting down in the same spot you always work in, making sure the temperature is warm or cool enough), and then doing actual work for a half-hour. Even if you want to continue after the half-hour is over, stop. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish, both in that half-hour and cumulatively over the next month. (The reason to stop after a half-hour is because you want to stop on a high note. If you keep going until you can't stand it anymore, you may instead be stopping on a note of exhaustion and emotional defeat.)

The Importance of Margins: Don't just think you're going to get into working immediately. First you have to prepare yourself. Margins are an acknowledgement that you need to prepare to work. In the margins, take ten breaths, sit yourself down in a comfortable place, and, mostly, realize that, in the margin you're not *supposed* to be working. You're just getting ready. Then work (for a short period) and then give yourself another margin to get back into "real life."

The Fractal Approach

It can be hard to work on a big project a little bit at a time, because you feel that, each day, you are hardly accomplishing anything. So here is what I call the fractal approach. First, here is a dictionary definition of a fractal:

A fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole — a property called self-similarity."


In what I call the fractal approach to work, the fractal is a metaphor. It signifies that each little bit of what you do is,in itself, a microcosm of the whole. The approach really has to do with seeing time and accomplishment differently from what you're probably used to.

Rather than feeling you've accomplished something significant only when you've finished a conventional unit like a chapter, or a draft, or a whole verse of a song you're writing, the fractal approach says that, no matter how small in size your accomplishment for the day (or week, or year), it counts. And it doesn't just count because it is something in itself, it counts because each little amount represents the whole — in intention, in style, and as a reflection of you.

Right now I'm feeling that this one paragraph I'm writing is a significant piece of this website, and when I'm finished writing it, I will believe I've really accomplished something today. But years earlier, I'd have felt quite differently about it. I probably would have told myself, "but Liz! You could have done much more today." Oh really? In whose world? According to whom?

The fractal approach is a way of stating that time, accomplishment,and value in general are relative and subjective. The final decision about what and how much to accomplish is yours. Any amount of work you do on your project today, including thinking about it, is a microcosm of your whole project. But, you're probably now asking, if I work so slowly, how will I ever finish? Let's answer that question with another question: "You will finish one fractal at a time."

Try this strategy as you begin work: Instead of asking yourself, "How much do I need to accomplish today in order to feel good about myself?" ask the following: "Given the givens, what do I need to do right now?" and then just do that Next Thing.

Next Thing after Next Thing after Next Thing = A finished work

Just One Blip On Your Timeline

Try not to overinvest in one project. Remember that your life comprises a whole body of work. Remind yourself that the project you are doing now is a function of who you are in the HERE and NOW. It is not the end-all and be-all of your life, the defining product of Who You Are For All Time. An exercise is to review the entire time frame of a writer or artist you particularly admire. Look, for example, at what Matisse painted in his early years. Then look at his much later works. People change. Sometimes dramatically.

Imagine if Matisse didn't let himself finish his early works because he knew that a more modern version of reality was coming and he didn't want to be viewed as old-fashioned forty years later. This concept is obviously absurd, but ask yourself, have you aborted a project because you thought that it wouldn't look good later on? Or because it wasn't as sophisticated as you'd imagined? The hard part is, just as you have to endure painful emotional states in order to get beyond them, you also have to endure work that feels not-good-enough in order to, evenutally, produce work of which you're more proud. You can't skip steps! But you can remember that each project constitutes just one blip on a long timeline.


There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

—John Cage

We are creatures of habit. Make sure you have a space to work in that works for you. It can be a very tiny piece of a room, even a closet outfitted with a table. But it needs to be THE space in which you work, with everything ready to go. This not only makes it easier to start working because it sets up a physical work habit, but it also validates emotionally that you really are doing this project.


Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that.

— George Carlin

Not doing your project is not going to make you richer. Really. You may think you're using that time productively, but what it's costing you in psychological "points" is much more valuable, and probably has financial consequences as well, because if you're loaded down with the emotional burden of an unfinished project or goal in life it most likely is burdening you in other areas, such as your "real" job, as well. It's important to assess how much time and effort you need to make the money that's necessary to support a (relatively) stress-free life, and then accept that that is your life and stop struggling with the thought that you "should" be making more money. Finishing School is about setting up your life so that you can carve out time to work on your projects and, when you are working, completely focus on that work without the distract ions of thinking that you really "should" be doing something else.


In the vast suckness of human living everyone's life sucks and that's okay. I think the greatest lesson you can learn in life is that 'sucks' and 'great' are pretty close.

— Jerry Seinfeld

Just because you have conflicts about finishing your work and the uncomfortable feelings that go along with those conflicts does not mean you have to avoid work. Here are some new ways to think about work resistances:

Sing Through the Phlegm!

If I don't have red, I use blue.

—Pablo Picasso

A long time ago, as a music therapy student, I was taking voice lessons. One day I arrived at my lesson with a horrible cold. (you're probably wondering why I didn't just cancel. It's because I didn't have the teacher's phone number. And there was no e-mail. This really was a LONG time ago.) I was so hoping that my teacher would excuse me from singing, maybe giving me some written music to study or something. Wrong! Instead she make me stand up as usual, and when I was barely able to make a noise through the congestion and, um, gunk, she exclaimed, "Sing through the phlegm, Dear!" I was appalled and utterly grossed out. But I did it, and found that, in fact, I was able to make some noises that resembled singing.

Lesson learned: Nobody's saying that you're never going to feel depressed, cranky, or in existential despair when you begin working. Nobody's saying that every sentence you write is going to be great. What we're saying is that bad moods, doubts about where to go from here, and even physical illness do not have to stop you from working. Now, when I want to get things done but I'm not feeling great, I say to myself, in my teacher's piercing soprano, "Sing through the plegm!"

Respect Your Power

You are the only master. Who else? Subdue yourself, and discover your master.


In my college days a friend of mine was taking a tennis lesson and I was watching. She was a beginner, and the teacher had asked her to try to hit the ball across the net so it would land in a certain spot. But she was an extremely powerful hitter, and the ball kept landing far far away from the spot, actually out of bounds. She kept trying to rein herself in so the ball would hit the spot on the court. But then the tennis teacher told her not to do that. He didn't want to diminish her power, he said. He didn't want her to go for accuracy in exchange for strength. Not at this phase in her tennis playing, anyway.

I've often thought about that tennis lesson. I think a lot of us strive for accuracy (which translates into perfection) way too soon when we do things. For example, if we're writing something, we don't allow ourselves to have "shitty first drafts," as the writer Anne LaMott calls them in her wonderful book "Bird By Bird." Like my friend on the tennis court, we diminish our own power for the sake of accuracy. And then, with our power diminished, we lose momentum and motivation. We deflate ourselves, and shortchange our projects. So try to remember to Keep The Power. Much later in your project, when you have your most powerful first draft really down, you can refine, refine, refine.

Finding The Seed

Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.

—Martha Graham

When you feel confused and defeated, it can be helpful to try to return to your original inspiration. Motivations can be practical: "I want to finish my degree so I can get a better job." They can also be based on feelings: "Even though it's so difficult to do this work now, I know I will feel better about myself if I plow through it."

Allow The Work To Exist On Its Own Behalf

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go...

—John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Practice giving up the notion that your work is a direct product of your conscious mind, or even an unconscious that you feel you can ultimately control. Treat your project like your child. Let it develop along its own lines and then let it out into the world. Trust the influences, inside and outside, that you cannot see or even feel . The goal is to allow yourself to give up (the illusion of) control and let your work develop in accordance with its own requirements. How can you do this when you are the creator? Well, you can ask yourself: what does this project need right now?

Your Take On Things

Take your most pernicious ideas and work them into the mainstream.

—John Waters

One stumbling block to continuing working on a project is the feeling (and sometimes, conviction) that you are not producing anything original. That it's all been done before, so why waste your time?

A while ago, I found myself discussing the production of art with an artistic friend of mine, and we came to this very topic of originality. How do you keep going when it seems as if everything has already been done? My friend had what I think is a great answer to this question: tell yourself, "this is MY take on it." In this way you acknowledge that, in fact, most everything has been done before — hundreds and thousands of times — but that doesn't mean that there is no room for you to express yourself in a fashion that is unique to you.

Think of all the pieces of music that have been written using the same harmonic progression: I - IV - V7 - I. Why bother to write another one? Because this is your take on it. Your take on anything will reflect what we all have the hardest time seeing — our own individual styles — and that is what results in our own, unique "take" on things, much more than anything our conscious mind is producing deliberately. Anything you produce is new. Even people who copy other people's work are doing something new. There's even a fancy artworld name for it: appropriation. The intention to copy turns out to be an original concept.

You don't need to think of yourself as original, or not original. You don't need to think of yourself at all. This is the hardest part of all. BEING a subject who is In Action in the world. It is easier for us to step back and analyze ourselves and what we are doing, to make ourselves and our work into objects. Just being and doing, without judgment, as we work — that's the hard part. But that is the part from which actual authenticity arises.

There is No One Right Ending

An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it.

—Paul Valery

It's so hard to say "I'm done. This is it. The End."

When you say "the end" to your project, it is because you feel you have done the best you can at this time. It is not because the project is finished in some absolute way. If you do believe that there is some perfect, right ending, and you've gotten there you may be lucky, or you may just have that particular belief at that particular time, or you may be deluding yourself (which is fine. Because there is no one right ending.)

I think that's it mostly damaging to the work process to have in mind that there is some absolute, almost predetermined end point. This belief implies a static universe of almost Platonic ideals. We all know that there are many good endings, many definitions of finished, many aesthetics, many belief systems. Perfect, Platonic "rightness" is the path toward fundamentalism and leads away from individuality. When you're finished with your project it's because you feel that the work is fniished, or because you've decided that you've done enough in this little piece of the world and you are ready to move on — not because some authority (either inside or outside of your mind) has told you it's finished.


Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

—Virginia Woolf

At Finishing School we believe that most work blocks include a component that involves your relationships, particularly to authority figures from the past. Your feelings about those people who once had control over most of your life (including parents, siblings, and teachers) are often felt when you anticipate being viewed (and judged) by those in a position to do so in the present. In order to risk finishing your projects and letting them out into the world where they will be subject to the scrutiny of others, it's important to re-evaluate your relationship to authority.

Think about it: who were the important people in your childhood and beyond to whom you revealed your most precious thoughts, feelings, and the products of those ideas? How were your plans and projects received throughout your life? Were you criticized more harshly than necessary? On the other hand, were you led to believe that anything you produced was wonderful just because you produced it? Are you taking the old feelings of fear and resistance and bringing them to your current work life?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Life is not a solo act. It's a huge collaboration, and we all need to assemble around us the people who care about us and support us in times of strife. .

—Tim Gunn

Maybe the most difficult part of all about doing a project by yourself is that you feel so alone with the work. In our society we hear constant messages about being independent. It's all about "being autonomous," "being your own person," "I did it My Way," and "marching to the tune of your own drum." I believe that autonomy is way overvalued in our society. We need other people! When you're in the middle of a project you can feel as if your thoughts are like a tennis ball bouncing around the four walls of your cranium. Sometimes you feel as if there is nowhere new to go, because there is no one else to provide you with another perspective.

So what can you do about this?

One possibility is to find a "running partner" — another person (a friend? a colleague?) who's going through something similar. Another solution is to find a community on this very World Wide Web, maybe a message board, where people are talking about the kind of project you're doing, to spur you on. And then there is therapy — both individual and group.

We all need community.

You are Really NOT Alone.

We are all in drag.

— Ru Paul

Sometimes it seems that you're the only one with a conflict about finishing things, doesn't it? It's so important to remember that this issue represents a microcosm of the human condition. Realizing that you are a member of the human family, and that your problems are fundamentally the same as others' problems, can take you out of a feeling of isolation. Instead of feeling criticized from inside or outside, you could ask yourself, "what might somebody who is looking at my work appreciate about what I'm trying to do here?" You might be surprised at the answers. And this exercise might remind you that you are, even in your aloneness, and even with your problems, still part of the family of highly flawed (yet surprisingly loveable) human beings.

There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England, the nearer is to France.
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.

—Lewis Carroll


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