Years ago I started a cool abstract ink painting and something about the time, the colors, the shapes, the mystery in it inspired me to labor over it for a very long time. Still, something was missing and I couldn’t place what it was.
I would walk away and return to it later – weeks later, months later, years later. The missing thing continued to allude me. After a while, I found myself frustrated that whatever was missing refused to find me. This went on for 20 years.
And yet, unlike other paintings where I was like, “YES!” and knew it was finished, or even that point where I was pleased enough, maybe not the 110% in love I desired to be, but when I know — I don’t want to over analyze this anymore and I trust that this is what it’s supposed to be and I feel good about it, and I’m comfortable calling it finished — I never got there with that ink painting.
That is how I knew it wasn’t finished.
So how do we really know when it’s finished?
More often than not our personal creative pursuits are not linearly defined. There are not a set of deliverables and timelines to tell us the thing is indeed finished.
I believe it’s about trusting our intuition and our instincts.
Our intuition are the feelings inside that communicate to us what’s really going on in our hearts. It will let us know if we are excited, enthused, ready, willing or frustrated, meh, and over it. It will also tell us when the effort is enough.
Our instincts have been built and refined over time based on what we’ve learned from both our successes and fails. We know about how much time it will take, what the scope should look like, and what skills are needed. We also consider our track record with the said project – or series of projects – and how things have looked and played out previously.
All of this gels to inform us when projects are complete or when we need to dive a little deeper or push through and spend more time on the piece.
I mentioned how I never got to a particular place with that ink painting. I knew from previous creative projects what that was and when I reached it. I trusted it. It’s how I knew it wasn’t finished and also I knew I needed to let it go and give it time.
When I Tune In
Something I’ve learned over the years – and become better at doing – is really tuning into how the creative pursuit makes me feel.
Sometimes it’s joyful laser focused flow we desire and crave. That happened to me last year during a retreat and I followed my intuition and came away with not only this gorgeous collaged piece that truly felt finished, but also a reminder of how incredible it felt to be in that flow again.
Sometimes it’s not like that. I start out enthused and ready and maybe that book isn’t really drawing me in the way I need after 50 pages. Maybe the colors of the yarn aren’t really lighting me up now that I’ve crocheted 50 rows. Maybe I’m interrupted too many times and I lose focus and interest.
All I know is, I get to a point where the feeling is hard, unenjoyable, or meh. I stop. The thing is finished because I am mentally finished.
And sometimes I’m acutely aware that I’m still curious. Even 20 years later.
When I Stay Curious
Back to my ink painting story.
Last year I was at a women’s retreat and we were exploring mythology, something I am mildly curious about and in particular the dualities of mythical creatures and the often conflicting elements of their being.
We were asked to create a piece of art that felt representational of us, using the materials on hand. Initially I was stoked until I realized there were pencils and markers. Where was the paint?! I would rather have a big messy abstract watercolor and back into the subject matter that way.
I wound up creating a work around of sorts and yet there I was, sketching and fighting with myself and the art. I was having a rather humorous fit feeling so confined. I said that out loud to the group and suddenly I remembered the old ink painting.
And then I looked at this drawing and it all clicked. I knew — after 20 years! — what those blotches of ink were all along, what the entire thing was supposed to be. And moreover, I knew what the bigger lesson was and why I needed 20 years to figure it out.
It was an amazing moment. When I got home I went to the attic and I pulled out that painting that I never tossed and I knew what I started in 1998 I could finish in 2018.
When I Give Myself Permission
Here’s the thing. I’m not in school anymore. I’m not being graded on these projects or even a written paper detailing my experience with these projects. I don’t have to finish anything or even call something finished if I don’t want to do so. Neither do you.
I’ve learned to give myself permission to listen, to choose fun and joy and effortless, and to let go and say, with conviction — this is finished — when it just feels like it is.
I’ve given myself permission to walk away from things when they feel anything but joyful and effortless. Who cares? Does it really matter? Nope.
I’ve given myself permission to trust in my own progress, my own patterns, my own successes and fails — my own instincts. AFter 20+ years, they know a thing or two.
And I’ve given myself permission to trust in curiosity, which really doesn’t ask much of us at all, except maybe to explore. And I love to explore.
I trust the process and wait it out when I’m still curious and not quite sure and there’s still something about whatever it is that speaks to me. Because sometimes it takes 20 years for it all to align and make sense. I stay open to that possibility because that is totally magic to me.
Where to start
One of the fastest ways to access both intuition and instinct and build your trust is to jot down a list of your past projects. If you have a lot, limit it to a mix over the last 3-5 years.
Start with your more personal creative projects and weave in anything professional if it makes you happy. Here are some prompts to get you tuning in, remembering or considering patterns, and refining your sense of completion on creative projects.
- List the projects (good ones, rough ones, meh ones – there are lessons in all)!
- Why did you start them?
- What about the projects did you love?
- What about the projects had you feeling frustrated?
- What other feelings do you remember?
- What other associations do you make when you recall these projects?
- How did you know it was finished?
- How did you feel when things were complete?
- What made them successful or not to you?
- What were the lessons learned? Particularly in process?
- Do you see any patterns?
Beyond your projects, what else interests you? Is there something that is gently tugging at you to explore it a little more? Where can you stay (or get) curious?
Where do you need to show up for yourself? And give yourself permission?