I am really good at starting things. I've got a bit of a law degree, half a masters of creative writing, a half-knitted jersey, a fence painted on one side. I've read up to page 36 of War and Peace. I've got my own (cringe) half-written novel around somewhere, with characters called Marcelline and Morgue.
But last week I sent off my final assignment in my university course. I actually finished something! Huzzah! And goshdammit, the dopamine hit feels good. (At least until we get our grades).
Is there a word for someone who is good at starting things but never finishes them? I looked online: "I believe this is called a contractor." Turns out there isn't a word, but doesn't mean it isn't a thing.
Why do I normally find it so hard to finish anything? Author Jon Acuff in "Finish: Give yourself the gift of done" says developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into persistent finishers. "The less that people aimed for perfect, the more productive they became."
This is quite true, of course, but I also wonder if there is something deeper going on. Because I'm already fine with mess and shitty first drafts.
Personally, I like things that are half done, rips in the fabric. "Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend," says Anne Lamott. The designer Yohji Yamamoto said perfection is the devil. "Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion."
I prefer a messy artist's studio to a sleek show home, dancers in rehearsal — sweat, blisters — to the polished performance, I long for the beach under the paving stones. When things are still in up in the air, in process, there are possibilities, there is hope. When they are tidy and finished, that hope feels extinguished.
We sometimes foreclose and finish prematurely to ease the tension of staying with the painful feelings associated with conclusion. That's because all endings — even the smallest, seemingly trivial ones — are a reminder of every deep and painful loss we have ever felt.
For all of us there is sorrow of never having had the perfect parents, the gap between what we wished for and the reality of what we got, the disillusion of simply being alive. And of course, every ending is a reminder there is only ever going to be one ending for all of us.
I suspect until one can bear the sorrow of endings one will always struggle to finish things. Or you will have yo-yo goals — all in or all out.
But something seems to have changed for me. I seem to be getting out of the purgatory of incompletion.
It's partly that I deliberately choose ridiculously small goals. Deleting my Facebook account hasn't hurt. I don't do too many things at once. ("Multitasking: a polite way of telling someone you haven't heard a word they've said.") And my already low standards in the domestic sphere have got even lower. Nuggets for dinner again? Snowdrifts of dog hair? *Shrugs* So there's that.
The truth is that when you finish something there is a reckoning. What you have created may be bad. But what if it's good and that's even worse?
There is the satisfaction of achieving something, of seeing your project through. Even, maybe, recognition and acclaim. Endings contain hope, they open the way for new beginnings and green shoots. But perversely, that could be even more painful.
The unspoken truth about joy is that it makes us uneasy: we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Carl Jung said neurosis was a flight from authentic suffering. But perhaps many of our anxieties are a flight from authentic joy.
Psychologist Ken Page says few of us are ever taught what may be the single greatest skill of all for a happy life: learning to "bear" our joys. "Joy makes our carefully constructed defences tremble. We can bear joy for fleeting moments but after a short period of time we flee it for the safety of our more familiar problem-solving mode of being."
I think getting acclaim can feel dangerous. You don't want to let in any of that good stuff because if you do, you might have to feel the pain when it ends. You can't live up to the success. Or it can feel as though your joy will diminish someone else — as if you have stolen their success.
And look at that, I've finished something else. I was going to end this in mid-sentence, but maybe I will bask in the joy of completion for a moment. Because joy, like grief, can't be felt all at once. You need to just bask in micro-moments of accomplishment. And perhaps I should dig out that cringey novel manuscript again. Because art is never finished. Only abandoned.