Modified picture of the Unfinished portrait of Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough by Godfrey Kneller

Unfinished Work

I find it incredibly hard to get things finished. It’s not that I lack discipline, but I am easily distracted. I might be working on something, and I suddenly see an idea, relating to something else that I would also like to write down, before it gets away from me.

This is sort of related to an earlier post I wrote about writing notes – and why sometimes it can be a bad thing to try and capture everything that flits through your head. Especially, if it takes away energy from the current project you are working on.

Anyway, if I was to be honest with myself, it would be that my mind jumps around too much; and that I get disheartened easily. But there are sometimes other factors that get in the road of a project being finished.

A personal example of an unfinished work might help.

I started a radio documentary about ten years ago, where I wanted to explore the music of an anthology-styled horror film called Creepshow. I had seen it as a 12-year old – and even though it had spooked me, I still later saved up my pocket money and bought it on videocassette from the local videoshop owner.

What stayed with me, as I got older, was the soundtrack. I had found a vinyl copy of it and played it on a radio show that I did with a friend when I was nineteen – and while listening to this music late at night, in the quiet ambience of a radio studio, the qualities of it began to emerge; and the music continued to intrigue me through my twenties.

Though I wrote stories in my spare time and worked for a living in libraries, I had aspirations to make radio documentaries – this could be my first of many, I had thought at the time.

So I began researching the film and tracked down the film’s composer and first assistant-director, John Harrison. After a bit of corresponding — at one stage receiving an email from him telling me he was up in Canada shooting a new zombie film with George (my god, wow!) — we did a great phone interview.

I interviewed one more person, a film writer who, like me, had a day job elsewhere, and who had written a great review of one of John’s other soundtracks, Day of the Dead — before I moved interstate the following year.

In a new city, I found a new job, and continued trying to work on the documentary in my spare time. I tried to organise interviews with people from overseas – but our time zones never synched up. I tried to chase up and license the copyright to the film’s music, but nobody much got back to me. I kept working on the script in my evenings after work, but I could never seem to get it into shape.

Then, practical aspects of my life fell apart; a relationship failed — and I shelved the whole Creepshow project, while I tried to sort out my life.

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SINCE THAT TIME – about ten years ago – I was lucky enough to have for a while, a library job at a radio station; I made a proper radio documentary for another station – and my audio production skills jumped miles ahead.

Part of my earlier problem had been that I was trying to make a radio documentary without having any professional connection with the media industry; I was out in the wilderness!

Another part of the problem was also geographical: I was on the wrong side of the world while realizing that I needed to conduct more interviews with the crew of Creepshow to build up the narrative.

Finally, my story-writing skills weren’t up to scratch. It’s not even a case of being able to write a good story, but being able to detect a good story; you need to be able to perceive a natural story within your material, and be honest enough to consider whether people will find it genuinely interesting, or not.

In the past ten years – basically, for most of my thirties — this is something that I feel has developed in me; not an obvious skill or ability, but still something that I think is of great value to a creative person.

Anyway, my Creepshow doco is a good example of an unfinished work. Sometimes you can’t finish something because your abilities aren’t yet up to the job; these are some of the unavoidable elements.

But there are also many avoidable things that stop us from getting a project finished; that if we try and eliminate them from our lives or workflow, then we are giving ourselves a chance at success.

One of the greatest and most obvious obstacles is the cheap rewards of social media. There are so many opportunities for us to write a clever Facebook post, share an article, take an Instagram pic . . . and I am not knocking these things — I am a seasoned culprit, who also feels that there is a great potential in them for creative expression.

But the quick reward they bring us — that our friends and followers like what we are doing, and we begin to feel good about ourselves; that we are ‘on the right track’ — is a very destructive element for anyone wanting to focus on a longer project. The gamification of all apps and new media try to keep us in an almost constant loop by sending us messages, alerts, emails, breaking our concentration from our own work, and our own aspirations take the back seat, as we help a tech company fulfill theirs.

And when I go to bed at night, I sometimes think about all the projects I haven’t finished, and it makes me feel depressed. And to me, these are more important than anything else.

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NOW THE THING THAT has helped me the most in avoiding the problem of unfinished works is when I’ve had a deadline. Not one that I have set myself, but one that has come externally, when I’ve been lucky enough for someone to want my work. I’ve felt excited enough to want to get it finished; but also a sense of professional obligation has made me work to a deadline. Excitement might be at the head of the ship, but fear of damaging my professional credibility is at the rear.

Although working like this can be stressful, it is sometimes the right sort of stress you need to focus your energies on the one task. You just don’t want to put yourself under this kind of pressure all the time as it is bad for your mental health.

But if you are a creative person, always be on the look out for an opportunity like this. To have at least one kind of deadline like this a year; and make sure that it is for a project that is important to you, one of the projects that are on your creative bucket list.

For when you do finish something that is important to you, it is a great feeling, a deep internal sense that you have accomplished one of your life’s goals. And you don’t get feelings like this very often.

Anyway, I will hopefully make a trip to the US next year, and get that documentary finished. It will be one less unfinished project hanging over my head at night, and that would be a great relief to me.

My header image is adapted from an Unfinished Portrait of Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough by Godfrey Kneller.

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