It was nice to see that I wasn’t alone.
Salvation came from an unlikely source: a musicians’ web forum.
The thread began with one person describing how he was having trouble completing a new piece of music because he was “obsessing over the tiny details”. A torrent of responses soon followed, and opinions varied widely. Some argued that when you’re stuck, it’s best to let go and move on; others said that details were the most important part so they must be obsessed over.
One poor soul even confessed an inability to complete anything because he gets too hung up on all the fine points.
For anyone who’s ever embarked on any kind of creative endeavor, this probably sounds pretty familiar. It points to a fundamental problem that all artists have to grapple with at some point:
How do you know when you’re done?
The fine-tuning process is potentially endless — there’s always something you can tweak — at what point do you allow yourself to stop?
If you’re working with a deadline, this question gets answered for you. Deadlines can be a real pain in the ass, but in this one respect they’re a godsend because they give you an out. When the deadline hits, come hell or high water you must step back, call it day, and let the piece walk away on its own two feet. And if you’re unhappy with the way the piece turned out, you have the perfect excuse — you can just blame the “unreasonable” deadline you were forced to work with. (And they’re always unreasonable, aren’t they?)
Without a deadline, it’s up to you to answer the question for yourself. This is when Perfectionism sneaks in the back door and starts rearranging the furniture.
Perfectionism is both beauty and beast. The beauty is that it can help drive you to make your work the very best it can be. The beast is that you can get lost in a sea of details, and either continue working on the same piece for the rest of your life, or give up in frustration and move on to something else, which, if you do this often enough, will leave you with a huge pile of work that’s all about 90% complete. Neither is a pretty story.
I think we’d also have to admit that our flirtations with Perfectionism give us a little bit of an ego boost as well. When Perfectionism is in the room, we get to play the role of the obsessed artiste, steadfastly refusing to release our work to the world until it is Absolutely And Completely Perfect. Now, please: leave me to suffer with my work.
It’s a good story, but I don’t think it leads to a healthy creative process. In truth, I think it’s just our old friend Fear, in yet another one of his disguises. And it’s a good one too: as long as we can find things wrong with our work, we have an excuse not to finish anything (crafty old bastard).
So the question remains: how do you know when you’re done?
I don’t think there’s a single answer that will apply to everyone, but I think the solution lies in finding a healthy relationship with Perfectionism. Definitely invite it in, but don’t let it overstay its welcome. To help find the right balance, you might ask yourself a few questions:
- Is this the right time for Perfectionism? As a general rule, Perfectionism becomes more useful as you get into the later stages of a new work; in the early stages, it usually just gets in the way. If you’re starting to explore some new material and you find yourself sweating the details, you might do well to send Perfectionism home and tell it to come back later.
- Is the piece still moving forward, or has the law of diminishing returns kicked in? Are you fixing details in one place, only to find flaws elsewhere, and fixing those causes you to create new problems in the area you fixed earlier? Some of this can be productive, but it can quickly degenerate into a Perfectionism feedback loop. If you feel like you’re stuck in a repeating pattern, it might be time to wrap it up and move on, or, at the very least, walk away from the piece for a while and come at it with a fresh perspective.
- Is it time for a second opinion? It’s often useful to have a fellow artist that you trust take a look at what you’re doing and see what he or she thinks. Ideally you want someone who won’t candy-coat their reactions to spare your ego, nor offer mindless criticism to help inflate their own. I’ve sometimes found that I don’t actually need the person to say anything. Just having someone else in the room helps open up my perspective on what I’m doing.
It’s a delicate dance: how much is too much?
Based on my own experience, I would argue that it’s better to err on the side of too little obsessing rather than too much. I’m sure many would disagree with that, but I’ve found that there is a lot of value in bringing work to completion and releasing it to the world, even if it’s not “perfect”.
When you declare a piece finished, you start to create a little distance. As time goes on, and as your work goes on, those details that you had been obsessing over start to become a little fuzzier, and don’t seem to draw quite as much attention as they used to. This is not to say that you no longer see flaws in your work (just about everyone can find something wrong with something they’ve done) but the incessant buzzing of those flaws fades into overall music of the work as a whole, and they’re no longer the distraction that they once were.
When you look back on the piece, months or years later, you get a nice feeling of “I did that,” and you’ve picked up a little more wisdom and a little more confidence that will serve you for as long as you continue making new work.
I think that’s a pretty good payoff for simply letting a few details go.
(Note: this post has gone through numerous drafts and rewrites, and I still feel like it’s not quite right. Oh well…)
UPDATE: David H. Thomas posted a note to Twitter that pretty much says in one sentence everything I was trying to say in this long post: “Let yourself be a perfectionist and simultaneously completely forgiving.” Indeed.