Putting Down the Pen: Five Ways of Knowing when Done is Done

Put down the pen, the paintbrush, the mouse, the hammer and stone chisel, the glue, the glitter, the clay knife, the camera, and sit back, relax, take it in.  There is so much energy in creation—so much potential, and it is easy to keep meddling, tweaking, and touching up the work to reach, finally, perfection.  It is difficult to step away and know when a work is finally done.  Just as the artistic process is as varied and unique as each of us, there is no one method by which to know when you and rendered art complete.  

Here are five different considerations for helping you enjoy the fruits of your labor and give you the freedom to start the next great idea:

I. When It Speaks

When working on In Cold Blood, Truman Capote famously would write four or five different versions of an important paragraph, memorize them (his recall was renowned) and go to parties.  He would try the different versions on various people until he was met with the desired reaction.  As a performance poet, I have the ability to watch people react as I speak.  Then I can calibrate their reaction against my expectations and adjust accordingly.  Stand up comics do this relentlessly at open mics.  So, in the company of an honest source, show them your work and watch.  When you see the lights turn on, put down your instrument, save your file, frame your work, and call it good.

II. When It Speaks to You

Perhaps the true meaning of your work is not present beforehand, shining like a beacon from your imagination, demanding your hours and skill to pull it from the ether.  Perhaps it shows up in the midst of creation; perhaps not until it is finished do you fully understand what you have wrought.  But there is a reason you stretched that canvas before you.  Sometimes it takes work to make this clear.  This is a more exploratory artistry.  If this is your jam, you must listen.  For it is not you, but your art which heralds its own conclusion. When the vision matches the form before you, then let the work speak for itself.

III. When It Speaks to Them

Jim Morrison said that “real poetry doesn’t say anything; it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through anyone that suits you.”  It is the same with any art.  And while we all might feel the tendency to stand over our work like a proud mother and explain exactly what we meant by the light streaks of green or how the depth of field shifts the focus, the explanation of a work can only hinder someone else’s journey through it.  So when someone sees your art, when its poignancy rises within the viewer, when it moves them without you explaining how or why, you know not only your art is finished, but also it is effective.

IV. When You Can Listen to It

A well-known musician friend of mine says he knows when his songs are done when he can listen to them without being bothered.  When no chord sounds too assonant or no lyric noticeably dissonant, he can finally move on.  There is always more to do: other beats to add, different levels to tweak, but then the album would never get finished or win awards.  So when the song sounds like it could be played without cringing through the bridge or wincing in the chorus, it is done and ready for our grateful, and amazed, ears.

V. When it Matches the Original Vision

In an oft-repeated anecdote, Oscar Wilde discusses working all morning on his poems.  He took out a comma.  He then remarked that in the afternoon he put it back.  So goes editing.  Thank goodness for Photoshop’s back button.  We edit and edit and shift and tweak only to realize it was better before.  Though it is a delicate balance.  The Beat poets declared, “First thought best thought.”  And it is this vision we seek.  This is why we slap the clay on the wheel, press the paint from the tube, or take off the lens cap.  There is something ephemeral we wish to capture.  Something magnificent we wish to share.  And while your skill as an artist is profound and growing, you can not let the technique speak louder than the work.  When the first thought comes through, when it speaks clearly, let it be.  Regardless of how much there could be done, you must allow the What If’s to pass through and not muddy up the clarity of purpose which made you pick up the pen in the first place.  Because when the work is good, when you touch something human, communicable, and real, no one will notice a missing comma.

It is a mixture of confidence and caution, a hesitance if the work is good enough and a hallelujah of the artistry.  But when you listen to your work — when you read it, see it, feel it, touch or taste it (not recommended for all media), and you know it exists outside of yourself, then it is time to set it free.  Hold an opening, a reception, a reading.  Kick that art from the nest.  It will fly.  Or it will find its wings on the way.  And sit back and watch it soar.  But not for too long — there is still so much more to do.



Learn more about Steele and his work at his website.

Steele Campbell

Steele Campbell divides his time between Nashville and St. Louis. With camera in one hand and coffee in the other, he adventures the countryside to discover beauty in picture and poetry. He believes deeply in the embiggening of the human spirit and that most the world’s ills can be cured with frozen custard.

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